Let's get this straight first: Apple will not be giving you a free iPad.
So ... if you're one of the many surprisingly gullible or mistakenly optimistic, social-networking types who've been passing along those "Be an iPad tester" tweets or becoming a fan of Facebook pages like "The Mega iPad Giveaway!" and inviting your "friends" to join, please stop.
Thank you. (And God bless you if you've given them your cell phone number to "notify" you when you "win.")
The truth is, even Stephen Colbert — who ever-so-casually pulled an iPad out of his jacket at the Grammy Awards to read the nominees for "Song of the Year" — had to surrender the coveted little device back to Apple immediately after the Jan. 31 presentation. Though not before the late-night comedian taunted Jay-Z a bit, calling out to him in the crowd, "Did you not get one of these in your gift bag?"
Look, I, too — being a little mistakenly optimistic — had prayed and pleaded for a demo version to "review." I had only hoped to take a peek. Really. And then, maybe, read a few chapters of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point from the new iBooks online bookstore; scan the iPad-enhanced version of the New York Times; watch a quick episode of The Colbert Report on its sweet, 9.7-inch, full-color screen; gloat while listening to Beyoncé's Grammy-winning, Taylor Swift-silencing melody "Single Ladies"; and check my e-mail or play a few games on the lap-loving, half-inch-thick gadget while hanging out in my Snuggie on the couch.
So how can I tell you definitively whether or not the device will, in fact, change the future of publishing? And save newspapers and magazines? And maybe even the world, as Apple implies?
Or, on the flip side, decimate bookstores and libraries? And bankrupt authors?
Heck if I know. No one knows. Yet.
Though the iPad remains tantalizingly beyond my yearning grasp, I did tune in to Apple CEO Steve Jobs' video presentation as he unveiled the device amid a dizzying swirl of adjectives. Tapping and caressing the multi-touch screen, he spouted words like "magical," "phenomenal," "extraordinary," "gorgeous" and "revolutionary," as the invitation-only crowd visibly trembled.
Had Jobs changed out of his mom-jeans first, I think it would have seemed that much — to use a little Apple-speak — "sexier." Or maybe that's just the rejection talking. Either way, it was pretty clear: The device may, just may, have some potential.
Whole 'nother world
Les Molina, a sales manager at the Mac Superstore (a small chain store independent of Apple) off Powers Boulevard, offers a counterpoint to Jobs' Über-geek enthusiasm. For a salesman and an Apple advocate, Molina is surprisingly low-key, even cautious. In fact, he uses the word "revolutionize" only once in 20 minutes of conversation.
He's been answering lots of customer questions about the iPad, and says with its launch scheduled for April 3, it's the store's hottest topic.
"I think it's really important for people to know that it's not a laptop," he says. "It's going to have a great niche and it's going to sell like crazy, but if somebody buys it thinking they're getting a laptop and all the abilities of a laptop, they're going to be disappointed.
"But for all those Kindle users out there, this is a whole 'nother world."
Of course, we all know that the iPod has become the standard for MP3 players. Similarly, the iPhone is the smartphone to beat. But, in the world of electronic reading devices, Amazon's Kindle has held that top place. Barnes & Noble's nook and the Sony Reader (sold at Borders) follow close behind, chased by a slew of others, including Hewlett-Packard and Alex and Que.
Apple is hoping to change that.
"There have been tablets and computers and Kindles with black-and-white text, but there hasn't been something that's this multimedia-oriented in this price range," says Molina. (The iPad starts at $499. The Kindle comes in two sizes: a 6-inch model for $259, and a 9.7-inch version for $489.)
So rather than thinking of the iPad as a mini-computer that lacks features (like Flash, USB ports, camera and phone), Apple wants us to see it as a supercharged e-reader with added entertainment and business uses, plus iPhone-like applications and iWork.
"I think it's going to fit a niche that's not there now," says Molina. "So it's kind of hard to know what it should have and what it shouldn't have yet."
Of course, many think they do know what it needs, and some of the biggest complaints have come from those who want Flash capabilities. In a posting on TheFlashBlog, Adobe employee Lee Brimelow illustrated the issue perfectly. (Adobe is the maker of Flash.) Brimelow showed a series of 10 iPad screenshots of nearly blank Web sites displaying the little blue question-mark box that indicates a Flash feature won't load. The broken link that garnered the most attention? The Bang Bros porn site.
Steve Jobs lashed back at Adobe, reportedly calling Flash a "CPU hog" and a "dying technology," adding that HTML5 would suffice nicely, thank you very much.
Despite the panic caused by implying that the iPad might deny the public its porn-watching rights, cooler heads prevailed. It turns out that the tongue-in-cheek posting was a little misleading. Several of the sites pictured, including the porn site, actually already have iPhone-optimized versions that will run on the iPad.
The catfight between Apple and Adobe is just one emerging battle, and others appear daily in the headlines. Amazon and Apple wrangling with publishers over e-book prices. Inventors suing manufacturers over allegedly stolen e-reader technology. Publishers and authors fighting over e-book royalties. Even readers with visual impairments suing Arizona State University for discrimination over the use of inaccessible e-readers in classes.
(Interestingly, Apple now says the iPad will include a voice reader. Of course, that's triggered a fight over who owns the audio rights.)
Yes, gone is the quiet universe of books that was interrupted only by the "sshhh"-ing of librarians. And with everyone wanting our attention or our dollars, readers will have to choose where our loyalties lie.
Do we stick to good old-fashioned books? Do we spend our dollars on e-books, e-readers, and subscriptions to newspaper and magazine apps? Or do we figure a way to pirate them for free?
Ultimately, it will be choices readers make that will determine which of the industry players thrive.
Some are already struggling, like bricks-and-mortar bookstores. Having taken huge hits as retailing went online, the impact of e-books could be staggering. According to Publisher's Weekly the numbers of e-books sold last year jumped 177 percent to $169.5 million, though e-book sales still comprise only 3.3 percent of all books sold.
Still, on the same day that Apple's head guy hosted his breathless iPad unveiling, the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, one of the largest independent book stores in the U.S., coincidentally posted a two-word comment via Twitter along with a web link: "Disappointing news."
Those who clicked the link found not an iPad story, but a Publisher's Weekly article about three independent bookstores, all in the Indianapolis region, going out of business.
Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean all bookstores are doomed; those that find ways to capitalize on the new technologies could increase their chances of survival. In an "if-you-can't-beat-them" moment just a few weeks after the bookstore closings, Tattered Cover announced in another tweet: "Get your Tattered Cover fix on your iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad here at the iTunes App store." This time the link brought the curious to a free app called Authors on Tour — Live!, featuring podcasts of book discussions with notable authors who visit the store.
Another battered industry searching for a way to capitalize on e-reader technology is that of newspaper and magazine publishing. As readers have increasingly visited Web sites to get their news, print editions of those periodicals have suffered. And print, of course, is where the money has been.
A recent article in Fortune highlighted just how serious the problem is, reporting that across the nation, advertising pages dropped over 25 percent in 2009 alone.
So industry leaders are looking for new ideas. And if you've seen any of Apple's ads, you've probably noticed that reading an iPad-optimized version of the New York Times is one of the uses they're touting for the device. To read it, iPad users would purchase a New York Times subscription of sorts from the iTunes app store.
You may be thinking, "Wait a minute. I can read the entire paper for free on my computer at nytimes.com." Yes, you can. Right now. According to Fortune, the Times has said it will soon build a "paywall" on its Web site to limit much of that free access to the paper's contents. Though there are naysayers who believe that iPad subscriptions could never reach a level to support the Times' newsroom, if the model is successful, others are expected to follow suit.
In fact, GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired, Glamour, the New Yorker and dozens of other periodicals are working on iPad versions of their publications.
But let's not overlook the authors, one of the most important groups of players in the e-book revolution. Because if we don't keep them happy, or at least compensated, who will spend years writing all those books we want to read?
The headlines and lawsuits make it plain that piracy and copyright infringement are among authors' biggest fears. Of course, the e-book publishers and e-reader manufacturers are attempting to reassure authors that they've learned from the music industry's mistakes, and will protect authors from illegal duplication.
But to be honest, as scary as the e-book specter may be, authors aren't safe from piracy now. Just consider the case of Stephenie Meyer.
In 2008, as she was wrapping up the fourth book in her mega-selling Twilight vampire series, fan blogs lit up. They claimed that a fifth book, Midnight Sun, written from the viewpoint of the vampire, was circulating on the Internet. Fans speculated about its origins — Twilight fan fiction was booming — until Meyer confirmed the book's authenticity.
Sadly, a trusted associate of Meyer's had taken an electronic copy of the manuscript in progress and "shared" it with others, who shared, and shared and shared. Angered, Meyer ceased writing and posted a message on her Web site explaining the breach. She has not returned to the book to complete it, and the stolen draft is now downloadable free from her blog.
Popularity and a pop quiz
OK, time for a quiz. Quick, answer this question without a search engine: Who is Paolo Bacigalupi?
"Italian soccer player?" Wrong. That's Paolo Maldini.
"Renaissance painter?" Nope. That would be Paolo Cagliari.
"Prime Minister of Italy during World War I?" Sorry. He was Paolo Boselli.
Give up? Paolo Bacigalupi was born in Colorado Springs in 1972, then moved to the Western Slope town of Paonia with his parents to help create an organic-apple growing commune. When it failed, they stayed on and Bacigalupi continues to live and work there today. He's also a critically acclaimed science fiction writer who has won or been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon, Hugo and Nebula awards.
Feeling like you should know him? We all should. His debut novel The Windup Girl, a tale of scientist spies searching out good genomes in a dystopian world, was named one of the "Top 10 Books of 2009" by Time magazine. But unless you're J.K. Rowling or James Patterson or Stephenie Meyer, it's amazingly tough to get attention as a writer, even for the highest-quality work.
"Obscurity is a bigger problem for authors than piracy," publishing leader Tim O'Reilly told a group of industry professionals recently at the "Tools of Change for Publishing" Conference in New York.
Ross Lockhart, editor at Night Shade Books, wholeheartedly agrees. Which is why Bacigalupi and Night Shade have been giving e-book versions of The Windup Girl to hundreds of readers — for free. While it might seem like a crazy move for a writer hoping to make a living selling his work, it's actually a piece of a larger business strategy.
"Part of why we did The Windup Girl giveaway was to get it in front of as many people as possible," says Lockhart. "We feel the book stands a really strong chance with the Nebulas and Hugos coming up.
"We're not just in the business of selling a single title; we're looking after Paolo's career. He's got many books ahead of him, and we want to see him succeed as — I hate to say it — but as a 'brand.'
"In our opinion, electronic copies help sell physical copies," Lockhart explains. "Our core market is books. E-books are just a part of it. They're becoming a bigger part of it, but they're still only a small percentage."
Check this out
When it comes to e-books, the clearest vision may belong to the institution that has the most to gain by ensuring the future of reading, but the least to gain when it comes to making a profit — our public libraries. Not to be left out, the Pikes Peak Library District debuted its eBranch in 2005. Library users follow a link from the library's ppld.org homepage to a site where books can be checked out and downloaded instantly, 24 hours a day. Then the e-books check themselves in automatically when they're due, so users avoid fines.
"When we started we had 390 items, and today we have 5,624 items," says PPLD's eBranch coordinator Sue Hammond. "As I look at circulation, it continues to increase by double digits every month. And it's been doing that for about two years."
Though Hammond extols the eBranch's success, libraries around the country face e-book-induced changes and challenges. For example, Cushing Academy, a New England prep school, made news in September when it announced it would give away all of the 20,000 books in its library and replace them with e-books and online resources. Its rationale: Most of the school's kids were searching there for information already.
"The textbook companies have said they're going to start making textbooks for the iPad, and that could revolutionize how high schools and colleges do things," adds Molina. "A student could walk around with an iPad as opposed to 10 textbooks."
Hammond says at PPLD, one of the biggest challenges is in keeping a collection that grows increasingly diverse. Budgets that historically were spent almost exclusively on bound editions of books are now spread among a growing number of formats: audio books, DVDs, CDs and e-books for PCs and Macs, iPods, and most recently, e-readers from Sony, nook and others. While the library is working to keep up with technology, some hurdles have yet to be overcome.
"There is a lot of interest, and I personally think the Kindle generated some interest in being able to take books with you," says Hammond. "But, of course, you can't use the Kindle with our e-book downloads."
Though the library would like to welcome Kindle users to the eBranch, items read on the Kindle must be purchased from amazon.com typically for at least $9.99 a pop. And, Amazon's proprietary e-book format prevents the library from sharing it.
Currently, PPLD's eBranch vendor, a company called OverDrive that provides eBranch materials to thousands of libraries across the U.S. and Canada, is waiting to determine whether or not Apple's iPad will be compatible with the library's collection. Hammond says she's hoping they won't be locked out.
She doesn't want to disappoint the eBranch's surprisingly diverse and growing group of patrons. Hammond recalls a recent conversation with an older eBranch user at a training who told her: "The grandkids are always asking, 'What can we get Grandma? Grandma has everything.' And I told them, 'Grandma wants an iPod so Grandma can listen to books on tape.'"
Love you, love you not
Certainly, there are plenty of people who'll be lining up for an iPad. Apple is keeping quiet about iPad pre-orders, but one industry analyst estimates the number exceeds 200,000. Already, iPad videos have gone viral with millions of hits on YouTube, and though that's not an indication of sales, it certainly shows there's interest.
Viewer reactions range from a commenter who says simply, "iWant" to another who claims, "This only proves the point that there are 200k+ idiotic Apple fans."
Still, it's worth noting that none of the individuals I talked to while researching this story had pre-ordered one. Molina is waiting for his customers to get them first; another already has an iPhone with an e-reader app. Others were waiting to see what they think.
And though I was among the first to put my name on the waiting list, I admit I don't know if I'll follow through and buy one. The desire for an iPad is sort of a love-hate thing. Well, maybe, love-love. I love the idea of having a shiny new gadget, but I love books, too — the real, paper, physical kind. So, I wonder about my books, all those scribbled-in favorites, that spill from of an eight-foot wall of bookcases in my living room. Are they destined to become collector's items?
The thought of having millions of books at my fingertips is tempting, but I feel a little like I'd be cheating on an old flame — and I don't want to jeopardize our relationship. Lockhart puts it this way: "There is an entirely sensual experience with a book. A book has a smell, it has a feel, it has a look. And it's the ultimate portable format."
Sure, a person could curl up with an iPad. But, would it be as good?
When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439 and suddenly made books available to large numbers of people, he probably had no idea his invention would still be relevant almost 600 years later. He certainly couldn't have foreseen that he'd be the namesake of Project Gutenberg. The nonprofit organization (at gutenberg.org), has digitized more than 30,000 books and offers them for free on its Web site. Still, despite great ideas and promising tools, our visions of a paperless world have so far failed to materialize.
"I think the electronic book is a very appealing idea," says Lockhart. "Being able to carry a large number of books on a small device — it hits something in our brains that says, 'Wow, we've got the library of Babel in our hands.' But the flying car, the jetpack, all those great devices promised in 1950s science fiction, they're really not as practical as they are novel.
"The book, in its current format, has been around for several hundreds of years. It's a technology that is proven."
No one knows that better than a library professional, and Hammond generally concurs.
"I don't think books are going to go away," she says. "People like the feel of them. And personally, I love all kinds of formats, but when I want to read a book, I want to read a book."
That said, she'll be keeping an eye on the iPad, and actually believes "it's only going to enhance things." She invites the public to visit the eBranch's semitruck-sized Mobile Library, where they can to try out assorted e-readers and learn to download books.
And of course, Molina is only too happy to invite people to the Mac store. Despite his relatively soft sell, he's optimistic about an e-book future.
"I think people will have a laptop or desktop computer and an iPad," he says. "It's going to be tough for the device to live up to its hype, but I think it's a great starting point and it's only going to keep getting better."