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What if Ebooks Were the Dominant Platform?

I recently came across an old blog post from Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee that discusses the utility of the “technology flip test”. McAfee writes:

At a conference years back I was sitting on a panel that was asked to talk about future of the book. As the discussion was heating up about the inevitability of the electric media, someone on the panel (I wish it had been me) proposed a flip test. He said “Let’s say the world has only e-books, then someone introduces this technology called ‘paper.’ It’s cheap, portable, lasts essentially forever, and requires no batteries. You can’t write over it once it’s been written on, but you buy more very cheaply. Wouldn’t that technology come to dominate the market?” It’s fair to say that comment changed the direction of the panel.

The ebook vs paper flip test is intriguing for a number of reasons:

  • It inverts the offense and defense: Ebook advocates become defenders and paper-book supporters become disruptors. Shaking off the vestiges of a default argument is always a good idea — think of it as a “debate cleanser.”
  • It amplifies the strengths of each format … initially: When I ran through the flip test on my own, I at first honed in on the cost savings of ebooks (no paper, no printing, no shipping) and the sensory aspects of print books. But further review revealed deeper complexities to this debate. And that led me to …
  • It upends assumptions: Print’s dominant position in the real world causes me to challenge pro-print arguments, most notably the tactile experience overreaction that often derails discussions. But placing ebooks in the hot seat gave me a new perspective on ebook defenses. For example, if my default reading environment was electronic and networked, would I want (or need) a disconnected outlet? Would I crave solitude and a languid pace? Does the upside of ebook economics supersede the other reading/storytelling experiences I’m looking for, or would I welcome a print alternative the way I now welcome an electronic option?

What’s your take on the flip test? Does inverting the argument open the discussion, or is this a diversionary trick that detracts from the issues at hand? Please share your thoughts in the comments area.

(Original idea and McAfee link via Reading 2.0 list.)

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Comments: 6

  1. Imo, the flip tests are very useful, as your analyse demonstrates: showing that some arguments can equally be raised in both situations with different output in fact reveal their irrelevance and focus attention on deeper issues.
    I guess that if one builds an inverted matrix of discussion from immersive+solitary+languid pace and digital vs. interactive+social+fast pace and non-digital, looks for examples, interesting results might appear opposing for instance strategy games, analysis on PCs to sport, debate…

  2. If ebooks had existed first, paper books would have a very hard time taking hold, because the low volumes (analogous to ebooks today) would make them extremely expensive. They would remain a niche product, for those who were going to be out of range of power for an extended period.

    And of course, many of the types of discourse now contained in said books would never have come into being, because the medium shapes the format.

    In that sense, “ebooks” as currently imagined wouldn’t exist either. We’d have other formats for entertainment, learning and reference that were uniquely adapted to the electronic environment — much as we have online today. And we’d be struggling with ideas like “how can you make a paper copy of a computer game?” “How can you make a really useful paper reference book when you can only fit a tiny fraction of the online information into it?” “How can you teach someone without being able to demonstrate to them or show them video?”

    If you’re going to reverse history, you have to pick your starting point…

  3. I suspect that even if the orders were reversed we’d still see trends similar to those that exist today. IOW, paper remains dominant but e- is making inroads. In this reversed world I think e- would remain dominant while paper made inroads.

    Why? There are so many interesting things you can do with e- that you simply can’t with paper. For example, I’m totally into sampling with my Kindle. In fact, I just grabbed the sample of an O’Reilly book and plan to read it tonight. If I like what I read I’ll be back to buy the full product. Good luck doing that with paper.

    We also have to realize that if e-books had as many years to evolve and develop that paper books do, well, we’d see a lot more functionality than what you get on today’s Kindle. In fact, I’ll bet we’ll look back at today’s Kindle in 5 or 6 years and laugh at how simplistic it was. So it’s hard to compare e-books like this since the platform is far from fully developed.

  4. @Joe: Your comment about looking back at the Kindle in 5 to 6 years is well taken. I recent stumbled across my first generation iPod (circa 2001). Compared to the iPhone and the iPod Touch, it looks like a clunky, white, monochromatic brick that *only* plays music. An awful lot can change in 7 years.

  5. First.

    “languid pace”

    Do you read faster when reading online or in ebooks? I don’t. On the contrary, I am considerably faster when reading paper sometimes. Never slower. I don’t get this.


    The advantages of paper would not be convincing for readers, but they would be for writers. McAfee had the right instinct. Paper has an irresistible quality for writers. It may not gtake over, since interconnectivity is too great a quality to forgo it, but it would carve out an important niche for itself, which might even translate into the realm of popular books


    We all know that much of the appeal of paper books is due to sentimentality, which the flip test “exposes” but that’s 1) trivial and 2) nothing intrinsically bad, is it now? Book Piles, Book Shelves, Libraries, tiuching, smelling, creasing books, writing notes in the margins, smudging ones finger in the ink, cutting yourself on paper, handing a loved book over to a friend, all these things are basically sentimental, but that doesn’t make them less important advantages of the printed book.

  6. @shigekuni — Re: “Languid pace” … I should have been clearer. I wasn’t referring to reading speed, but rather the laid-back nature of sitting with one piece of content for an extended period of time (as opposed to the more frenetic “click-scan” pace that often comes from a Web-based experience).