E-books are nice, but they haven’t arrived at an endpoint. The Kindle is nice and all, though I must admit I’ve had a complaint or two about it. There’s a lot of room for improvement. 

I’ve got a few theories for what the books of the future will look like. They won’t be a tablet – tablets are actually a pretty stupid form factor, all told, offering terrible keyboards and the occasional bit of pen support. A book in the future will look like a book from two hundred years ago. Old styles have their charms.

Now, I’m not saying we should go back to paper. First off, that’s bad for the environment and all that. I’m thinking of what’ll happen with the bleeding edge of technology. Instead of a piece of paper, you get a flexible color screen, capable of accepting touch input. Writing on the page can be accomplished with anything even vaguely pencil-shaped; highlight with the swipe of a finger, zoom in if your eyesight isn’t as good as it once was. Take an idea that Amazon did right, and include a soft backlight, built into every page.

But what makes this better than traditional books? It’s significantly more expensive now. (That said, I’m borrowing some of these ideas from The Diamond Age, which is set in a post-scarcity society where manufacturing such things takes a few minutes in an atomic-level manipulator.) But it’s also capable of interactivity. Authors can include adaptive stories, videos, music, interviews… anything, really.

And the other set of things this allows is sync. Again, Amazon has done a pretty good job of this. Highlights and notes sync across devices. But imagine syncing your notes across books. Forgot your beloved copy of 1984 somewhere? Nowadays, you’ve got to go back for it if you ever want to see those familiar dog-ears and scrawls again. But with a smart book of the sort being described here, you can just pick up a new, blank book, download your copy of 1984 onto it, and ta-da! Margins full of your incoherent handwriting, just as they are.

There are, of course, things I haven’t thought of here. Alternate ways that the future of books could go. This is just one concept, my current favorite. Heavily influenced, I should add, by the fact that I’m currently reading White Noise and leaving a scrawl of notes and highlights for whoever I wind up loaning it to afterwards. And I must admit, as much of a fan as I am of the current generation of e-readers, there’s something tactile and wonderful about a printed book.

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