Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Incredibly Shrinking Printed Word
The printing industry, once the victim of powerful resistance, is today itself resisting change.

This sounds a bit like another of those apocalyptic predictions of doom / gloom that we see all too often, but the demise of the printed word appears to be at hand (or at least, visible on the distant horizon). Amazon has introduced Amazon Upgrade which enables online access to a book that is purchased. Microsoft is helping the British Library to digitize and make available via MSN Book Search, 25 million pages (roughly 100,000 books) from the British Library’s collection over the next year. The most well-known - and widely feared - initiative on this front is of course, the Google Print (now Google Book Search) initiative.

Why is it happening now? Because the technological capability is only now beginning to become available - to scan, store, index, and deliver online the humongous content locked up in the world's books would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

This flurry of digitization of content is shaking the foundations of publishing as we have known it for the last couple of centuries. Will this mean that authors and publishers will no longer be able to control who accesses their creations? How will revenue be earned on published content? The economics of the publishing industry, and also the very concept of copyrights and ownership of Intellectual Property rights to published content, are being threatened.

There is, of course, huge resistance from the publishing industry, which can hardly be expected to take such a threat to its revenues, and its very future, lying down. Ironically, this is a throwback to the resistance that emanated, particularly from the Church, to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. The irony is that this time around, the resistance comes not from the those who are afraid of printing, but the printing industry itself! So the printing industry has come full circle, from being the fugitives to the entrenched interests resisting change.

It is widely expected that all the resistance is going to see some scaling back of most of these initiatives.

Overall, the horse sense view on this would be that, any initiative that helps information flow more freely, and releases knowledge from its silos is to be lauded. After all, history teaches us that the darkest ages were those where knowledge was the most monopolised by powerful interests. And I'm sure most of us have had the disconcerting experience of searching for a term or a concept on the internet, only to find that the precise information we want is locked up in some printed book or journal. An added benefit is that we no longer need fear that the priceless works of ancient and medieval authors will be forever lost one day.

I guess those of us in the technology industry should also see this as further proof of how, as technology advances, it inexorably impacts the social and cultural fabric of life too.

It's going to be a big, game-changing battle. But what it is, at the bottom of it all, is Power to the People. And one can scarcely argue with that!