E-readers behind the scenes

E-readers may be commonplace now, but do you remember the first generation that arrived way back in 1998? Did you ever wonder why they didn’t catch on then? Or how Amazon became so successful? Today I take a look back at the brief history of e-readers via an article I recently read in Domus, a design magazine.

The article begins with a brief history of the electronic book and the publishing industry. As they point out, in many aspects much of the publishing process had already been digital for many years. If you think about it, it does make sense. If people at home chose to replace typewriters with computers for producing documents, why would an entire industry built around very large documents not also do the same? The printed book part of the process was really just the final step, for use by the customer. And it certainly made sense to maintain physical books from a business perspective. Customers were, of course, familiar with the product. Stores existed solely to sell the product. Public institutions existed solely to lend out the product for free. Pricing, licensing, transportation and distribution were oriented around the physical book. Everything about the system made sense and worked fine, until…

The first generation of e-readers that came out in 1998 were, perhaps, a bit before their time. Limited by battery life and small memory, they never caught on with consumers. But that didn’t stop technology from infiltrating the system. Amazon.com was launched in 1995 with the intention of becoming the world’s largest bookstore, and as we all know, they didn’t stop there. As Amazon became more and more successful, the system started to change. Bookstores were struggling to compete with Amazon’s cheap prices and efficient distribution. And Amazon was gaining more knowledge of the publishing industry and power over it. Fast forward ten years to 2007, and the first version of the Kindle came out. This time, the e-reader did catch on, in large part thanks to Amazon’s aggressive pricing and ability to secure a large amount of e-content for the readers. Just five years later, we can still see the industry changing. Borders, one of two book megastore chains, is now closed. Traditional publishing companies are increasingly threatened by all-digital, self-publishing authors. As publishers try to transition to e-content while maintaining profits, digital rights management shifts on a regular basis, much to the chagrin of consumers.

The transition continues, and libraries are playing a large role in demanding more access rights to digital copies of books. Where we’ll end up remains to be seen, but in the meantime learning a little bit more about the history of e-readers and Amazon gives one a new understanding of why things are the way they are today. Please do continue on and read the article by James Bridle, originally published in Domus 958 / May 2012, titled “From books to infrastructure.”

The image in this post is a crop of one of the infographics in the original article, created by Simone Tutti.

Scroll to Top