'Real Books From Real Trees for Real People': Microsoft's Fun eBook Predictions From 1999

Weirdly, they were more correct when it came to 2010 than 2001.
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microsoftadpredictions1999.jpg

In late 1999, Microsoft created an ad for its upcoming 'Microsoft Reader' software. The headline blared, "This is a story about the future of reading," and underneath the story about the company's actual product, the marketers inserted a timeline based on "the best estimates of Microsoft researchers and developers" of what was going to happen to books in the future. 

The Microsoft Reader product was unremarkable and did not drive a revolution in the book marketplace. But the predictions! They're fascinating, particularly in how they attempt to anticipate the backlash and counterarguments to the increasing ubiquity of e-books that they forecast. It will not surprise you that they were overly optimistic, but interestingly, these are some of the few specific predictions that seem to have gotten better as they reached further into the future. Normally, the opposite is true. Let's go through them.

"2001: Electronic textbooks appear and help reduce backpack load on students."

As late as 2010, electronic textbooks' market share was less than two percent.

"2002: PCs and eBook devices offer screens almost as sharp as paper: 200 dpi physical resolution is enhanced even further with ClearType."

People still argue about whether iPad resolution is as good as print. And there weren't really usable e-book devices in the market until 2004 when the Sony Librie was released.

"2003: eBook devices weigh less than a pound, run eight hours, and cost as little as $99."

Kindles didn't start selling for $99 or less until 2011. Though they were right that e-books would be very light. Even the aforementioned Sony Librie weighed less than half a pound.

"2004: Tablet PCs arrive with eBook reading, handwriting input, and powerful computer applications."

Though tablet devices have existed for a looong time, it's generally acknowledged that tablets "arrived" when Apple released the iPad in 2010. (Gartner called the 2009 tablet market sales "next to zero.")

"2005: The sales of eBook titles, eMagazines, and eNewspapers top $1 billion."

Most estimates for the e-book market in 2005 were between $10 and $100 million. The ebook market in the United States (the most developed market) only started to take off with the release of the Kindle and iPad (and increasingly big smartphones with good screens).

"2006: eBook stands proliferate offering book and periodical titles at traditional bookstores, newsstands, airports -- even in mid-air."

No. This was the old retail model applied too directly the sales of books. In reality, we buy digital books online.

"2009: eBook titles begin to outsell paper in many categories. Title prices are lower, but sales are higher."

This is the closest prediction yet: it was in 2011 and 2012 that ebook sales started to rival and overtake print sales in certain categories (in the United States). Still, not bad for a ten-year-out projection.

"2010: eBook devices weigh half a pound, run 24 hours, and hold as many as a million titles."

Pretty much nailed it. In 2010, Amazon unveiled the Kindle 3G, the first Kindle to weigh under a pound. It had about 30 hours of active battery life. Interestingly, the one miss is in the storage capacity of the device. Real Kindles hold a thousand or so books, but, of course, you can delete and then download more as you go, so you have *access* to a million or so titles.

"2012: Electronic and paper books compete vigorously. Pulp industry ads promote 'Real Books from Real Trees for Real People.' "

This one is my favorite prediction. The implication here is that the cultural pushback on e-books would focus on the authenticity of paper books and the people who read them. And if you look around, physical books, in fact, have come to signal authenticity ("real people"). 

Take Nicholas Carr's argument in the Wall Street Journal. "Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital," he wrote on December 31, 2011. "They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call 'real books'--the kind you can set on a shelf." The physical weight of the book instantiates the heaviness of its ideas. And setting such tomes on the shelf is an indication that the purchaser is a reader of important things. 

He concludes his essay with a vague idea that has a lot of currency among certain intellectuals: "There's something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book." Note the construction: "there's something about." I personally suspect that if anyone were to spell out precisely what that something was, it would sound kind of silly, like talking about why you like your favorite t-shirt: It would reveal too much about the qualities we want our objects to impart to us. (I say this as someone with full bookshelves and hundreds of Kindle books. I want my books to say the right things about me, too.)

"2015: Former high-tech rivals unite to fund the conversion of the entire Library of Congress to eBooks."

Get on it, dudes! You've got two years left, and I think it's a great and worthy notion.

I'll stop there as we can't really say much about the predictions for 2018 and beyond, but they're definitely worth looking at. You can find the original ad here, thanks to Flickr user catablogger.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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