How eTexts Will Become the “Killer App” of the Computer Revolution by Michael Hart

by Michael S. Hart, Founder of Project Gutenberg

Electronic text has been with us virtually a long as the Internet and has been growing at the same rate, a rate that will soon make an impression on the average person, especially young people, and those involved in education, reading, and research.

10 years ago, in 1991, there were 18 eText/eBook files available, free for the taking, as the Internet was preparing to take off.

Today there are about 18,000 listed in just one index, called The Internet Public Library and all are free for the taking.

Without any increase in the rate of growth due to the advances we certainly expect over the next 10 years that number will increase to 18,000,000 … eventually covering virtually every work in the public domain.

This will eventually become the primary driving force in a reason to buy computers … who wouldn’t consider it worthwhile to buy a collection of 18,000,000 titles for $1,000 in a box that fits any desk, on top or underneath, or even in laptop computers.

Can this be true, you might ask?

The average 300 page novel uses only 1 megabyte in plain eText!!!

Thus the 18,000 such books listed today would take 18 gigabytes–at costs of much less than $100 … which can buy 40 gigabytes of drive today. Of course, most of the materials listed in Internet Public Library catalgues are well under 1 megabyte in size, so it is actually much cheaper.

10 years ago most people were using 40 MEGAbyte drives which cost $1500 when they were originally introduced, and Moore’s Law seems to barely be holding drive size in check, so we already see drive systems containing terabytes in computers costing under $10,000–which will be antiques in only a couple years. In fact drives of 100M have already fallen to under $300 as I proofread this, so an extra terabyte of space could be added to a $1,000 computer for a total of now under $5,000.

10 years from now, according to the current rate of drive prices, 40 terabyte systems will be around the various price range listed above, and will hopefully be continuing to fall. Our plan is for the Project Gutenberg collection to continue to fit approximately within 10% of the current drive standard.

These eTexts can be improved literally overnight as readers email in reports of typographical errors that would never ever be fixed in paper editions. Think of the billions of hours students spend correcting errors in their textbooks when school starts each year of the 10-20 years we expect them to spend in school.

How much is a billion student hours worth?

Enough to promote eText?

The first country to create an educational system based on eTexts will enjoy a huge advantage while other countries scramble to get a comparable system going … while some students are researching millions of online books, taking copious notes that are both fast and accurate, and easily footnoted, while others continue to file endless stacks of 3x5 notecards the same way it was done in 1900.

Remember the 18,000,000 books that will be easily available?

Look up the largest library collections in the world, and you may be amazed at just where a collection of 18,000,000 books would be ranked, even among the best city, university and national library collections in the world. Right now the only way to get your kid access to 18,000,000 books is to send them to a university with a tuition of over $25,000 per year. …

And the eTexts are never checked out when you need them, never in for rebinding, never sitting on a cart waiting to be reshelved or reshelved in the wrong location. Their pages are never missing–they are never lost or stolen–and the library is never closed.

Meanwhile, the cost to maintain such a library is vanishingly low … did you know the costs to put a book on the shelf of average add up to nearly $100 … and that average book is checked out an average of only 6 times??? The cost of the shelving alone is $3, for a book that only takes 1 inch.

The average college student goes through hundreds of pounds of an assortment of textbooks, and you don’t want to know the price/lb, I assure you. Looking up a quotation in these books can be a big task, energy better spent between the ears, rather than lugging a hundred pounds of books home each year, and paging through 1,000s of pages seeking knowledge. …

Knowledge doesn’t come from climbing up and down marble stairs to hunt for books in the dozen or so libraries of large universities or wading through the stacks looking for that obscure volume your bibliography absolutely requires. …

With an electronic library the time spent searching, researching, and copying materials could literally be reduced by 90%. …

Students used to spend 90% of their hours on research papers in a physical search for the data they needed, and only 10% in writing the actual paper … not a good ratio of research to thinking.

With electronic libraries this could be easily reversed to 90% on thinking and only 10% doing the research … and I think that may be a conservative estimate.

This should allow some combination of 10 times more research or a research paper that is 10 times better … either way, when these new papers enter the electronic library, a feedback loop is going to take place, because not only will the libraries have more data that is easier to find and use, but they will actually contain an assortment of newer and better data than we could have expected a similar population of scholars to produce with paper libraries.

So, every computer could easily contain as many books as in major university libraries, with remote access to as many more. …

For these reasons and more, eText is going to be the “killer app,” the Fountain of Youth, as it were, for the computer industry.

As the average computer falls further and further below $1,000, a buyer becomes more and more likely to buy such a computer simply, even completely, to hold a library that will soon reach 20,000 of the books many people value as the most important in the world.

Project Gutenberg was the first creator of eTexts on the Internet and has moved from producing about 10 titles in the year ending a decade ago to over 1,000 titles this year.

With your help we can continue this growth rate and produce about 100,000 eTexts per year 10 years from today.

There isn’t a better investment you could make in Microsoft or in the Seattle-Tacoma area, Washington State, or even the country or the world, than to invest in making Project Gutenberg eTexts.

So get out your favorite checkbook … !