What if we did nothing?

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By law, all articles written about e-books this month must include this picture.

With all the news about Apple’s iPad launch (and related reporting about Amazon’s skirmishes with publishers), you might conclude that one way or the other, someday e-readers will be everywhere. There’s no doubt the free market is hard at work putting e-books into people’s consciousness.  Which kind of makes you wonder: what if Worldreader just sat back and let the market do its work? Wouldn’t that get e-books into everyone’s hands?

Maybe.  But as Mike and I were discussing the other day, there are many possible futures in which the impact of universal access to books is never fully felt in the developing world.

Start with the price: e-readers could well end up priced as luxury items in most of the world, available only at the top 2% of their markets.  And you can understand why: the developed world is quite taken with the iPad, and manufacturers will have to respond, even if that means doing things that tend to keep prices higher.

Or look at e-reader design: it will take an effort to make e-readers tougher, and batteries longer-lasting, so that the devices work well all over the world.  Battery life matters less if you have easy access to power, and high levels of humidity (or heat or fine sand) aren’t huge problems in most of the US and Europe.   So market forces won’t necessarily produce e-readers for the developing world.

Five bars of coverage on Spain’s Canary Islands. Seventy-five miles east, in Morocco, there’s none.

Or e-readers in the developing world could continue to be largely unconnected to mobile networks, dramatically reducing their potential impact.  Cell phone companies like big markets.  E-readers in the developing world won’t be on anyone’s radar for many years to come, absent encouragement from organizations like ours.

Of course, price, connectivity, and design of the e-reader are only the beginning.  Content costs will need to come down too for the developing world.  We have some ideas about this, and will write much more about it in the future.

And even with low-cost content, there could end up being very little local-language content available, making the whole proposition unappealing to many.  There’s little doubt that there will be lots of English-language digital content, but the digital future is less clear for less broadly spoken languages, unless someone helps prime the market’s pump. (A very curious, slightly related factoid: there are more Wikipedia articles written about Antarctica than all but one of Africa’s fifty-three countries– Ghana’s neighbor Burkina Faso.)

And even if all of these issues are addressed, e-readers and e-books could end up being marketed and perceived solely as educational products, locked up in schools, disconnected from families and communities.  Broader positioning, informed by the sort of careful research that for-profit companies do all the time, can help address this…. but it won’t happen automatically.

E-books and e-readers represent a real opportunity for kids and families to have very broad access to books, all over the world.  Our most basic belief is that reading helps create a strong, healthy, and vibrant society.  But we’ll need to work hard to demonstrate that opportunity  to e-reader manufacturers, local publishers, mobile operators, and governments, and then to help foster new organizations for training, support, and so forth.   The impact of smart decisions and hard work in the short-term could be immeasurably large in the long-term.