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COVER STORY : Inside the Ebook Test Kitchen

A look at what's cooking on the cutting edge of ebook technology.

September 2012 By Brian Howard
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It doesn't seem so long ago—and that's because it wasn't—that referring to "the cutting edge of ebook technology" was redundant. Ebook technology itself was the cutting edge: File-based delivery of tomes was the driving force behind all of the messy disruption in so many publishing houses in the last 10 years.

Now, of course, things have changed. We, as the previously disrupted, might even take a little perverse pleasure in the fact that PDFs and other forms of flat file delivery are now being disrupted by a new wave of ebook technology. (If, that is, one can feel Schadenfreude for a file format.) Apps, EPUBs, walled gardens, HTML5, web readers, agile publishing models and online learning environments are banging on the doors, crashing through the boarded-up windows, and generally wreaking havoc in a publishing landscape already in upheaval.

After centuries of relative stability since monastic scribes had their metaphorical cheese moved by block printing, change has come quickly in the book's digital era. And this change, like all change, has had winners and losers, advances and retreats.

Scan the publishing news and you'll see Apple, Amazon and Google pop up as often as (some weeks much more than) the vaunted "Big Six" publishers. Books are now the domain of technologists as well as publishers, which has led us to a fascinating time in the history of publishing. The establishment, the guardians of tradition, are tussling with device manufacturers and futurists over books, items that hold a uniquely exalted place in our culture.

The things we can do with a book, the things a book can tell us about a reader, what a book is—heck, even the nature of text-based information exchange—are all very much in flux. Interactivity, analytics, immersive experiences and feedback loops are driving this change.

While it's impossible to know which way this will all break, what the ultimate benefits and consequences will be, it's a safe bet that because of what's happening today, things will be very different in some not-too-distant tomorrow.

With an eye toward divining what the ebook future might look like, we talked to some of the companies driving this change, and asked them about what they're doing to move ebook technology forward, and what they see on the horizon.

 

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