The one thing we know for sure about state-of-the-art ebook readers is that a few years down the line they'll have the musty antique feel of VHS, Betamax, punched computer cards or wax phonograph cylinders. What comes after the Kindle and Nook?
Cyberpunk fans would love to think that the next big thing must be direct neural interfacing. The Langford Algorithmic Predictometer isn't quite sure what will be the most fashionable location for a skull-mounted USB port; perhaps we'll all have inbuilt WiFi instead. By feeding data straight into the optic nerve and bypassing all that yucky eyeball jelly, ebooks will display with perfect clarity.
Of course there could be snags. Spammers will be keen to use the same neural distribution channels, and future readers careering along the fast lane of a motorway will need efficient pop-up blockers to screen out all those irresistible deathbed offers from wealthy yet curiously ungrammatical Nigerians.
Worse, will Amazon's famous trick of remotely deleting our Kindle books extend to internal storage inside the head? I foresee a huge court action when, say, a textbook copyright problem leads to a bunch of graduates' entire university education being wiped by an Amazon glitch, leaving the victims with nothing but colossal student debts and – perhaps for the first time in their lives – a completely open mind.
The possibilities for invasive ads are also exciting. Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth came close in The Space Merchants, their 1952 SF satire where advertising agencies almost dominate the world:
"They listened to the safety cranks and stopped us from projecting our messages on aircar windows – but we bounced back. Lab tells me ... that soon we'll be testing a system that projects directly on the retina of the eye." Or directly into the brain!
All this cyberspace stuff is so 1980s, though. How about biological vectors for publishing? In this version of the future, books could be encoded into the vast DNA storage capacity of a bacterium (giving b-books) or a virus (v-books). Swallow the equivalent of one of those education pills found in early SF, and the genetically engineered biomechanism will painlessly instal its literary payload into your memory cells. This way, lazy readers can avoid all the slog of actually reading classic works like Moby-Dick, Dune, The Lord of the Rings or those SFX editorials. [Crawler – Ed.] Instead, by popping a single pill, you pass effortlessly into a state of having read them.
The danger here will lie in the relentless efforts of self-publishers who'll try to increase the buzz about their work by deliberately infecting people with promotional freebies of their awful prose. Already they're a constant background noise in online communities like Facebook ("Please buy my book! Come to my launch event! Like my Page! Admire my full-frontal naked greed!"). Now imagine such shameless folk entering into an unholy alliance with back-street biolabs. The Langford Predictometer prophesies a norovirus self-publishing vector which can transmit its book payload to new victims, not only by touch but across ten-foot gaps via the established mechanism of projectile vomiting. This will be known as Puke-on-Demand publishing.
Or maybe in 2050 we'll be reading SFX on our scrotties, the cutting-edge technotoys that haven't yet been invented....
What goes around, comes around. There's a 1968 Isaac Asimov story called "The Holmes-Ginsbook Device", set in a world of advanced digital reading technology. The title's two innovators devise an ingenious system of printing page images and assembling them into a kind of codex, a physical entity that needs only hands and eyes to read. Of course the inventors are unfairly forgotten when the device bearing their names is shortened by popular usage to "book". Oh, sorry, was that a spoiler?
David Langford, inspired by contemplation of toilet paper, has invented a visionary p-book called a "scroll".