Nanodots, Kindles, And The Future Of E-Books

US News and World Report reprinted a press release from the National Science Foundation which announced that, “Nanodots Breakthrough May Lead to ‘A Library on One Chip’.”

A researcher at North Carolina State University has developed a computer chip that can store an unprecedented amount of data—enough to hold an entire library’s worth of information on a single chip. The new chip stems from a breakthrough in the use of nanodots, or nanoscale magnets, and represents a significant advance in computer-memory technology.

“We have created magnetic nanodots that store one bit of information on each nanodot, allowing us to store over one billion pages of information in a chip that is one square inch,” says Dr. Jay Narayan, the John C. Fan Distinguished Chair Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at NC State and author of the research.

If an average book has 500 pages, then a billion pages is two million books. Given pictures, meta-data and other errata, plus overhead storage costs, perhaps this chip will hold only a million books. Which is still, statistically speaking, a lot. It is even more books than Judge Richard Posner will read in his lifetime.

Now, a million is also a greater number than the number of books of any real value that have ever been published (in English, anyway). Add in copies of journal and magazines, the total quickly swells past our figure. But, in books, this slick chip really could hold a library at least as well stocked as any university’s.

So here is what can happen: working with Google, the company that is scanning and digitizing all written material, Amazon could encode every book written in English (currently published) and store it on this nanochip, which could be part of every Kindle version 3 (or whatever). Doesn’t have to just be in English, of course. Chips can be bought containing libraries in any language. Perhaps the devices will (finally) allow expansion slots for the insertion of other corpora.

Most of these books are in the public domain, but for those that are not, Amazon, working with publishers and authors who hold the rights, could charge a fee to unlock what is already on the device. That is, works under copyright could be locked and inaccessible until a fee is paid by the Kindle owner.

That solves many problems. First, the licensing versus owning problem. Currently, Kindle users do not own their books, they lease them. Having them all on the nanochip could allow users to buy the books, paying a one-time fee—as physical book buyers now pay—to unlock and own the book.

Users thus buy a “key” (which fits only one book), which they should be allowed to resell. This would solve the used book problem: which is that used books—those eminent advertisements for new books—do not exist for e-readers! This is enormous bad news. Without used books, everybody is hurt, even bottom-line obsessed publishers. Amazon should push for this, since many users would opt to re-sell their “book keys” on Amazon itself, the company obviously taking a cut on each sale. Publishers could even work out a deal with Amazon to take a cut of this cut! That would be the first time authors could benefit from re-selling their work.

Thirdly, Amazon and users do not need worry about storage “in the cloud.” All that need to be kept track of is who paid for what. No readers need fear losing a book (presumably, the nanochips, should they break, would be replaceable). We also do not need to fear changing formats. Think how many times you paid for the same song: LP, 8-track, cassette, CD, MP3, etc., etc. Buying a book key should unlock the book in any format. Unless, as often happens, the book is re-issued in a new edition. If users want the new edition, they have to buy a new key—just as when readers have to pay for the new paper edition.

Instead of buying books one by one, the Kindle could download, say weekly or monthly, all new books that are published. Once more, all readers need do is pay to unlock the books they want.

This sound OK to you, Mr Bezos?

18 Comments

  1. Briggs,
    I like your used e-book scheme.

    I also wonder at your statement that there cannot be a million books of value in English. Doesn’t this seem unknowable?

    So far, the vast supply of out of copyright books available for free isn’t entirely QA’d. For example, being perplexed, I thought reading Maimonides’ “Guide to the Perplexed’ might be helpful. And it is.

    But… The version available through Google books, which is free, has been scanned and optically converted to text by a computer. The result merges copious footnotes with the text making the result unreadable on an ereader. For $0.99, I bought a version from Amazon which had stripped the footnotes and is accordingly more easily read.

    There are many other books so far unavailable to ereaders – Churchill’s stuff written since 1910 for example.

  2. j ferguson,

    In the interest of science, I made up the “one million” statistic. And I agree with you re: quality control.

  3. Mr. Briggs,

    Two of your suggested propositions (that Amazon would benefit from this scheme, and that the customer would benefit from this scheme) are interesting for at least this reason: to disprove either of the pair requires disproving both. More precisely: since some direct benefits to one would have a likely indirect benefit to the other (e.g. Amazon benefiting from greater customer satisfaction). I don’t see any direct benefit to Amazon in the scheme, and I don’t see any direct benefit to the customer that would significantly benefit Amazon. I think you may mistake the virtue of the book keys as objects of trade.

    I assume that the key that opens a particular book on my particular Kindle would be the same key that opens that particular book on anybody’s Kindle. Why else would you buy the key? Now there may be some benefits from download a key from Amazon rather than a very large text (e.g. download speed) but I suspect these benefits are minuscule. You speak of the loss of books. Such loss would almost always be a result of the loss of the Kindle itself, damage to its screen, or damage to some moving part. Rarely would it be due to a failure of a cheaply replaceable solid state nanochip. In any case, Amazon would have to maintain a registry of the customer’s purchased books or keys in order to update your device. (Maybe if you bought a million books, there would be network benefits from having to download again only a million keys, but this would not be typical usage).

    There is another way of losing books: Amazon can (or in the past could) delete them from your device, and has done so to the consternation of its customers. This leads to the quite legitimate fear of this happening again. (Maybe you conflated these fears?) But there is no great difference between deleting your once purchased book (current Kindle), and deleting your once purchased book key (nanochip Kindle).

    However (and here’s the rub): I can’t see Amazon letting you transfer your key to another without them being able at the same time to revoke the use of that key on your own device, which it could not. (Well, it could if the key was book/device dependent, but then there would be no market for the keys).

    It would indeed be great of these books could be revoked from one device to be invoked on another. As far as I understand this is technically possible, and I can see the virtues of a system where electronic books could be sold or lent just as physical books are, with Amazon (or whoever) charging a micro-fee for each transference. This might mean it costs me a penny to lend you my book, and another penny to get it back, but the resulting ‘long tail’ would be a win for all parties by most measures, I think.

    Anyway, if I misunderstood you, or botched my argument, do let me know.

    (I love this blog!)

  4. These devices are neat. But what’s the use of having a million books at your fingertips if you need a few hundred lifetimes to read them?

    It reminds me of my favorite story on libraries: Borges’s “The Library of Babel”, written in 1941. It has always attracted readers with a proclivity toward combinatorial speculations.
    The wikipedia entry gives a good summary:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Library_of_Babel

    It’s fairly short and can be read in a few minutes. I recommend it if you haven’t read it. It’s fun to imagine the possible contents of the books.

    Library of Babel (text of English translation)
    http://tinyurl.com/25hbj8h

  5. Francisco,

    “But what’s the use of having a million books at your fingertips if you need a few hundred lifetimes to read them?”

    The alternatives are:
    1. Decide which books you will read in your lifetime and download them all at once
    2. No change

  6. Speed,

    But unless you are happy to be locked into your initial choice, you may wish to be able to download other books at will. It would be nice to have the entire Library of Congress and all the world’s kitchen sinks at your fingertips — that I agree with! But the initial download time might be prohibitive. The advances in storage capacity seem always a step ahead of advances in wired or wireless communication speeds. (There is a saying somewhere about the bandwidth capacity of a tractor trailer full of CDs greatly exceeding that of the best wired connection: the problem is the transmission lag!)

  7. I can download far more than I can read. Download of an Amazon book directly to the Kindle is a 15 second affair, or less.

    The scheme of having in your “possession” books which can be unlocked by a key is similar to the scheme used by navigational software companies which supplied all of the charts available with the software but with “locks.” When you wanted the coast of Maine, you’d call them with a credit-card number and give them an encryption code which would appear on your computer screen in association with that set of charts. They would then issue a key for that set which you would enter on your computer and then have the use of these charts. The key would not work on anyone else’s machine.

    The cost of all the charts on the CDs could run into the thousands of dollars, so better to buy what you were actually going to use.

    A friend has noticed that the number of books which might be read in the life remaining to a 68 year old is finite and likely to be coming down to a knowable quantity – or at least one that might be estimated.

    She’s now locked up with the apprehension that she will choose badly.

  8. Ah! At last I can have my own Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in my Kindle. Will it display, “Don’t Panic!” when I turn in on? Every scrap of recorded knowledge in human history available on one device. Fantastic! Douglas Adams’ “Guide” will take its place alongside Dick Tracey’s wrist radio, and the Star Trek communicator. Modern day devices continue to spring from science fiction and popular cartoons.

    As far as the Amazon key model goes, I think it is workable, as would be the O’Reilly publishing model of Safari Books Online. Amazon could just charge $20 or $30 per month to let people read all they wanted from any number of books they wanted. Sounds good to me.

    Mr Briggs, I just bought a Kindle and must say that your review was correct. The device does as advertised. but I get a feeling of cheap when I use it. The buttons feel flimsy, and the 5-way button is destined to be scraped clean of paint by my finger nails. It is too small for my fingers.

  9. Matt,

    Like Apple wanting to sell DRM-free music on iTunes (and eventually doing it in 2007ish), I get the feeling that Bezos has no problem with DRM-free books.

    Like most people, however, you have chosen to blame the content seller. It’s not the seller you should blame, though. It’s the rights holders. The publishers are consistently in favor of more and more DRM schemes. I’d be less concerned with what Bezos has to say, and far more concerned with what Markus Dohle of Random House thinks. Given that content rights holders are terrified to death of new sales channels in general, I get the feeling that you’d not get too far.

  10. Bob,
    I bought the second Kindle model a 14 months ago. It’s been used almost every night for an hour or so since then and shows no signs of wear. The battery seems to be holding up well although I seldom leave the wireless function on. It sounds like they cut too many corners on the least expensive model. Not good.

    john

  11. IIRC, Adobe sells (or once sold) CDs of its fonts with many “free” fonts then sells unlock codes for the rest of the fonts on the CDs.

  12. The nanodots sound interesting. If we can indeed store that much data on such a small device, I wouldn’t mind having the book/key scheme as described, however I see a number of problems with it.

    1) New books need to be downloaded anyway, so why go through the key scheme if the average reader wants the latest books rather than 10-20-70+ year old work?

    2) Keys have not inherent attribute that makes them more resell-able than the books themselves. If the key is to work on any device for that book, then the key could easily be pirated.

    2a) If the key is centrally maintained by the publisher (or licensee) then it can also be revoked by the same and must be if transfers are to occur. This would also require that a device connect to the Internet regularly to ensure its keys are still valid.

    3) If books are already on the device/memory, albeit encrypted or otherwise DRM-ed, then piracy is much easier. You simply have someone crack the “key” and distribute, no original purchase necessary. One could devise a program that automatically cracked these keys and distribute that to any hopeful pirate who instantly gets thousands of books for free.

    4) Even if a strong encryption scheme were used, keys that are transferable would necessarily weaken the scheme allowing for 3 to occur (eventually). Fixing 3, would result in a new round of keys which would result in a new round of “editions” of the various works and people would have to buy the “upgrade” to continue legal use of a working copy.

    I don’t see why the books themselves aren’t transferable such that we’d want a key system. If these publishers/licensees have a list of purchases per user/device can’t they use that to allow a transfer? As a software guy, I don’t see what’s so hard about that… Other than convincing powerful people it’s a good idea.

  13. Just got a Cruz reader for Christmas and already there is a problem – a ton of books that are free, mostly classics. I’m catching up on some I missed, but seriously, there is a lot of free (worthwhile) stuff out there. You get a reader and then promptly buy nothing for at least a while and maybe longer…Hmmm….

  14. What Bobman wrote! Anyway, I got a nook for Christmas and was very excited about it. Some of that excitement left me when I went to B&N.com only to discover that the first ebooks I wanted to download were actually more expensive than paper copies; about a dollar more in most cases. Even though I consider myself a TrueCapitalist, this made me angry enough to investigate the various cracking methods already out there. It never went past the investigation stage for me, but I see that market greatly expanding!

    But I got to looking around a bit more and discovered that for less than a c-note, I could download more of the classics of literature than I’d ever have time to read. As just one example, 50 Classic Books: Volume One goes for $3. You’ll never find that deal at a yard sale. And it seems a very fair price for both the person that put it together and the brokerage services B&N provides. On the other hand, even though the list of books in that example is quite impressive, it’s mere presence there at the price listed makes it unlikely I’ll soon buy it.

    In short, it really doesn’t matter where the book exists before I read it. I’m content to allow it to reside strictly on the B&N servers until such time as I get a round toit. That I can’t sell it to someone else after I’ve bought it doesn’t really bother me either. I can loan it to them; B&N provides that brokerage services for free, though admittedly, I don’t really know yet how that works.

  15. liamascorcaigh says:
    1 January 2011 at 1:38 pm

    In the Library of Babel on one of the levels in one of the hexagons on one of the shelves is one book in which one reads “Borges was one weird old coot”.
    —————

    That’s a given. A much more stimulating exercise would be to calculate, for example, how many times that particular sentence appears in that library. I have no idea how to even begin to calculate that.

    How many books are totally blank? That seems easy: exactly one book.
    How many books contain just one letter? I don’t know.
    How many books are in the library? That would be the number of characters (25) to the power of the number of characters that fit in each book, assuming a monospaced font.

    There are lots of games you can play with that library. How many versions of your life does it contain?

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