by Max Jarman The Arizona Republic Apr. 3, 2010 11:27 PM
Matt Pavelek/The Arizona Republic
A customer tries out the iPad on the day of its release, April, 3, 2010 at the Biltmore Apple store in Phoenix.
When the iPad hit stores, it joined the Kindle, Nooks and other technologies that will dramatically change how people read buy books.
Book industry experts say that e-reader technology will forever change how books are made, stored and lent.
The change is so profound that it could rival Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the 1440s. The shift to viewing books on an e-reader could further erode market share of traditional book stores.
"I'm not sure if physical books will go away, but downloads will become the dominant form of distribution," said Sean Feeney, executive vice president at Bookmans, a Tucson-based string of used books, music and video stores.
The trend began long before the iPad. Amazon.com Inc., the world's largest retailer of digital and traditional books, sold more electronic books than paper ones last holiday season.
Analysts don't have a clear picture yet of what the new order will look like, but Amazon aims to have every book ever published, in any language, in print or out of print, available in less than 60 seconds to a Kindle user anywhere in the world.
The new era will bring out-of-print books back to life, making obscure titles, as well as current best-sellers, available on demand.
The pace of change, hastened by the iPad and numerous other devices, is likely to accelerate.
Not even counting the projected 2 million iPads to be bought this year, analysts estimate that 6 million electronic readers will be sold in 2010 and 19 million in 2013. In five years, more than 100 million could be in use, according to the Yankee Group, a Boston-based market-research firm.
As the e-readers multiply, they are likely to get cheaper, making them a must-have electronic device.
The shift is expected to have far-reaching effects, touching not only book shops and online stores but the entire publishing industry.
It likely will be an echo of the change brought about by iPod and MP3 players, which created the digital model for music sales that help spell the end for almost 1,000 traditional record stores and once-formidable chains such as Tower Records and Virgin Megastores.
Paper copies could become specialty book products similar to vinyl records and, increasingly, compact discs.
For students, change will mean carrying a lightweight Nook in your backpack instead of a half-dozen textbooks.
Instead of lugging a 2-pound copy of the "Inspector Morse Omnibus Volume One" on vacation, you could carry a sleek plastic tablet that would also hold Volume Two plus hundreds more of your favorite titles.
And if the person next to you on the plane recommends a "great read," you could buy it instantly at an e-book store and for less than you'd pay at a conventional bookstore.
An electronic version of Dan Brown's "Lost Symbols," which retails for $29.95 in hard cover, costs $9.60 at Amazon's e-book store.
New releases for Amazon's Kindle generally cost $9.99, while classics cost around $1.99.
Or you could download the book free from your local library, whether you're home or 1,000 miles away.
Carrie Wikle, the Phoenix Public Library's Internet Resources Librarian, said demand for downloadable books is extremely high and growing.
When readers check out a book, they obtain a temporary license to use the copyrighted material for the term of the loan. When the license expires, it is up to the user to delete the file. Emerging technology eventually will cause the file to vanish when the book is due.
The library now offers 53,000 of its 1.8 million titles in downloadable form and is adding more each month.
"It's a trend for the future," Wikle said.
A number of Web sites offer free downloads of many well-known books whose copyrights have expired. Gutenberg Project, Coolerbooks.com and other sites offer free downloads, including more than 1 million titles that have been scanned by Google.
Peer-to-peer file-sharing sites such as The Pirate Bay allow readers to share e-books the same way friends can share their digital music collections. Such sites already are facing legal challenges similar to those that plagued early music-sharing sites such as Napster.
Connor Hubach of Phoenix said his Kindle allows him to avoid the "awful selections" at airport bookstores.
"The Kindle has been a useful gadget," he said. "While it won't replace my library, it has made travel more manageable."
Digital books have been around for years. But initially they had to be read on a computer or laptop, devices with limited portability and offering a different experience than holding and reading a book.
But electronic readers, pioneered by Amazon's Kindle in 2007, are as portable as a book and offer a physical experience similar to traditional reading.
Since the Kindle, 36 electronic readers have appeared on the market, and more are coming. The Kindle, the top-selling e-reader, starts at $259. Others range from a Sony Pocket Reader with a 5-inch display for $200 to the Irex Digital Reader with a 10.2-inch screen for $859.
The Apple iPad, which has a 9.7-inch screen, starts at $499 and goes up to $829. As with the evolutionary transition from LPs to iTunes downloads, consumers will experience a learning curve and period of adjustment to books being hard and technical instead of soft and organic.
"I'm not into technical stuff," said Joan Heath, a Phoenix business woman who said she would rather read a book than watch television or a movie. "I like the ritual of holding a book and turning the pages."
With a Kindle, Heath would have to push a button to advance to the next page.
But she could read in the hotel Jacuzzi, without dripping water running all over pages.
Because of the cost and limited functionality, the devices now appeal primarily to avid readers. But the introduction of Apple's multifunctional iPad could create mass appeal. The iPad can be used for e mail, surfing the Web
, gaming and watching videos, in addition to reading books, newspapers and magazines.
"Longer term, the iPad offers the potential to redefine the boundaries between print and video, turning formerly passive media into active ones," Craig Moffett, an analyst with Bernstein Research, wrote in a note to clients.
But there are drawbacks.
The devices are relatively expensive. The Yankee Group believes prices need to come down to below $150 to gain mass-market appeal.
Unlike traditional books, which are always on, electronic readers require a battery that can die just before Inspector Morse reveals the murderer.
And the systems are not compatible. Amazon's Kindle, for example, will accept downloads only from Amazon.com.
Petra Ooton of Phoenix likes holding and reading traditional books, but she said her arthritis is making it increasingly painful and difficult.
She looks on an electronic reader as a device that could help her keep reading, but she finds them too expensive.
"I would love to have one," she said.