Dispatches > The Buzz

Making books obsolete?

Information media come and go by the month, but libraries may go the way of Divx

Issue: "Top 40 Books," July 3, 1999

Half of America is online
It's official: The Internet is now mass market. A Nielsen survey reports that the number of people over 16 years old in the United States and Canada using the Internet is up to 92 million. That means the Net is about where TV was when I Love Lucy came on the air. And the Internet will slink its way into more areas of life than ABC, CBS, and NBC ever invaded. According to the survey, 72 million people use the Internet from home, while 46 million use it from work, and 28 million surf from school. The rest check out the Net through friends or libraries or the occasional Kinko's. What makes online developers so happy is that more and more surfers get on the web and spend beaucoup bucks. Right now, most of what is bought in the great online shopping mall are computers and media such as books, CDs, and videos. "Nearly half of North America uses the Internet," said Mark Resch, executive vice president at CommerceNet, which commissioned the study. But what happens when the other half comes by? These people will be less sophisticated, less affluent, and less geeky than their predecessors. What people will see on the Net in 10 years will be different from the chat rooms and webpages of today. Online connections are getting ever faster, though nothing will ever be fast enough to keep up with demand. Cable TV and phone service will soon be merged so that everything comes from one jack in the wall. Unlike TV, which took people away from their neighborhoods and toward the ersatz community around Seinfeld and Home Improvement, the Net offers people anything they want anytime from anywhere. That means a guy in Iowa might have more in common with people hundreds of miles away than the people on his block. It also may someday kill off his local shopping mall. Netscape and homepages were just the beginning. The real earthquake is to come. The death of a technology
Want a movie rental you never have to return? This was the concept behind Divx, one of the most disastrous high-tech concepts ever released. The Divx laserdisc format, which stands for Digital Video Express, quickly died in a field where the Digital Video Disc (DVD) was exploding. Divx users bought a specially modified DVD player that cost about $100 more than a typical DVD player. When you picked up your disk for about $4.50, you could watch the movie anytime you wanted. When the movie started playing, however, a 48-hour timer kicked in. After two days, seeing the film again cost another $3.25. For more money, a disc could be upgraded to the "Divx Silver" format with no more fees. In the meantime, the alternative format of DVD, which offered movies on a CD that could be played on either TV screens or computer monitors, was exploding. U.S. sales nearly quintupled to about 1 million units in the first five months of this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association. At Circuit City's stores, one of the few places to get Divx, only about a quarter of the DVD players they sold could run Divx. The Divx idea was ingenious on paper, but disastrous in reality. Video buffs hated the format from the start and fought it with passion. The payment scheme was called an invasion of privacy. They complained that it offered fewer features, less quality, and gave Divx a shot at killing off video rental stores. Columbia TriStar and Time Warner never released movies for Divx, and most stores didn't carry the format. Now the format is dead and Divx's owners are offering refunds, while DVD keeps growing. Viewers get better picture and sound quality on a DVD disc, and they can jump from scene to scene in it like a CD. Some disc players also have parental locks for those who want to keep their kids away from R-rated movies. And soon every new computer will come with a DVD drive. The technology drives audiences away from their VCRs (and the record button that goes with it). The death of libraries?
The latest technology may close down your local library. British-born Yale historian Jonathan Denton Spence says that the traditional book collections could be going away-for better or for worse. "Archives are swiftly moving to selective computer storage and retrieval, so they can be scanned from afar, and the relevant passages downloaded by the interested researcher," he said. This opens the doors to easy access and less need for a librarian. The Library of Congress itself is getting into the game, putting many documents-including the letters of George Washington-on the Net. As Mr. Spence noted, the ever broader scope of published materials makes libraries ever more massive, expensive, and difficult. "Though books may still be cherished, as we are constantly told, more and more are being shipped out of jammed libraries and stored in temperature-controlled environments to which readers are denied access, so that browsing becomes a thing of the past," Spence said. He said that threats to libraries have existed for decades, even before the invention of the microchip. In the past, air travel and telephones were thought to cut into the library's business. Today, the library has an uneasy existence. Research libraries with massive selections are sometimes available to faculty, specialists, or the college students who never use them. Public libraries are often storehouses of local interest materials, reference books for kids with term papers, and miscellaneous titles for people who won't pay money for the same books down the street at Waldenbooks. Solid Christian books-when they appear like truffles in the mud of American publishing-are rarely carried in libraries, unless they are published by an academic press, and then they are only available in often inaccessible university libraries. Yet the threat to libraries has shown a scary scenario that the hype around Amazon.com has hidden: that reading itself may become a dying art. People today often do not like books and will only read if they have no other choice. Book readers are already becoming something of an elite. With more and more text going on screens or in electronic books, readers could find themselves as much of a niche market as classical music buffs.

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