Sunday, April 11, 2010

E-Books, E-Readers, and Peak Oil

Huh? Isn't this kind of like mixing oil and water? Not really.

For related reasons, having to do in part with resource constraints, the cost of print subscriptions continue to rise, even sometimes becoming prohibitive. After 40 years as a continuous WSJ print subscriber, I canceled my print subscription. It cost nearly $400/year, and I already have an online subscription that costs around $100. The WSJ is great, but not $400/year great, especially in this economy, when I also have the online edition. So I cut the cord and went completely on-line. With online access I can of course search, save articles, print them to PDF, the way I used to clip print articles. My paper press archive goes back 30 years, but PDF lasts forever, right? Another advantage of online news: the news is always fresh. Besides I'm helping save the environment, or at least I hope so. I reduce the number of plastic bags (that you can't recycle); I eliminate the need to recycle the paper itself. There is even a potential business advantage to the right e-Reader: It can preserve into the indefinite future the opportunity to view important documents. What could be nicer?

Well, there are advantages to print. Print never crashes. You can read print even when broadband is down or out of reach. You can fall asleep in a chair, drop the newspaper, and not have to buy a new one. Can't do that with a laptop. Print is very easy to read, indoors or out in bright sunlight. And print graphically rich, uses color, and is still more familiar and comfortable. Spouse says "I miss the WSJ print edition." Oh Oh.

I tell her to wait, I'll find an e-Reader that is nearly as good or even better than print. It will meet my kind of Turing test for print: doesn't crash, very portable etc. but also preserves the benefits of online: Searching, always current. iPad is here; Plastic Logic's Que reader is coming. We'll find something (but haven't bought anything yet). Now the limitations begin to appear, both from others' reviews and my own discussions with vendors.

iPad is ever so cool, has Apple's trademark usability, color… what could be better? For one thing, it tries to be everything a netbook can be, way more than just an e-Reader. I don't care if it can run my iPhone apps because I don't have an iPhone. In fact, I don't want to be nickled and dimed (more like dollared) to buy lots of little apps to fill in iPad's gaps (like being able to print or use a USB). And iPad doesn't run Flash, which is commonly used on many web sites, including the online WSJ. This feels a little like the "microsofting" of Apple. You can run anything, but not without add-ons that may not play well together. So I can buy another iPad-custom WSJ subscription, right? And do I do that for every subscription? Oh well, at least iPad has a (downsized) browser, so I can get to the WSJ in some fashion if I decide to spring for an iPad. But what about the other constraints? Early reviews say that that beautiful 1 and one half pound product begins to feel very heavy after a while, even can make your wrists hurt. And what kind of netbook wannabe is only single-threaded?

So I've now talked with a marketing rep from Plastic Logic about Que, and expect to get an evaluation device as soon as they become available. Yes, I know it will not display color (hey, the WSJ didn't start using color until it became common in other print editions). And it is very light and also cool in its own way – even has a screen that is more book-like, roughly 8 ½ y 11 inches. It reads virtually every document format known to humankind, and has huge amounts of space for all my books. But wait: It doesn't do flash either, and apparently has no browser, not even a limited one.

Maybe I misunderstood. And maybe when I finally get my hands on Que, I'll discover other advantages that cancel out the negatives.

Or quite possibly there is no perfect e-Reader. I'm guessing that's the case, since this is the real world. And if that's the case, I have to figure out exactly what a document is, and what attributes are optional (like Flash). That is no easy decision, since it requires peering into the future and guessing exactly what I'll be willing to do without.

And that's where the similarity with Peak Oil comes in. Liquid fossil fuels provide 95% or so of the world's transportation fuel needs. Yet liquid fuels will eventually run out, and before they do, they will become erratically less available and more expensive. So we'll also have to figure out which transportation options are critical, which optional. I'm guessing SUVs are optional, and public transit is critical.

And this may even have some bearing on e-Readers: they depend on electricity and broadband. Those are critical resources too, right?

What's your guess, about which transportation choices are critical and which are optional?

What's your guess about what constitutes the essence of a document, so it can be preserved and read generations hence?