Is publishing about to have an iPod moment?
Think back a decade to the year 2000 - and the state of the music industry then. The first MP3 players were already on sale, but were only in the hands of early-adopting gadget fans. The music industry was selling its products exclusively through shops or mail-order, and while Napster was making waves, the file-sharing revolution which was to transform the industry - for better or worse according to your tastes - was no more than a distant rumble. Then the following year iTunes was launched, soon to be followed by the iPod - and Apple was well on its way to becoming the biggest noise in digital music.
A decade on, and 2010 is supposed to be the year that publishing's digital revolution really gathers pace. There is now a wide range of e-readers on the market - in the UK devices like the Sony Reader, the Cool-er, and Amazon's Kindle are all making it relatively easy to download and read e-books.
On Monday I was involved in a discussion about the prospects for e-readers on Radio 5 Live's Richard Bacon programme. We agreed that they were becoming very attractive options for keen bookworms, especially those that travel a lot, though there were a few barriers to be cleared before they really took off. We've yet to see a really compelling device that will excite people who aren't early adopters, there's no colour yet on e-reader screens, e-books are still too expensive - and there are still too many different formats which mean for instance that if I buy a book for an Amazon Kindle I can't then read it on a Sony Reader.
Just minutes after we ended our discussion, I received an e-mail from Apple, inviting me to an event in San Francisco next week. As ever it was short on detail, but the message "Come see our latest creation", with an Apple logo imprinted on Jackson Pollockesque splodges of colour suggests one thing - a colour screen device which will give users instant access to books, magazines, and possibly video content.
So the publishing world is agog and asking itself whether the arrival of the iSlate - if that's what it is - will do to the printed word what the iPod did to recorded music. There's already talk of major newspaper groups turning up at the presentation in San Francisco next week, and no doubt big publishers will be trying to get a seat too.
But I'm not sure they should really be quite as excited - or fearful - as they appear to be. Certainly, Apple has a great track record in producing compelling devices that take existing technology - MP3 players, smartphones - and bring them to a wider public. But music was always meant to be digital and portable - we may all have enjoyed the sleeve notes on an LP but they weren't essential to what arrived in our ears.
Books, however, are in techspeak a better "form factor" than CDs or records ever were. They are portable, they need no batteries, and they can be lent to a friend far more easily than you can pass on a Kindle edition of that latest thriller. So no, I don't think publishing is going to experience an iPod moment - e-readers will gain a wider audience but our bookshelves aren't going the way of our CD racks. Still, if I were an executive at Amazon, Sony or any of the other existing e-reader players, I would be blocking out next Wednesday in my diary and arranging a company meeting for the following morning.
Update 13:00: As someone has swiftly pointed out, iTunes was launched in 2001, some months before the iPod was unveiled. It was the iTunes store that made Apple the biggest player in legal downloads, and that was launched in 2003. Thanks for the instant fact-checking!