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Is this the end for the paperback book?

Electronics enthusiasts derive enormous enjoyment from gazing back in time and reading wrong-headed statements made by the experts of days gone by. One IBM bigwig famously predicted that there might one day be a need for as many as five computers in the world. There was the suggestion that the Segway would revolutionise travel. And let’s not forget the theory that, by the start of the 21st century, the paperback would be dead and everybody would download books electronically.

Actually, that last one is a bit unfair. The concept of the electronic book isn’t as ridiculous as it may seem – given that many of us do most of our reading online, it seems almost improper that the humble paper- or hardback book continues to exercise such a strong pull. Can it be long before we carry around a portable screen that allows us to download the day’s paper?

This month we’ve taken a look at the Iliad Reader, a device that would like to bring that day forward. Not much bigger than a conventional book, this portable device allows you to download and read text files, PDFs and a variety of other documents and files. The screen is easy to read even in plain daylight. It’s pleasing to use and we generally enjoyed using it. But is this device going to blow open the electronic book market? Well, probably not.

It mostly comes down to money. At over £400, the Iliad is too expensive for most users. If you’re paying that kind of money, you’ll expect something a little bit special. I have a couple of wardrobes overflowing with books, but I wouldn’t pay £400 to compress them into an electronic storage area. What’s needed is something different – something we can’t get from normal books.

If almost every new book, newspaper and magazine could be downloaded almost instantly to the Iliad, the price might be justified. But while there are undoubtedly moves in this direction (Amazon, as ever, is leading the way), we’re unlikely to see a dramatic change here until people start buying electronic book readers. Until you can snap up such devices for peanuts, readers won’t drop their beloved paperbacks, hardbacks and newspapers.

We shouldn’t ridicule the e-book; it’s an idea whose time will arrive. But unlike many an IT-related revolution, this one is likely to come steadily and slowly. We won’t be sounding a death knell for the traditional book until it’s long turned cold in its grave.

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