A Personal Library for a Pixelated Future

September 24, 2007

a book dissolving into digital bitsFor the sake of argument, let’s say that the future of the book is cast — ebooks in some form will dominate, with paper books reserved for special works, as gifts and for hobbyist-collectors. Book stores and public libraries have already begun (or in the case of purely-digital stores like WOWIO, have already completed) the transformation from atoms to bits, and they will continue along their evolutionary paths paralleling those of the books.

But my wife — who has been using ebooks since her med school days in the 90s — brought up a good question the other night… what about our personal libraries? What will they look like once shelves lined with paper books become the exception? Today, guests can walk up to the book case to peruse the titles, whether to find entertainment, discover new titles or perhaps gain a little insight into the books’ owners. How does that work with a mostly-digital collection?

Part of the answer may be in front of us today, with iTunes and its shared media library. The software has already transformed the browsing and sharing patterns of mainstream music listeners, with its various visual and list-oriented browsing modes and its ability to share collections across a local network. This paradigm has spread to videos, audio books, podcasts and other media types as well. Even PDFs are partially supported. Extending the idea to full-blown ebooks is only a short stretch further, with listing options modified to support book-specific content.

iLibrary — the future of the personal book collection?

iTunes: one model for a future personal ebook and media library.
(click image to enlarge)

Extrapolating a bit further, all of the household’s books and other media could be shared on a primary household media machine with plenty of storage and a large, multi-touch screen for browsing or for more-focused use of music, video, games and the Internet. The ready access, sharable view and tactile experience would help retain the social and impulsive aspects of the book-browsing experience.

Casual page browsing in this scenario could be done on the large screen, but for serious reading, guests carrying iPhone-like devices could seamlessly join the local wireless network to access the household’s books (and other media). Alternatively, other types of devices in the household, like laptops or iSlates, could be borrowed for the purpose.

browsing the big-screen digital ebook library

Browsing the touch-enabled iLibrary.

This may sound suspiciously like a Microsoft fantasy home of the future. The difference is, aside from the big-screen touch interface, genuinely usable precursors of this concept are already in wide-spread use. Not just by those on the bleeding-edge, but by second-wave adopters like me.

streaming video from a central media server

House MD: from media library to kitchen.

I store music and video on a living room library machine — a relatively inexpensive Mac Mini connected to a big-screen HDTV — and access it wirelessly from other rooms on laptops and other devices. For example, the photo at right shows an iTunes-purchased episode of House MD streaming from the library Mini to a MacBook Pro in the kitchen as I cook dinner.

Even closer to the hypothetical scenario, I’ve also read ebook PDFs stored in the media library on an iPhone via OS X’s built-in Web sharing (this is a workaround for the iPhone’s current file system limitations which require somewhat kludgy hacks to store and access files directly on the iPhone).

All of this is done with no more technical knowledge than that required to set up a Wi-Fi network (a no-brainer with the Airport Express in my setup), along with the ability to use the simple sharing built into iTunes and the Mac.

So is this what a digital book library will look like? Will my mostly-linear extrapolation of existing technology be leap-frogged by something totally new?


  1. […] The Reader ponders the question of what the future bookshelf will look like, given the rise and rise of e-books and associated devices. Extrapolating from the idea of sharing […]

  2. Audio book is an arch rival for e-book. Audio books are gaining popularity among masses.People love audio books because it is portable and morover we can read audio book while working, commuting,jogging…….. The bottom line is audio book can read anywhere,anytime.

  3. I’ve come to many of the same conclusion as you have. While I help authors print books, I also think that once we all get comfortable with ebooks, the transformation will come quickly.

    You mentioned itunes. I bought an ipod a couple of years ago and then loaded up all my CDs on it. It wasn’t until a year later when I realized I was bored of hearing the same songs over and over that I bought my first song off of itunes. Now I wonder why anyone would go to a store to buy a CD that will get scratched or lost. Downloading songs is definitely the better way to go.

    I think people will make similar transformations with ebooks once they give it a try and see how efficient it is to manage books, read them, share them etc.

    I also think that hard copy books will remain in demand for various reasons and so I see the printing part of the industry moving more to short-runs.

  4. Phil, I’ve been buying my music digitally, too, to the point where I’m a little loath to buy all of the plastic and packaging that goes along with those few titles that aren’t available as legal downloads. I want to try out the Amazon MP3 store to see if it’s as good as it sounds — certainly the prices and DRM-free nature of the files sound very appealing.

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