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Apple iPhone implications for scholarly communications

The launch of the Apple iPhone may be a watershed for a number of industries, including scholarly communications. The dust has not yet settled, and won't for a while, on all the implications of the new product, as even a casual investigation of the blogosphere will demonstrate, but for those who, like myself, are principally concerned with intellectually serious text-based media, there is the very real possibility that the iPhone is the industry's long-awaited ebook reader.

My own non-radical view has long been that ebooks would eventually supplant print. How soon? Ebooks could become like audiobooks, perhaps 6-8% of the total book market in 3-5 years. Apple may accelerate that, but it won't slow it down. Thus, publishers (and there are not a few) who believe that free online posting of texts can drive sales of hardcopy are exploiting a short-term marketing opportunity. Nothing wrong with this, but no one should confuse free online text (aka Open Access) with a strategy.

The more intriguing issue presented by Apple is how the company could take a dominant, if not controlling, position in this evolving communications ecosystem. Widespread use of the iPhone (Apple's iPhone, that is, not Cisco's) could lead to more and more ebooks, but Apple's content management system, unfortunately named iTunes, may be the integrative service that binds users--and profits--to Apple. A user could use the iPhone as a phone and, since it is built on the GSM standard, could switch from one GSM carrier to carrier without changing phones (common in Europe). A user could also purchase another GSM phone, which has been tarted up to resemble the iPhone. But a user is likely to store all his or her contacts, music, professional data, photos, and, yes, ebooks on iTunes, locking that user into Apple's gravitational field.

This is how the DOS (now Windows) monopoly got started, through the ingenious exploitation of network effects. Of course, Jobs lost that battle to Gates the first time around. Is he likely to lose twice?

As members of the academic community ponder the future of scholarly communications--the role of Elsevier, the potential of Open Access, the ubiquity of Google--they may like to add to the list of possbilities that iTunes is The New Academic Library 1.0.

Joe Esposito