E-textbooks have been slow to catch on, partly because textbook publishers have a multi-billion dollar industry to protect and partly because devices suitable for accessing them either lacked functionality or weren't ubiquitous enough to be of benefit to students. However, if CES, a show by its very name focused on the consumer space rather than education or business, has shown us anything, it's that there are more than enough interesting devices available to let e-textbooks take off.
While it's true that first-generation e-readers and their e-ink displays made for easy reading of text-heavy books, the latest generation of devices and software seem happy to sacrifice that particular advantage for drastically increased functionality. As PCWorld notes,
Are these devices truly e-readers? The whole point of electronic paper-based e-readers is that the display, which doesn't use a backlight, mimics the look of physical paper and is easier on the eyes than a bright, backlit LCD. I saw many LCD "e-readers" at the show, but none had those same qualities.
I don't care if they're not e-readers. I want a cheaper, smarter, better way to get pounds of books into a single device that can meet a variety of educational needs. I want software like Blio displaying interactive textbooks that link to additional web resources, videos, and other useful online tools. No e-ink? I don't think too many students (or administrators) will mind if they can cut textbook costs, access their books easily, and simply have their books live up to the 21st Century expectation of interactivity.
But here's the problem. CES gave us software, tablets, better netbooks, cheaper notebooks, "slates", and plenty of other ways to view and interact with a new generation of books. Right now, though, the books just aren't there. I didn't hear any announcements from Pearson or other major publishers about their new partnerships with Kurzweil and Microsoft to deliver great content with smart DRM on a Windows 7 slate. I didn't hear about the MSI/Houghton-Mifflin booth announcing a vast library of textbooks that had been ported to their new dual-screen color LCD e-book.
I'm sincerely hoping that the expression "Build it and they will come" applies here. Because the devices have been built. But if all I want to do is read the next installment of Twilight, I have a Kindle and a Sony Reader for that. If I want to be able to check off "EPUB" when our district is ordering new textbooks, I'm going to need some buy-in very soon from the publishers.