Next year is shaping up to be the year of the e-reader as Kindles, Nooks, and other devices land under Christmas trees and rumors circulate of an Apple e-reader debut in the spring. If e-readers explode in 2010, then the next year may also be the beginning of the end of a lot of free media on the Web.
As millions of people around the world become devotees of e-readers, they will download millions, perhaps billions, of book titles, magazines, and newspapers -- paying for most of them. Many content producers are carefully pricing and distributing content through the e-reader world, instead of giving away content for free as many businesses did at the beginning of the Internet revolution. That decision (or lack thereof) grievously wounded business models for online media and businesses have been hurting ever since.
Perhaps no other "new" business idea has been tried on the Web more fitfully than selling content for money - which of course is how newspapers, movie studios, and record labels made a great deal of their profits last century. But many people have refused to pay for content online even when there was no free, reliable alternative outlet for the content.
Some of that reluctance to open the wallet for the Web may be due to an expectation that everything on the Web should be free because that's the way it always has been. The only way those attitudes may change is if the public is retrained to pay for content (just as everyone did in the pre-broadband, pre-Napster period a dozen years ago).
Enter the e-readers. The woman who paid $3.99 to download a fiction story on her Kindle while riding the bus to work will probably read a newspaper story for free once she gets to her desk. If she has paid for content on her e-reader, then she can be convinced to start paying for that newspaper if the paper argues its product is worth the price and quits giving it away for free.
The woman on the bus bought her Kindle and started paying for content in 2009, even though she's been downloading music for free since 1999. E-reader users like her are living rebuttals to arguments that free is the future of business, especially online. Remember, these e-reader users started paying for content after years of mostly not paying for it online.
Yes, newspapers, book publishers and the like could stop charging money for what they distribute on e-readers, but this is unlikely. Media executives seem realize that giving away content for free during the Web's infancy was mass suicide. I doubt those who survived drinking the "Give-it-away!" Kool-Aid will go back for seconds.
E-readers will not save the news, movie, or music businesses. (Historic materialism is used too often in talk about technology.) But the adoption of e-readers by millions of people could create a market of people who pay for content in ways that are similar to how they could pay for media on the Web. The e-reader boom may be a tremendous opportunity for companies to reorganize their business models and get people to rethink how they consume media if companies start charging and start arguing that their products are worth buying.
If e-readers become the next piece of personal technology we can't live without, they will be as seminal as the PC and cell phone booms were. And this time companies must take the initiative to profit from the opportunities an e-reader market could create, or else they will lose just as they did by allowing the Web to be synonymous with free.