Digital devices may be a plaything of the wealthy for now but, like mobile phones, they will eventually find their way into the hands of those who can make the best use of them.
At Frankfurt book fair this autumn, the UN Environment Programme did not hand out the usual printed catalogues, but instead provided a memory stick (in bamboo) with sample publications. All of their publications are now free online. Trade fair visitors love such things, since a memory stick is much more portable than a mound of documents. Of course there are trade-offs. Some of the documents on the stick will likely be printed on a myriad of personal printers, less efficiently than a central print-run. Yet, only those who want them will print; removing any risk of having to ship, store and eventually pulp surplus copies.
Digital reading devices, such as the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and iRex Digital Reader, have fantastic potential. E-ink screens are easy on the eye and you can hold dozens of publications for the weight of one paperback. Students rejoice!
They are also potentially connected: through WiFi and other options you will foreseeably be able to update your reading list on the fly. These are still book-shaped devices aimed at book readers. However there are also large, flexible screens being developed that are better suited for newspaper and magazine reading. The plastic used is not the earthfriendliest material but, being hardy, it benefits from relative longevity.
These gadgets lack the tactile nature of print publications and many older readers will continue to favour printed paper. But they will appeal to digital natives-the people who are growing up in a world where the mobile phone and internet were always available. They are unlikely to aspire to the filthy hands of an avid newspaper reader.
This won't only be an issue for consumers, however. Publishers need to find a viable way to support the format. I suspect that if Amazon and Sony were to open up their devices, so that people could access and read content from any supplier, then we would see faster adoption. Of course there would be some piracy (of the type that has made MP3 players a phenomenal success), but there would also be terrific scope for self-expression; perhaps blogs will displace the op-ed page?
©OECD Observer No. 270/271, April 2009