A New Era in Reading

Only rarely does the introduction of a new technological device stir interest and expectations throughout the world. Apple enjoyed such global attention with the introduction of its iPad tablet Wednesday, following weeks of leaks and rumors about the product and its characteristics.

The founder and CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, has a proven record as a technology entrepreneur whose products have changed how humans and computers interact (for example, the mouse and the graphic operating system), how people listen to music (iPod), and cellular telephony (iPhone). His new product has stirred a great deal of interest amid expectations that it will also cause similar changes in the way books and newspapers are read - shifting from their printed format to the digital medium, as has happened with photography, games, music and movies.

During the past year, a number of electronic book readers were introduced on the market such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, but they were regarded as exotic toys for gadget aficionados and did not create a new reading culture. However, the high Kindle sales during the U.S. holiday season and the introduction of the iPad and competitors that will follow suggest that a change is underway. Printed books are likely to become collector's items - like vinyl records and film cameras - giving way to computers capable of storing entire libraries.

The Internet and the cellphone revolutionized human communication, which relies - more than ever in history - on written language. The expectation that television would destroy readership was proved false; in the 21st century we write and read electronic mail and are fed news and views on the Web. The electronic book, when connected to the Internet and cellular networks, will be different from the books we have known: It will include references to Web sites, presentations, visual effects and probably advertisements as well.

The new technology will democratize the book market and enable unknown authors to reach a broad reading public without having to rely on publishers for printing, distribution and marketing. Data collected by Amazon demonstrates the success of unknown authors who released their creations for free to Kindle buyers.

Readers in the digital era will enjoy complete and immediate access to every book ever published, anywhere. Complex questions about creative rights, copyrights, royalties and new reading technologies will appear, as has happened with electronic music and movies moving to three-dimensional modes. Newspapers will also benefit from a second chance through a digital distribution network that will gradually replace print editions.

In view of the approaching reading-habit revolution, political struggles in Israel to "rescue" the book market and print journalism seem to be lost battles of an old technology, battles that will soon give way to a different consumption culture through new distribution channels. No lobbying in the Knesset will free newspapers and publishers from the need to confront this new technological challenge.