The Future of Reading: Learning From the Past to Thrive in the Future

To truly open the future of books and reading, consumers must be freed from proprietary devices and formats. We owe it to those who came before us to bring access to as many as possible.
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As many of the world's literati gather in Boston this weekend for the Boston Book Festival, it's hard not to think of what a powerful role literature plays in our society. Mark Twain's Huck Finn gave us a new way to think about the search for both adventure and freedom; Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird shaped how many of us view personal integrity; and Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front opened our eyes to the impact of war on the individual. Since the beginning of recorded history, books have framed our thoughts and shaped our lives. The digital revolution has reshaped and drastically accelerated the reach and impact of literature -- from eBooks to viral videos, digital content is now the critical component of the exchange of ideas and freedom of expression.

Of all the digital material available today, eBooks most fully embody the spirit, format and role that books have played in the spread of ideas. Thirty-eight years ago Project Gutenberg was set up to digitize and archive cultural works to encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks. Since then several companies have entered this burgeoning industry. Together we have opened up avenues to bring classics and new releases to people across the globe in new and exciting ways.

We are now at a juncture where technology is making it possible to improve the accessibility of literature to a greater number of people than ever before. Indeed, we're seeing undeniable strides in the right direction. According to Forrester Research, eBook sales worldwide are expected to jump from $323 million in 2008 to nearly $9 billion by 2013 and, as of June of 2009, sales were already up 149 percent. Right now, this bodes well for global access to information -- digital books are relatively easy to download, consume, annotate and share with others. Despite all this progress, we still have a ways to go as an industry.

There are several factors working to limit the exchange of digital information -- both in the eBook realm and the broader digital world. While nobody is burning eReaders, netbooks and handheld devices, there are governments bent on curbing access to the Internet; there are competing standards that sometimes hobble what we can do on the wireless web; there are device providers that insist on proprietary formats that limit choice; and there are still economic factors that render connectivity too expensive for some.

We must guard against factors that promote imbalance in access to technology and digital content and work to eliminate the "digital divide" between those who have access to information and those who do not. For eBooks, we can fight the digital divide in several ways: the purchasing process for eBooks must be simple, ownership needs to be permanent, file standards should be universal, and devices should support public libraries so that everyone has access to free content. Right here in Boston, members of the Boston Public Library can borrow from nearly 3,000 eBooks -- and that number will only grow.

As the popularity of digital readers continues to expand, so does the debate around the best format for the devices. At Sony, we actively work with organizations that share our commitment to openness; we worked with Google to bring free books to our users and we recently teamed with self-publishing services to open a new door for independent authors. We've also partnered with libraries across the country through our Library Finder application, which provides digital visitors the same opportunity as physical visitors to browse and check out their local library's full collection of eBooks.

To truly open the future of books and reading, consumers must be set free from proprietary devices and formats. I call other members of our industry to join us in this practice. We owe it to those who came before us to bring access to as many as possible. Open formats in the digital age embrace the traditions of the past and build a strong foundation for the future.

Steve Haber, the head of digital reading at Sony Electronics, will be appearing at the Boston Book Festival on Saturday.

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