Books: when old and new technology meet

Are books old or new technology? Is printing books on paper obsolete, or does it still have an advantage in some cases? After Apple’s announcement about iBooks Textbooks yesterday, I think the answer is: both.

At the heart of it, iBooks is 1.) about the difference between electronic and printed books and 2.) about bringing the real-time digital world into the traditional publishing sphere. Kindle, Nook, and (to a lesser extent) iPad have been in the business of taking that which was formerly constrained to paper and making it available quickly, sometimes more cheaply, but certainly in a more portable package: e-books. And there’s not doubt that the fusion of e-books with the rest of the digital world was going to happen eventually. Plus, there’s that unspoken rule in the tech market which says, “New is always better than anything older.” So by that reasoning, books must be no exception, right? Well, there are numerous advantages, but I think there is one exception.

When I set out to write a book, everyone asked if it would be electronic as well as printed. When I said no, they were shocked. Why would someone not want to have an e-book these days? Well, in my case, it was because the book’s primary audience was those who don’t know a thing about computers. Trying to ask a reader to learn to use a PC by consuming an e-book is like handing a brand new cell phone to someone who has never used a mobile phone and telling them to text-message you to learn how to use it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Apple’s new invention will be hugely successful, especially for science textbooks and cookbooks. And even I can look at it a little jealously, imagining all the illustrations in The Ultimate PC Primer coming to life to help illustrate concepts in motion. (In fact, I once considered including a DVD Video with the book for that very purpose. So an iBook would be ideal.) As always, I’m enthusiastic about Apple’s new product and wish them success.

Yet, there can be good reasons for “old” technology like printed books. They require little training, and they’re (more) familiar to certain audiences. Especially for those who have never used a PC, would handing them an iPad help, since an iPad is still a simplified form of a personal computer? That’s why I think, in some circumstances and for some audiences, print may still be used as the introductory medium to new technologies… where old meets new.

We could go around and around debating if older electric (or electronic) technologies have advantages over new ones. Here’s why that’s futile: every new technology will one day be old. Technology marches on, and quickly. But people don’t always march on so quickly. Consequently, keeping references to past technology can be helpful, to provide a more gentle transition for slower adopters. Why refer to the past? Because each of our experiences is based on our pasts. It’s how we attempt to relate to “new” things and how we try to predict what the future will be like, by remembering previously encountered patterns and references. It’s why the stories and analogies in The Ultimate PC Primer: 15 Simple Lessons for Understanding Personal Computers refer to some rather old technologies. I carefully selected well-established technologies for my reference points. So “old” can still have considerable use when help someone transition to something “new.”

I know the printed book will one day become obsolete, but for now, there’s still a generation of people who find the “old” printed book more comforting and familiar with needing to learn something new. Perhaps you even know someone who fits this profile.

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