If Edison had published ebooks

The Harvard Business Review November magazine includes an article on clean tech that opens with a story about Thomas Edison. It explains how technology does not replace technology – systems replace systems.

Edison … realized that the technology he envisioned—no matter how innovative—couldn’t by itself sweep aside the kerosene-based lighting industry. Instead of asking how he could solve the technical problem of inventing a lightbulb, Edison asked how he could get consumers to switch from kerosene to electricity. He understood that despite the many advantages of electric light, it would replace kerosene only if it had its own, economically competitive network.

So, while scores of people worldwide worked on inventing a lightbulb, Edison conceived a fully operational system. His technical platform included generators, meters, transmission lines, and substations, and he mapped out both how they would interact technically and how they would combine in a profitable business.

That is, of course, exactly what the publishing industry needs for ebooks. And many large companies are certainly trying to get such systems right. In its own monopoly-ridden way, Amazon has done this well, setting high standards for a simple, integrated acquisition-to-reading system.

Edison first rolled out his system in Lower Manhattan, where buildings were close together and potential investors lived and worked. If it was going to work anywhere, it was going to work there, and be a model for expansion elsewhere.

The Kindle, and its US market, is that Lower Manhattan to the rest of the world, where digital publishing in many forms will enable massive leaps forward for the sharing and selling of information. iBooks may be another. They are precursors to a much greater revolution, perhaps as fundamental as electrification itself; and for all our grumbling about their flaws, we’re lucky to have them.

(Thanks to Michelle for the HBR article.)

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