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A new chapter is opening with e-books

The MP3 player and its various derivatives have brought major change to everyday life. Anyone travelling on public transport cannot help but notice that half the population now travel wearing headphones.

Finding ways to get information to people while commuting, in what is otherwise a dead part of their day, must be one of the greatest opportunities to communicate with consumers.

To understand the full impact of such technology, I believe it is important to recognise that even the mobile phone has started to change its shape and size because of MP3. Before the iPhone, mobiles were getting smaller and smaller, now the focus seems to be on making them thinner but increasing the screen size.

The other main activity people engage in when using public transport is reading, so when are we going to see devices that are as easy to use and carry as music players?

The answer is, probably sooner than many people think. I believe the next big consumer trend will be a device that is lighter than a PC, but significantly smaller, so it can fit into a jacket pocket or small bag, while big enough to present a usable screen size, that is, considerably bigger than a mobile phone. It will also have batteries that run for days and the ability to mark up documents and add handwritten annotations would be ideal.

What I have described is an e-book and an increasing number of these devices are expected to launch over the next year or so. E-books are easier to read than a normal PC monitor and only use power when the page is turned, hence the extended battery life. For the time being, most of these devices will be monochrome, but colour e-books are rumoured to be only about 18 months away.

People increasingly use their mobile phones to organise their lives. Today, those phones also provide an ever increasing range of additional functions. Almost all e-books will be able to use wi-fi to enable web browsing, diary and email functions. Add to this an MP3 player and the ability to read books or your magazines of choice and it is starting to be a pretty compelling package.

Phone calls could be made via the internet using VOIP, although I think they will soon evolve to include a GSM chip to add full mobile phone functionality.

For our industry, this could be a major crossover technology which finally enables us to make the leap away from paper to giving people highly portable electronic documents which they can access easily whenever they want to.

Books and newspapers use a massive amount of paper and, at a time when the world population becomes more focused on green issues, they are an obvious way to cut down on what is a very wasteful way of producing information.

When no less than Rupert Murdoch recently announced the end of free news over the internet, it was widely recognised that News Corporation was expecting to implement a subscription e-book model to deliver newspaper and magazine content.

It is important to remember how music companies dismissed MP3 only a few years ago, only to watch Apple turn their business model upside down.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently announced his state would stop buying paper textbooks, choosing to supply children with digital versions via e-books. This move which is aimed at reducing the $350m annual expenditure on text books and will also drastically reduce the size of rucksacks carried by Californian kids, as a single e-book, weighing typically a few ounces, can hold 160 books.

One important barrier that needs to be overcome is to make sure that books ordered on one device can be used across all. For example, Sony has an exclusive deal in the UK with Waterstones but Waterstones has so far only published a tiny fraction of the books here that are available in the US. I found this most frustrating recently when the books I wanted to take on holiday are available via Sony in the US, yet the Waterstones’ deal stops me from being able to buy them. There is too much at stake for this not to be resolved. Virtually all e-books can use the Adobe PDF format.

Our industry uses a frightening amount of paper to communicate with clients. E-books present an obvious opportunity to deliver an electronic alternative which can offer significant savings in printing and postage costs.

It is not a matter of if, but when, e-books start to replace paper as a medium. This is just the latest convergence of technologies as more and more of our lives are run by a small number of digital devices. Imagine carrying something the size of a small paperback book with all the information you could ever want on it.

When planning new technology services, one of the greatest challenges must be to try to futureproof what you are doing. No one wants to second-guess which technologies will succeed but, given the range of organisations lining up to take advantage of e-books, it would be a brave person who bets against them. Certainly, I believe any e-commerce strategy should at least contain a view on how to support these new devices.

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