The future of publishing technology

What will we read in 2020? How will we read it? And what about digital copyrights? A keynote session at Seybold San Francisco 2000 explored these themes

While most trade-show keynote sessions tend to depict the latest technological advances in glorious colour and snappy PowerPoint presentations, Wednesday's speeches at Seybold San Francisco 2000 focused on where publishing technology will be 20 years from now.

It was a refreshing and humbling experience.

Refreshing because it's rare to hear speakers of the calibre assembled here: John Gage, chief researcher at Sun Microsystems; John Seely Brown, director of Xerox's legendary Palo Alto Research Centre; Adobe Systems chairman and chief executive John Warnock; and Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future.

Humbling because the sort of vision deployed by these speakers makes you realise just how small a molehill most of the events are that make headlines in this industry.

The wittily moderated session focused on a few key issues for the future of publishing: what sort of devices will we be reading about? What sort of content will we read, and what sort of user interface will we employ to interact with devices? Finally, how will copyright issues be resolved?

One of the answers to the first question is of course digital paper, which should hit the market within three or four years. But, as Sun's Gage pointed out, once this sort of technology becomes widespread, every surface, floor, wall, curtain -- even clothes -- can carry information, and we can only guess how this capacity will be used.

Adobe's Warnock insisted that printed paper will be an important carrier of information for a long time to come. Every new media, he said, creates new opportunities and new forms of content, and at the end of the day yields unique ways of communicating that can't be replicated in other media. However, these innovations don't replace the earlier media, either.

And what about the user interface of the future? Are we going to replace text with images or gestures? Xerox PARC's Brown predicted a future of "embodied virtuality" where content and media are woven together in ways we do not yet envisage, such as sonic books that generate varying sounds when you touch different parts of a picture, for instance, or surfing tables that let you dive into an unlimited space of information.

To these lofty and fascinating observations, the Institute for the Future's Saffo offered a more down-to-earth view: wherever we move, it's still entertainment that will drive the production of content.

The final question of the session concerned copyrighting, which, in the light of Napster, is preoccupying many minds in the publishing universe. Saffo predicted a phase of "creative destruction": whether you mentally underline the word "destruction" or "creative" largely depends on your age, he said, but these seemingly anarchic forces contribute to cultural evolution and are as necessary as they are unavoidable.

While some may take issue with the last point, it provided an interesting perspective on an industry that has come to regard perspective as a dying art form in the Internet age.

Andreas Pfeiffer is an industry analyst and editor in chief of the Pfeiffer Report on Emerging Trends and Technologies.

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