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SXSW Day 5: Future of the Book: The $100 Laptop

On-demand technologies and desktop publishing were supposed to revolutionize the book industry. The $100 laptop might trump everything.
March 13, 2007

I wasn’t expecting to see the $100 laptop at a panel on books.

The Internet Archive provides wireless access to 150,000 books and is making the access available to participants in the One Laptop per Child initiative.
Credit: Brad King

I’m not sure what I expected, actually, but I really wasn’t expecting to hold one of the $100 laptops, which are being developed for the One Laptop per Child initiative. I certainly didn’t expect to see the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle wildly swinging the computer above his head while discussing his organization’s ongoing project to digitize every book in the public domain (and beyond, if he and his people can convince book publishers that digitizing copyrighted books is a good idea).

“We’re very privileged to have one of these,” Kahle said. “We’re a library for it, and all of our books will be available for anyone with this laptop.”

By this time, I really shouldn’t have been surprised by anything Kahle was doing. Then he handed the laptop to someone in the front row, imploring us all to play with the machine. As the green laptop made its way through the crowd, Kahle said the future of the book–the reason we were all here–wasn’t going to change. Books would still be made up of large ideas. What will change is the package and the delivery.

I’m intrigued by Kahle for personal reasons. Since last July, with the help of academics at MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, I’ve been codirecting a research project at two universities: I’ve been developing a book-publishing system that will allow users to determine the package around their books (electronic, Web, hardback, paperback, DVD). In the past nine months, Kahle is the only person I’ve listened to who actually gets this future. In truth, he probably got this future a decade ago as I was penning my first technology column. But I can’t hold age against him.

His idea begins with some low tech.

The Internet Archive has roughly 150,000 public-domain books in its digitized library. With on-demand printing technology, anyone can print a book. “We have a book mobile where we go around and the kids assemble their own books with a printer, binder, and cutter,” said Kahle. It’s a roving van with wireless access so children can get any book available through the Internet Archive, which is way better than the book mobile I grew up with.

There is a high-tech idea add-on, the reason that Kahle is swinging the $100 laptop above his head. He and his people have partnered with the One Laptop per Child organization to provide every text for every laptop (and I’m assuming he meant natively on the computer, since the texts are free). Once this happens, the book mobile becomes irrelevant (although it’s still nice to have a backup to solve the Last Mile problem, in case every child doesn’t get a laptop).

Either way, I’m hooked.

The green laptop passed from person to person, but the woman next to me shut the top before handing it to me. No problem. Just pop the screen. I pushed the two side buttons. They moved, so I flipped them up. There were only USB connections. There was nothing on the bottom. I pushed the big green button on the front. I was a bit annoyed. A volunteer slid over, took the laptop, and started to tinker–but she couldn’t open it either. After several minutes, the woman sitting next to me mouthed “Sorry” and popped the top.

There it was: The Owl and the Pussycat.

The screen, made to be viewable in the sunlight, was flawless and clear. I was shocked at its clarity. It’s certainly easier to read than my Dell Latitude screen, which is caked with dust, dirt, and food.

I passed the laptop along and tried to listen to the print-on-demand panelists, but I couldn’t get my head around what I’d just seen. The hardware interface wasn’t easy to negotiate, but that can be changed. The laptop was small enough that you could tote it around, sit down under a tree with it, and start reading. When you’re finished, you simply fold it up and carry it home.

The future of the book? The publishing-industry panel talked about aesthetics and design. The panel could have ended the moment the laptop got passed around. I’m not suggesting that the $100 laptop will become the future e-book, but if they can build a technology designed for schoolbooks, the digital book’s popularity can’t be far behind.

I did make one mental note to pass along: make it easier for old folks to figure out how to open the device.

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