Lutz RoederJan 13, 2016

The Future of Books

TL;DR: eBooks and audiobooks merge into a single medium.

I still remember showing a friend my apartment back in 2005. He looked around puzzled and asked "You are someone that reads a lot. Where is your library?". Having moved between continents a few times I developed a habit of giving books away right after reading them. Soon after, with the introduction of the iPhone, iPad, Kindle and Audible my entire library moved to the cloud. I do get nostalgic about real books and walking through libraries, but I also keep wondering what the future might look like...

Audiobooks emerged in an age of the walkman and car stereos when playing devices didn't have reading screens. eBooks first showed up on PCs with mobility being an afterthought. What is keeping us from merging the two into a single medium now that mobile devices with readable screens and audio capabilities are ubiquitous. New books get released in both eBook and audiobook formats. Speech recognition makes it possible to align the spoken words in audiobooks with the text of an eBook. Instead of buying a book in either format, readers would have a single universal book that can be read and listened to.

Imagine listening to an audiobook on your phone and when an illustration comes up switching to the screen to look at the actual graphic. Imagine reading on a tablet screen in a coffee shop having to leave right when the plot gets interesting. Get your headphones and continue listening as an audiobook right from where you left off. Textbooks which have been difficult to turn into audiobooks could be more practical as universal books, providing the advantages of audiobooks to students.

Arguably speech generation is improving as well and might reach the level of real human speakers. It is hard to tell how soon this is going to happen. The fact that so many books are still made into audiobooks with real human voices shows that we aren't quite there yet.

...and as so often when writing about an idea, friends told me that some of this is already in the making. In recent versions Kindle provides audio companions for a few selected eBooks. Not quite as seamless as it should be but a step in the right direction.