Benedict Evans of Andreessen/Horowitz (an indispensible observer of digital change across media, and an analyst who explains Amazon better than any other I know) did a presentation called “Mobile is Eating the World”. It spells out the fact that just about everybody is going to have smartphones with connectivity very soon. One slide (slide 6) in the deck says that by the end of 2017 — a bit over three years away — fewer than 30 percent of the people on the planet will not have them. That means that at least 95 percent of the people known to at least 95 percent of the people reading this post will.
Another slide in the deck (slide 28) says that we are already at a point where during the vast majority of every person’s waking hours, they are engaged in media or communications activity between 40 and 70 percent of the time.
Evans and others are suggesting that these changes will remake our use of web sites and apps and make us much more reliant on “cards”, system- and device-agnostic digital objects that can provide both information and the ability to act on it. We see the beginnings of that now in the book business with Ron Martinez’s Aerbook, which puts “content into the social stream” and Linda Holliday’s Citia, which has pivoted away from card applications aimed at the book business to serving the advertising industry.
I think book publishers would be wise to focus on the marketing and consumption opportunities these shifts enable (or require) rather than letting this tech change entice them down the enhanced ebook rabbit hole yet another time. Mobile device usage replacing PC usage actually favors old-time book-reading, since limited screen real estate is not a handicap. But the processes of discovery and the means of purchase could be radically shifted.
One very thoughtful piece I read (but can’t find) suggested that all this means a sharp reduction in email use, which Evans confirms in a chart (slide 31) showing that 12-15 year olds (in the UK) don’t use it much. They have shifted to instant media and social media like Facebook and Twitter as communication channels. They don’t even talk on the phone. There is a new category of “emphemeral media”; IT does its thing and then the communication disappears. Of course, we don’t really know how to project people’s communication behavior at ages 12-15 to what it will be 20 or 30 years later, and email is still extremely powerful for marketing.
Meanwhile, attempts to improve email continue, including this recently from Google.
There are two big changes that are really mandated by the migration to mobile.
The obvious big change is a reduction in screen real estate on a mobile device compared to a PC. The less obvious one, but the one that threatens email use, is the loss of full-function and full-sized keyboards.
These two big changes haven’t been called out specifically in the presentations I’ve seen about this, including Evans’s.
The screen switch might turn out to be the more minimal disruption. While the growth in mobile is real, so is the ubiquity of screens of many sizes in many places. The tech to allow something brought in on a phone to be “thrown” to another screen is pretty trivial — bluetooth already exists and other new things, like Chromecast enabling mirroring an Internet-enabled device to a TV, keep arriving. It isn’t hard to imagine that larger screens will be available for mobile devices to inform just about anywhere. And while there will always be a natural tendency to prefer viewing on the device you hold in your hand from which you control all your navigation (a big advantage for books), if a larger screen is required, it is increasingly going to be available whenever your need it.
But the keyboard problem might be tricker. Portable and foldable keyboards have already been developed, and they are already used to make tablets into laptops. Whether they will be as widely available or as easily compatible as screens is doubtful. They didn’t catch on for Palm Pilots and we’re still waiting to see how widespread their use will be for the Microsoft Surface.
What mitigates the loss of keyboards is the increased use of vocal dictation to replace typing. Every time I click on my Google app on the iPhone, it invites me to just tell it what I want. Of course, transcribing dictated text introduces new possibilities for error. Even so, hobbled keyboards might not be as crippling to email use by the substantial part of the population that is not now 12-15, but will still be communicating for decades, as the 21st century users’ current habits seem to suggest.
You can, of course, just ask Siri (or Google) out loud what that top-of-the-chart NY Times bestseller is and to take you to a site where you can sample or buy it, and you’ll get there.
There is even more reason to believe web sites will persist even if cards become more ubiquitous. As content creation atomizes (more and more content creators, any of which can be very small), understanding their “authority” will be increasingly important. As of now, Google is the one company we depend on most to tackle that challenge (others who attempt it include Bong, Wolphram Alpha, Duck Duck Go), and web sites are a fabulous tool for Google to understand who somebody is and whether they know whereof they speak or write.
That authority-vetting is likely to be more and more important and perceived by content consumers to be so. (In fact, it is happening now, even though most consumers don’t realize it is happening.) If that’s true, official, useful web sites (or equivalent owned or editable means to consolidate information around a person who seeks an audience — like Wikipedia, Google+, Amazon Author Central, and other authoritative pages) may continue to be important to Google, and therefore to the rest of us.
What is certain is that in the developed world just about everybody will hold a computer in their hand all the time that can get at just about anything on the web or in any app. (This is already largely true, if also underemployed or taken for granted.) We are getting increasingly comfortable operating freed from the constraints of time and place. We can also be freed from ignorance most of the time, if we choose to be.