Things may be different in the Middle East but since the launch of Apple's iPad the phrase "this is a Gutenberg moment" (or, for Gutenberg-sceptics "this is not as much of a Gutenberg moment as some people might think") has become part of common parlance in New York.
The phrase refers to Johannes Gutenberg's rollout of the first printing press in the 1450s. Fortunately, the online magazine Slate's business and finance section, The Big Money, organised a conference recently where participants could make up their own minds about the future of the publishing industry in the tablet age. The bigwigs of publishing were out in force, which in itself was a bit disconcerting. The first speaker was Don Graham, the 65-year-old chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post. He is an avid fan of Amazon's e-reader, the Kindle, and has had one since it first came out in 2007. He extols its virtues: he can read The Post even when he's in Phoenix, Arizona and he can read any book on it wherever he is: it is, in effect, a portable library. The appeal for expatriates is obvious: you no longer have to wait to get home to buy the books you want, or wait weeks for parcels of books to arrive by post: you can read anything you want to, instantly, wherever you are. And out-of-print books are suddenly not only available but often, if they're more than 75 years old and out of copyright, free. "You get great access on Kindle," Mr Graham points out. "Better than any bookstore."
He also alerted the audience to another advantage of digital reading, which is that "it neatly solves the problem every reader knows about " I had no idea what he was going to say next but it turns out he was talking about type size. Older readers, who aren't trendy or hip or the target of major marketing efforts, need large type size and tablets can solve that problem simply and elegantly. No longer do you have to borrow books from the special large-print section of the local library: you can read any text on your tablet in as large or small a font as you want. It was an interesting insight into who the target audience of tablets and e-readers should be because another thing about the elderly Mr Graham is he gives the distinct impression that he actually reads. Which is more than I can say for many much younger tech geeks, who think anything worth saying can be conveyed in a Tweet or a Facebook post.
I've owned an iPad since they came out in the US in April and I would add that it's also great for work: I no longer have to flick through books, looking for the section that's relevant to whatever I'm researching. The search function will find it for me instantly. That could have saved me a lot of time when I was writing essays back at university. On the downside, it's not great taking a piece of equipment I've paid US$700 (Dh2,571) for down to the pool. It's also hard to see the screen outside in the sunshine, which is just the place where many people want to relax and read.
So perhaps books won't change all that much. But one or two things did become clear from listening to people talk at the conference. First, as Sarah Rotman Epps, a very convincing analyst at Forrester Research pointed out, by 2015, desktop PCs will still be the single most used device. The number of tablets is projected to go up as well but in five years there are still unlikely to be as many in use as there are smartphones. But even if they're not taking over the world, they have nonetheless fundamentally changed our approach, in particular by establishing the centrality of applications (apps) as a way of getting information. So far, apps have been mainly used on iPhones and iPads but their use is already spreading back to PCs. The US bookstore Barnes and Noble has seen more than a million downloads of its e-reader app on to ordinary computers.
"The future is app-centric and multi-platform," Ms Rotman Epps predicted. "We don't see any single device winning out." Which creates a problem for book publishers, newspapers and other media companies in terms of planning. "When I talk to clients I get a lot of comments like 'how is it going to be profitable for us to develop something that is going to have, in itself, very little adoption?' And there is no easy answer," she said. "But that is the future. You have to figure out how to make it work. Each platform will garner, potentially, a small amount of readers."
Which might explain why all the publishing bigwigs, including Carolyn Reidy, the president and chief executive of Simon and Schuster, and Brian Murray, the president and chief executive of HarperCollins, in spite of all their talk about how exciting things are for them, gave the impression of being distinctly nervous. You could pour a tonne of money into developing a certain product for a certain device and it can come to nothing. There was a particularly sad panel featuring makers of e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook and the Sony Reader. Why, asked Farhad Manjoo, the Slate technology columnist who was interviewing them, would anyone buy an e-reader when you could buy an iPad or tablet on which you can not only read but do a lot of other things besides?
Ms Epps predicted e-readers might survive as cheap devices, like the DVD players people take on to planes. So perhaps all the money Amazon spent on the Kindle won't go directly down the drain. But who knows, really, what's going to happen? At the end of the conference, chief executives guessed how many more e-books would be sold than normal books within five years. Mr Murray estimated as much as 40 to 50 per cent. "I keep revising up," he said. Ms Reidy said she'd thought 25 per cent but was also revising up, although perhaps not quite to 40 per cent. Needless to say, everyone seemed slightly in awe of the rate of change.
Much depends on how millions of people around the world behave and how they will choose to read in future. And that's something they probably don't even know themselves just yet. One thing is for sure, though: technology is a great leveller. The five men presenting their nifty applications in a panel entitled Meet the Apps had a certain swagger about them, as did Tom Turvey, a director at Google, which also plans to start selling e-books later this year. But the publishers who once controlled the gate to writers' fame and fortune seemed as clueless as anyone else in the room.