Monday, January 10, 2011

Learning without Frontiers - Theodore Gray, Co-founder, Wolfram Research

Is the world ready for real electronic books?

Theodore published his first book in print and electronic form - but the world wasn't ready. People did not want to read books on a big, clunky PC. Distribution was also tricky. So, he moved into application development. He also developed a web page to support teaching of Calculus, Calculus and Mathematica, but found it had minimal impact on classroom teaching.

Described how he was sidetracked by reading a book by Oliver Sachs where he talked about a periodic table and Theodore thought he meant an actual table... so he built one! He migrated the physical table to the web but realised that websites don't make money so he developed the site into a print book.

Then came the iPad... They developed the iPad version of the book and realised that here was a platform that was ideal for electronic books and a market that would allow authors/publishers to make a living from it. Wants to see eBooks that are more than pdf versions of print books. Theodore thinks you need three sets of people to create effective eBooks:
  1. Authors
  2. Software developers
  3. Media (TV/film) producers
Traditional publishers may understand the value of authors but see software as something you buy for a one off cost. Media people may not understand the need for authors and software developers need to talk to media people. A successful ePublishing company will need to bring the three people together. A successful eBook should allow you to "curl up with it" like a paper book, be imersed in it like TV or film and allow interaction like a game/program.

"In the very near future, no one will pay for textbooks". Textbooks have priced themselves out of the market - "it is cheaper to buy an iPad than a semester's worth of textbooks. In general professors would be happy to provide learning material for free but don't know how to get them printed - so publishers step into the middle of the process and hike the cost. Theodore thinks therefore that people will not pay for textbooks but will pay for enrichment material.

Presentation finished with a Japanese version of Tom Lehrer's Elements Song. Brilliant!

Q: How do you lend people an electronic book?

The days of textbooks are numbered but not print books in general. You can't gift wrap a gift code! But the model works for ephemeral things: "If you don't have a parrot, there is no point in subscribing to a print newspaper."

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