eBooks: Episode 6 of Setapp’s original Ahead of Its Time Podcast

17 min read

Welcome to the sixth episode of Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future.

First there was print press, then eBooks, and now — bitbooks? In this episode, Greg Newby and Manolis Keladis walk us through the most exciting moments of book evolution.

Greg takes us back to 1971, the year when Michael Hart founded the first electronic library, Project Gutenberg. What did it have to do with the 4th of July celebration and could it be that by inventing eBooks Hart also invented spam? From Hart’s digitalized reading we move into the future — to Manolis’ bitbook, a hybrid book technology that uses Bluetooth to embed digital content into printed books. Chances are it’s the next big thing, so let’s stay in the know. 


Show notes:


Julia Furlan (00:03):

There's something about a great story. It has a profound impact on us. We carry it with us like an old friend living in our imagination. Great stories take us anywhere in space and time. Some transport us to the distant future and others take us back in time thousands of years.

Manolis Kelaidis (00:24):

They have to do with the place I come from, Greece. The stories that I was reading as a kid had to do with ancient Greek myths and ancient Greek history and I was fascinated with all these characters.

Julia Furlan (00:36):

For Manolis Kelaidis books were a gateway to his history and heritage. As a young boy, growing up in Greece, Manolis saw himself in those mythological heroes, or perhaps he saw something he aspired to become. At our core, humans are storytellers and books are one of the oldest technologies we use to document and preserve our stories, stories that help us make sense of the world and better understand our place in it.

Manolis Kelaidis (01:06):

Books are everywhere. One of the most beloved products or gifts everywhere in the world is transnational. It's irrelevant of religion, gender, age group, culture, whatever. So you can find it everywhere. So it was a challenge for me to see what can I do with books basically as a industrial designer.

Julia Furlan (01:25):

But the printed book has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. So Manolis began to wonder if books, and the way they tell stories, weren't ripe for a makeover. By infusing the printed page with conductive ink wirelessly connected to digital devices, Manolis set out to change the experience of reading, not by replacing the printed book, but by using technology to augment it. He calls his invention the bitbook. What he didn't imagine was how his journey would take on the epic struggles, the twists and setbacks of his beloved Greek myths. But Manolis didn't take direct inspiration from his ancient heroes like Odysseus or Hercules or Achilles. One inspiration would be the rise of the electronic book, or the eBook, which was first created in 1971 when a student named Michael Hart founded Project Gutenberg and set out to digitize and share humanity's great works of literature.

Manolis Kelaidis (02:26):

His project is, in a way, idealistic. His whole idea is to disseminate this knowledge everywhere to everybody freely. The internet didn't exist in a widely fashion. Digital device didn't exist where people could get those digital files and read those Project Gutenberg books, what he thought was pioneering for its time, definitely.

Julia Furlan (02:53):

In their own way, Manolis Kelaidis, and Michael Hart, each set out to change the way we experience books. And each would struggle for years to realize their vision, and their stories are page turners themselves.

Julia Furlan (03:18):

I'm Julia Furlan, and this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp, a show about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. Setapp's versatile app subscription service empowers you to step into a new era of productivity.

Greg Newby (03:41):

So if you scroll down a little bit on the main page, you'll see there's a link to the Top 100, which I need to find here. But if I click on the first link there, I get to the top 100 eBooks yesterday. So number one from yesterday is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Number two-

Julia Furlan (03:58):

This is Greg Newby. He's the chair and director of Project Gutenberg and a close friend of its founder, Michael Hart, the man who invented the eBook.

Greg Newby (04:06):

... Sherlock Holmes by author Conan Doyle, and then number five is The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. Now The Great Gatsby was copyright protected in the United States until last year, until 2021. And we made The Great Gatsby available and it rapidly became one of our most popular eBooks in the collection.

Julia Furlan (04:25):

Project Gutenberg is the world's first and oldest digital library. It's a volunteer-run initiative to digitize and democratize access to books in the public domain. And it does that by making the works free and fully available online. Since it was founded, Project Gutenberg has built a digital library of more than 65,000 eBooks, all of which you can read online or download to tablets and eReaders. Today, millions of eBooks are downloaded from Project Gutenberg every month, but it took years for it to find its place. Its long bumpy story began years before the rise of personal computers and long before the internet.

Julia Furlan (05:13):

In 1971, Michael Hart was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Champagne. Michael was involved in the school's computer lab, which connected to the ARPANET. The ARPANET was basically the predecessor of the internet and used phone lines to link computers at government funded research institutions. Michael's brother got him an account at the lab with unlimited access at a time when computers cost millions of dollars. So computer time back then was a precious and expensive commodity. The problem for Michael was deciding how to use it. Then on the 4th of July, while Michael was wandering around the town of Urbana amongst the bunting and banners after watching the parade and fireworks, inspiration struck.

Greg Newby (06:01):

He went to a convenience store to get some snacks. And when he checked out of the convenience store, they put his snacks in a bag, and because it was 4th of July, they put a facsimile edition of the United States Declaration of Independence, so just like a one page legal size flyer. So right at that moment, he said, "I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to take this US Declaration of Independence, and I'm going to sit down in the lab at one of these teletype terminals with the clackety clack and the long yellowing scroll of paper and I'm going to type in the US Declaration of Independence. And it took him most of the night. And then he shared it with everyone he could find on the internet of the day. So luckily, he's not credited with inventing spam at the same time, maybe he did, but he did invent the electronic book. He said, "Computers are going to be for reading books."

Julia Furlan (06:54):

Michael's clackety clacking didn't end there. He identified other copyright free books. He recruited volunteers and slowly began digitizing works like the Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey and the works of Shakespeare and Mark Twain. By late 1980s, Project Gutenberg had digitized more than 300 books when Greg Newby, then an undergrad at the University of Albany, received an unusual email from a friend.

Greg Newby (07:21):

It was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I read it. I thought to myself, I get it, I understand. Ebooks, or electronic texts, what we were calling them at the time, this makes a lot of sense because I can save this and refer to it anytime I want. I can very easily do things I can't do with a printed book. If I just want to look for a particular phrase, I could just hit a couple of keys on my keyboard and I can search for that particular phrase. I can get a quote from the book. I can extract. I can take a paragraph and put it into my master's thesis, or something like that. So this is how I first learned of eBooks.

Julia Furlan (08:04):

Greg was fascinated with Project Gutenberg and the potential of eBooks, but there were many others who weren't quite as optimistic about this new technology.

Greg Newby (08:13):

And of course I saw the value in eBooks, but there were a lot of people in the library profession that didn't see the value. It means that you don't need a librarian to find a book. You don't need a bookstore to find a book. Well, this is pretty threatening to the publishing industry, isn't it? Because the publishers want to be your intermediary. Not only do they want to be the people that decide who gets published, they want to be the organization that decides which ones get the big display at the bookstore.

Julia Furlan (08:45):

Opposition to Project Gutenberg grew. Publishers, librarians, and scholars, people who were the traditional gatekeepers of literature, they argued that the volunteer driven transcriptions would contain errors and inaccurate translations. They believed eBooks would compromise the integrity and meaning of the works. But the harder they pushed back, the more Michael dug in.

Greg Newby (09:08):

They were critical to the point of where some would say, "You just shouldn't even be doing it. Project Gutenberg shouldn't exist. You are doing a disservice to humanity by digitizing literary works." And of course, Michael kept on doing it.

Julia Furlan (09:24):

With all that blow back, it would be easy to understand if Michael had doubts about the future of his project. Those doubts all but vanished one day in 1989, when he was on the phone with a woman from the Library of Congress, when something unexpected happened.

Greg Newby (09:41):

And he heard this big sound over the phone and the woman he was talking with dropped the phone and ran off. And then she came back in a couple of minutes and she was laughing. Michael asked what was up. And she told the story that her son had been playing around on her computer, and on her computer he found a copy of Project Gutenberg's Alice in Wonderland. And of course, Alice in Wonderland is the first eBook that I ever saw as well. But this kid on the computer had started to read it and he mentioned it to his buddies at school, and then several of them came home with him the day afterwards, and the next day even more kids followed. I guess they were intrigued, not just by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but also by the fact of reading it on a computer. And there were so many kids watching the computer screen that they were all sitting on a big oak chair and the oak chair broke. That was the big crash that Michael heard. And Michael realized at that moment that eBooks were going to succeed.

Julia Furlan (10:36):

In 1991 after finishing his PhD, by sheer coincidence, Greg landed a faculty position at the University of Illinois in Urbana, the same city where Michael was living and running Project Gutenberg.

Greg Newby (10:50):

I saw an article, a newspaper article in the local paper, in the fall of '91 that featured Michael Hart and talked about his volunteer effort. And it also talked about how some people thought this was the wackiest thing ever, that nobody would ever want to read a book on a computer. But I called up Michael and we immediately hit it off, and of course, I became involved with Project Gutenberg.

Julia Furlan (11:12):

Project Gutenberg was born out of an ambitious idea, but Michael had to wait for technology to catch up before the true potential of the eBook could be realized.

Julia Furlan (11:22):

In time came home computing, and years later, the internet, a new scanner technology that sped up transcription. At around the same time, a student at the University of Illinois who Michael and Greg both knew, was building the world's first internet browser. The browser made the internet much easier to navigate and was key to getting it into people's homes. Yet for all the innovations and moving parts in this story, it was the introduction of a single product backed by a digital giant that catapulted eBooks into modern culture.

Greg Newby (11:56):

The Kindle made eBooks totally mainstream, and almost overnight. It was one of these really big events where it was built on the shoulders of the giants that came before it. It was not even all that innovative, but it hugely raised public consciousness. And it also, at the same time, hugely legitimized the notion of electronic books versus print books. Suddenly eBooks were no longer a fringe. Suddenly you could get just about any book as an eBook, and this made a tremendous difference.

Julia Furlan (12:30):

Consumers responded. By Christmas 2009, the Kindle eReader became one of the most popular gifts of the season and the sale of eBooks on Amazon eclipsed those of printed books.

Julia Furlan (12:45):

Two years later in September 2011, Michael Hart died of a heart attack at the age of 64. After a four decade struggle facing limited technology, doubt and doubters, he had lived to see eBooks find traction worldwide.

Greg Newby (13:01):

I think Michael absolutely believed that he was using electronic books to shift the world, but the world didn't necessarily know it was shifted until it woke up and discovered that it had moved. But yeah, I think over time, once the Kindle was out, people that were in the know, realized that essentially he was right all along. The incredible revolutionary part was doing this so that as many people as possible can have access to as much of the world's written word, unlimited redistribution, not thinking it in terms of books, think of it in terms of knowledge, think of it in terms of opportunity.

Julia Furlan (13:44):

Michael Hart never set out to replace printed books with his eBook. His goal was to create a free worldwide gateway to great works of writing and literature. And while Greg Newby respects those who embrace the tactile joy of print and paper, he's a true believer in the magnifying effect of electronic books.

Greg Newby (14:04):

If you take a nicely printed book and you turn it into a file, and it's a plain text file, yeah, you did lose something. But on the other hand, the story is still there. And the story suddenly can go out to thousands of people as opposed to your print book, which can only be in one person's hands at a time.

Julia Furlan (14:20):

It's the emotional connection to the printed page, the thing that Greg says can get lost in translation when they're digitized. That's at the heart of what inspired Manolis Kelaidis to create the bitbook.

Manolis Kelaidis (14:35):

This is also where my own personal affection about books comes in, which has to do with the physicality of the book, it's materials, the emotion it evokes as a product in a medium and my great interest and love for graphics, anything printed.

Julia Furlan (14:56):

EBooks have grown in popularity over the years, but the printed book isn't going to disappear anytime soon. In the US, sales increased nearly 9% last year, but at the same time, 30% of Americans also read at least one eBook in 2021, which is up 5% from the previous year. Michael Hart helped introduce the world to eBooks, which today are instantly available, searchable, and thanks to light, compact readers, easily portable. Now Manolis is moving books to what he believes is the next phase in their evolution.

Manolis Kelaidis (15:30):

Project with the book started in 1971 where you didn't have readily available screens, and so on. Downloading a digital file, reading from a screen, was a very novel idea. It required a new kind of reading experience, for sure. Bitbook does require the same, a new kind of reading experience, but a fundamentally different one.

Julia Furlan (15:54):

Bitbook, put simply, is a print digital hybrid. It's a printed paper book with circuits embedded into the pages connected by Bluetooth to nearby devices. Touch a given word or image and the book comes alive on a screen with additional text, video pictures, music, and voices.

Manolis Kelaidis (16:15):

And basically, if you see here, it's a printed button and with your finger, basically, you just touching it. And what it does is, it connects to a speaker and it says, "This a giraffe," so for children to identify and learn animals. The next one was an example of basically of Googling a word, just Googling a word. So you read through Da Vinci Code and you don't know what Mona Lisa is, so you touch, let's say, on the word, and then it Googles all the images of Mona Lisa on your screen. This is what inspired me really to work on books that I could do something that has remained unchanged for centuries as a medium and as a format. And me, as a mechanical engineer, what can we do with that?

Julia Furlan (17:06):

One thing he set out to do is change the experience of reading. Studies suggest that people reading from screens and eReaders may have more difficulty navigating long passages than they would with print. Not only that, people retain information better if they read it directly from paper, but eBooks aren't without their own set of advantages too. And to an extent, bitbook incorporates the benefits of both while creating new value of its own. One day, bitbook might transform how we read and learn. So it feels appropriate that the idea for it was born in the classroom. In 2005 Manolis was a student at London's Royal College of Art, and he was having trouble coming up with a year end project.

Manolis Kelaidis (17:51):

Nothing was inspiring me. And at some point I was listening to a lecture and the person that was giving the lecture took a notebook out of his bag. And I just know, the moment he took out the notebook out his bag, it just dawned on me like, "This is it. This is a product, a medium, that's everywhere." So immediately that was it, it was books.

Julia Furlan (18:12):

Manolis Googled the word book and went down a research rabbit hole. He scribbled down ideas and printed out and glued anything interesting related to books into a notebook.

Manolis Kelaidis (18:22):

One of the ideas that came to mind was, I looked at my shelf back then with my CDs. They are all in this plastic packaging, quite ugly plastic packaging. And basically, the only thing that's worth in a CD for me is the booklet, which has some information, some graphics, some illustrations. So I thought, "What if actually the booklet was the CD itself? What if I could transfer the music as a digital file," which it is, onto the leaflet, which is a printed leaflet, has some beautiful illustrations usually, and some graphics. So through these ideas, the basic ideas started coming into shape. And that became a very interesting design challenge, mixing graphics paper in conventional book binding, new practices, thread, et cetera, with electronics, something that seems incompatible was an amazing challenge.

Julia Furlan (19:23):

As his bitbook started to take shape, Manolis caught a break. In 2007, he was invited to speak at a Silicon Valley conference on the future of publishing. There he was, a relatively unknown entity in the tech world with no background in publishing, standing before a crowd of 200 people. Tougher still, he was scheduled to follow a talk by the CEO of Adobe who had just assured the crowd that print was dead and that within five years, everyone would be reading from digital formats like PDFs. Manolis climbed to the stage and began to explain that maybe print wasn't dead, and in fact, it could be reinvented. Then he started to explain how bitbook worked.

Manolis Kelaidis (20:07):

Basically there was complete silence up to that point for 15 minutes. And then I took the book and flipped through it. And I started touching on the buttons that I made and then different things would pop on the screen behind me or music or videos, et cetera. But the moment I pressed the first button, there was suddenly a huge gasp in the room and then started clapping. When I finished was a standing ovation, completely overwhelming and persons shouting, "Give this man a million dollars now."

Julia Furlan (20:42):

Things moved fast from there. First Manolis attended an invitation-only Silicon Valley event called Foo Camp. Foo Camp is a multi-day conference where scientists and entrepreneurs from different disciplines who otherwise wouldn't get to work together, can meet, share ideas, and collaborate. Here Manolis would rub elbows with Larry Page, the co-founder of Google and the man who helped start Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales... Oh, and this one eccentric South African entrepreneur.

Manolis Kelaidis (21:15):

I remember being in the tent with flip flops and there was this talk about 10 people by Elon Musk. He was talking about electric vehicles, basically. It's surreal to think that, but it was very, I don't know, it was like very normal. When I came back to Europe and I was telling those stories, people thought I was bullshitting them. And it was through the reception, through the initial exhibitions, talks, this conference, et cetera, that it became a business idea that people wanted. They were like, "Okay, but what is actually the first commercial application of this?"

Julia Furlan (21:49):

Soon Manolis was in talks with Penguin Publishing about just that. Penguin planned to mark the 75th anniversary of the paperback with a special edition of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a bitbook. But the best of times for Manolis quickly became the worst of times.

Manolis Kelaidis (22:10):

A few weeks after that, what happened is that my office caught fire because the next office was building robots, caught fire in the night which spread into my office and basically destroyed prototypes, documents and my office as well. A few weeks after that came in the mail from Penguin saying basically that due to the financial crisis about a year after Lehman Brothers collapse, most businesses at that point had slashed their marketing budgets. It was the first thing they slashed because the financial crisis, therefore the project was also canceled.

Julia Furlan (22:48):

With his office and his first bitbook deal in ruins, Manolis tried building a business around bitbooks, sinking much of his own money into the venture. The work was constant and the project became overwhelming. So Manolis decided it was time to take a break.

Manolis Kelaidis (23:03):

However, at the same time it was [inaudible 00:23:05], it never stopped. So my mind was always on this project. It is like a relationship that you have and somehow it always stays to the back of your mind, what could happen. And the thing is during all these years that have passed, interest has never diminished in terms of this project. And I was getting contacts from companies, individuals, prospective users who were asking, "How's it going? Are you still doing it?" And this is how I decide to come back to it.

Julia Furlan (23:35):

Just as Michael Hart's mission to digitize the world's great works of classic literature took years to find momentum, Manolis struggled in his quest to take the printed book and, in a way, eBooks too to the next level. He's been approached by top international book publishers, major music publishers, music producers, advertisers, digital media providers, and content creators, all interested in publishing content as a bitbook. With his new team taking shape, Manolis is planning his first commercial release of bitbooks in late 2022.

Manolis Kelaidis (24:10):

I was told that all the major publishers and many people from Silicon Valley are looking into the future of publishing because as I saw it, they saw as well that basically publishing has to change. And I think it is the magic of somebody experiencing firsthand touching on a piece of paper and then seeing something digital happen.

Julia Furlan (24:35):

Change through bitbook strikes the perfect balance between old and new to quite literally lift words, ideas, and images off the printed page. It elevates the reading experience to a place where the reader and the story are one and the medium itself seems to vanish.

Julia Furlan (24:54):

And isn't this what our favorite stories do regardless of how they're delivered, whether bound in leather or typed on a screen? The bitbook is a marriage of print and digital technology that may represent the second great evolution in written media over the past generation. And in a way, it's been made possible by Michael Hart's Project Gutenberg and the eBook.

Manolis Kelaidis (25:18):

EBooks are now out there. It is after Kindle became very widely available, people start realizing, "Okay, this is excellent for this kind of experience. Reading books in this kind of settings." Printed books are good for some other stuff. And therefore a bitbook is more appropriate at this time and age. They're going to coexist with eReaders and other digital devices that we have now.

Julia Furlan (25:48):

And now that storytelling technology has changed, Greg Newby believes that technology might in turn change storytelling.

Greg Newby (25:55):

So what we can imagine is with electronic books of having been invented in 1971, and now it's 50 years later, we can expect some further evolutions in how literature happens, how stories are told that go beyond the written word. And so when I hear about bitbooks, I say, "Well, this is one area where we have an enabling technology that can make that sort of transformation happen." I see bitbook as potentially being the foundation of what will occur in the future, where people are telling stories in a different way.

Julia Furlan (26:33):

I'm Julia Furlan. And this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp. Working on your next big thing? Setapp's productivity toolkit will help you stay focused and get stuff done. Head over to setapp.com to see if Setapp can help you bring your ideas to life.

240+ apps for $9.99
per month

Sign up to Setapp and try them for free.