Disruptive Technology Alert

A big news event in higher education being reported today (other than Blackboard acquiring Angel) is Amazon’s release of a new large-screen Kindle device that is specifically designed for the e-textbook market. Amazon organized a news conference and was joined by representatives from several different colleges and universities that will be testing the device to see if it is a more efficient and economical way to deliver textbook content. According to some e-textbook experts the existing Kindle devices were simply incapable of allowing the use of much larger textbooks with graphics, not to mention failing to support students in the ways they want to use their textbooks. Each higher education partner is planning to test the device to see if students accept it and how it impacts their learning.

I’m all for technology that will allow students to get textbooks at affordable prices, though I’m wondering what this new development is going to do to the fledgling open textbook movement where the goal is to offer open access textbooks that students can use electronically on their existing computing devices – no need to buy a $498 Kindle – or choose to publish-on-demand as a low-cost hardbound or DVD version. What alarms me the most about the large-screen Kindle is that a big-time supporter is Adrian Sannier of Arizona State University. You’ll recall he’s the CIO who suggested that all academic libraries could be burned down tomorrow. Sannier already believes all the world’s books have been digitized.

Of course, not all the information technologists at the Amazon news conference were as gung ho as Sannier, but I have to imagine that in our challenging economic times one thing could lead to another and before you know it you’ll have IT leaders encouraging academic administrators to further question the need for academic libraries. Picture this scenario (CIO meeting with the President):

Now that we’ve purchased a large-screen Kindle for all of our students and faculty, why should we bother buying any new books for our library. Let’s take the library’s book and journal budget and give everyone on campus a personal “buy your own” information grant – say $1,000 for students and $2,000 for faculty. Then they can buy any book or journal article they want or need – no more trudging through the library’s musty stacks or waiting for books from other campuses. Not to mention we’ll save a ton on eliminating all the paper students use when they print out reserve readings and journal articles at the library. And here’s the best part. They get to keep their Kindle and all the books when they graduate. Talk about happy alumni. And what if they do need an old book that Amazon isn’t selling? Why the libraries let Google digitize all their old stuff years ago – who needs that library building anyway. Let’s just turn it into a student center – it’s already got the cafe and computer lounge. Or better yet, another computer center.

You can see where this is going. Maybe I’m being a little paranoid here, but you may recall Andy Grove’s popular book, Only the Paranoid Survive. I think he was on to something.

Kindle Is A Failed Concept Says Jobs

There was lots of excitement generated by yesterday’s Macworld 2008 presentation by Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Bet you can’t wait to get your hands on a MacBook Air. In an interview with some New York Times technology columnists after his presentation (the columnists called it “his performance”), Jobs had something interesting to say about other technology gadgets. The one comment I thought of most interest to our profession had to do with Amazon’s Kindle device for reading e-books. Jobs doesn’t have a problem with the technology, he just thinks it’s a pretty bad idea – and not because people don’t like to read e-books, they just don’t read much at all anymore. From the article:

Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

When the Kindle first appeared there was a fair amount of discussion among librarians about how the device might be used to encourage reading. Jobs is pretty savvy about technology and consumer trends, and just the fact that he doesn’t see it going anywhere because people don’t read should be a cause for concern. Now perhaps his observation only concerns whether it can be a huge hit with consumers, rather than a niche product that will catch on with the 60% of people who do still read with some regularity. Perhaps the ultimate fate of books and reading will depend to some degree on academic librarians and things we might be able to do, perhaps working collaboratively with faculty, to encourage more reading and develop lifelong readers.

Then again, maybe Jobs would be satisfied if we all just watched television shows and movies on his company’s gadgets.

Kindling Debate

It’s a trifle ironic that, on the same day that the new NEA jeremiad, er, report on how reading is going to hell in a handbasket (again) Amazon finally released its e-book reader, Kindle. So, if nobody reads anymore, is Kindle – or, as Newsweek puts it in swooningly glowing terms, “the future of reading” – doomed?

According to the NEA, using a Kindle isn’t reading. As Linda Braun points out at YALSA’s blog, reading online texts does not count (and, in fact, the report expresses astonishment that using the Internet to find information correlates positively with reading proficiency. How can that be?) Also, the report continues to lament the decline in reading without really looking at it historically. Only half of Americans between 18 and 24, the report says, read a book for pleasure. (The only reading that counts is in print and for no particular purpose other than pleasure; I wonder what the faculty who assign all those books would think about that?) They note that’s a decrease in the past ten years – but is probably higher than fifty years ago. Steve Wasserman said in an article in the LA Times last August that a 1955 Gallup poll found only 17% of Americans “read books.” Oh – and multitasking is bad. So stop it. Right now. Get off the Internet and go read something.

All in all, there seems to be a bit more skepticism about the NEA’s doomsday scenario than the last time they reported the sky was falling. And given the vigor with which the Kindle gadget is being debated, the death of reading – and books – seems to be greatly exaggerated.