The idea of the digital book is not new. In fact, the first patent for a digital book was registered back in 1949 by Angela Ruiz Robles, a teacher from Galicia in Spain, who created a design for a digital book driven by air pressure, with the goal of reducing the weight of children’s satchels. Other ideas and designs for digital books even began 20 years before that.
The modern principles of the digital book were developed in 1960 by a group of researchers from Stanford Research Institute and Brown University on the FRESS project.
Digital books in the FRESS format included most of the characteristics and features of the current ebook generation. The content was based on a well-defined logical structure and the format was dynamically adjusted to different users, with varying window and display size, and more. It also included a table of contents, indexes, hyperlinks and graphical capabilities.
FRESS documents were structure-oriented rather than line-oriented, and were formatted dynamically for different users, display hardware and window sizes as well as having automated tables of contents and indexes. All these systems also provided extensive hyperlinking, graphics, and other capabilities.
Of course at that time today’s advanced display devices were not available, and the implementation of FRESS on the IBM computers in that era could only realize part of their potential.
In 1992 Sony developed the first commercial digital reader, Data Discman, and several years later a standard for digital book formats, known as EPUB, had been defined, and is still widely accepted.
The hardware capabilities and display devices have changed beyond recognition since the principles of the first digital book were conceived more than 50 years ago, but it is surprising to learn that functionality has not changed very much. In engineering terms, today’s ebooks have more or less the same basic features of a flexible format, adjustable to a range of user devices, and the conventional means of navigating through content. It is even more surprising that, in commercial terms, we find no material difference, and in fact the model of selling and using ebooks is similar to the model for printed books. Moreover, the price of a typical ebook is not significantly less than the price of paper version in many cases.
In other words, despite all the enthusiasm for ebooks they’re really not much more than digital versions of the familiar print edition, also known as “print under glass.” The good news is there’s still plenty of room for growth in the ebook market as publishers and other members of the ecosystem experiment with new formats of delivery and consumption.