Apple is reinventing the electronic planet. This is the age of electronic publishing. These words you're reading right now only exist in the virtual world. There's no printed copy, and at my end the words only ever existed as ciphers, electronic imitations of calligraphy existing within a virtual document on my computer screen.

[This story is from the new Apple Holic blog at Computerworld. Subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat. Or link up via Twitter on the all-new feed.]

There's been a huge disconnect between the electronic mass media of today and the more conventional newspapers, magazines and books of publishing 1.0.

Adobe PDFs are clunky and annoying to work with/read, and the various electronic formats for magazines always seem to lack a certain panache. Websites are always more extensible and more multimedia engaging than a static emulated magazine on screen.

It was only a matter of time until Amazon's Kindle made the scene, a product which turned out to be prophetic, rather than profitable.

But Apple CEO Steve Jobs doesn't think publishing is a big (enough) business to support one single reader product a la Amazon's Kindle. He's right.

The electronic era isn't just an age of virtual creativity and response, but an age of virtual pastimes, virtual relationships and virtual education. Just take a look at the diversity of content available on iTunes.

That's why single purpose eReader devices are rapidly disappearing from the market to be replaced by more multi-functional devices such as the iPad.

Publishers are listening. Barnes and Noble today introduced new versions of its Nook-branded eReading software for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. Nook is also available for PC and Android systems.

The free app joins Amazon's own Kindle app, Apple's own iBooks app, both Marvel and DC's big comic-reading apps and a bevy of smaller eBook-reading apps on the iTunes store.

The capacity to carry an entire library of some of the world's best books on your iPhone or iPad is somewhat attractive, but there are some concerns. 

  1. I admit I'm someone who likes the feel of a book in my hands. I think it makes a pleasant change for anyone who spends most of their life tied to an illuminated computer screen.
  2. It is also a consideration that for the majority of the world's population , a social evolution  which requires them to own relatively expensive electronic devices in order to access the data and information formerly held inside books or magazines may serve to accentuate the existing divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Such considerations aside, Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle (and to a lesser extent the Nook) have managed to bring awareness of eReading to the mass market.

This will have the most immediate impact across education markets, where you can expect Apple's soon-to-ship 7-inch iPads to sell in massive quantities in the months ahead, as kids get them for their text books in cash-strapped US schools. (The initial cost of the device may be higher, but there's savings to be made in eBook purchases in such huge quantities).

Nook's introduction of the LendMe feature within its software is a welcome step in eBook publishing -- for all the complaints that electronic solutions are ravaging traditional markets (music, film, publishing) it is good to see the rights of customers maintained online.

Why, for example, does the music industry not allow owners of digital music collections to bequeath their music to others in the event of their demise?

Check the small print and you'll see such rights are not included in your iTunes purchase. You can pass your CDs along in this way, and these commonly cost around the same as iTunes downloads. I've never heard a satisfactory explanation for this.

What Apple has learned from its iTunes Music Store is that despite piracy, honest customers do exist in the digital age. Billions of songs have been purchased and downloaded from the service. Apple is now the biggest US music retailer.

The logic's simple: Honest book and magazine lovers are used to paying for the content they love. Offer them that material at competitive prices using their choice of uber-cool device, and it is simple to convert honest readers offline into honest readers online.

Readers are intelligent people. They understand piracy and the internet and have made an active decision to pay for what they read. So long as they don't feel coerced in terms of price. And that's also why Amazon, Apple and others are being looked at closely by regulators eager to ensure the giant firms don't dictate eBook prices just throught the scale of their market presence.

Apple is looking to expand that presence.

The company intends opening up its iBookstore in many new markets. To that end it has hired an international manager for its store and this week hired a UK country manager to look after its interests there.

Don't underestimate this. Random House CEO, Markus Dohle expects eBooks to make up over 10 percent of the publisher's revenue by next year.

Random House hasn't made its titles available via the iBookstore just yet. Dohle explains this is because his company isn't taken by Apple's business model, which forces publishers to set prices.

"We've got to think very hard about whether we want this drastic change in our business model," he said. "We think we have to tread carefully to find a business model that is sustainable for the years to come."

Amazon recently claimed to have sold more eBooks than physical books, but few took this claim seriously -- the company is clearly pushing its own Kindle device.

Amazon's Senior VP of Worldwide Digital Media, Steve Kessel recently told Pocket-lint, "I think we will sell more Kindle books than paperback books in the next year".

That eBook reading is exploding is clear. One recent survey claimed over two in five (41 percent) iPad owners use the device as their preferred way to read books, says Cooper Murphy Webb.

Another 31 per cent said that they preferred reading newspapers on the device, while 26 per cent liked to use their computers and 24 per cent stated they would stick to print.

Penguin recently observed fast-paced growth in eBook sales in the US, where digital books now account for 6 percent of consumer sales. The sector is only 1 percent of the publisher's overall business,but it is growing fast.

That company's chief executive, John Makinson told The Guardian. "I am keen on the idea that every book that we put on to an iPad has an author interview, a video interview, at the beginning. I have no idea whether this is a good idea or not. There has to be a culture of experimentation, which doesn't come naturally to book publishers. We publish a lot of historians, for example. They love the idea of using documentary footage to illustrate whatever it is they're writing about."

With the ability to run most standards-based multimedia (ie. not the proprietary Flash technology) Apple's iPad leads the device pack for such future publishing experiments.

In order to prevail, Amazon will have to take a leaf from the Apple book and boost the attraction of Kindle with a wider set of features than just eBookreading.

An iPad is also a music center, television, games machine, communications device and more. And even more when you include the App Store.

This is why the New York Times tells us Amazon's hardware division is looking to design a host of other devices, including a touchscreen Kindle.

"Jeff's original goal for the lab was to build a range of other devices," said one person, referring to Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and chief executive. "There was talk of music players and other electronics."

This is a serious business. This will be why 'don't be evil' Google is about to use its huge market muscle to try to force its own corner of the industry, even as it sells out its promises on net neutrality.

Google will open its Google bookstore in the coming months. it has also scanned millions of books that can be viewed on the Google Books Web site.

Will Apple take a leaf from Amazon's copy book and introduce a version of iBooks for Android? After all, it is pretty likely Amazon will introduce a version of Kindle running Android.

What's interesting on the Android Kindle rumors is that the device is expected to be around 7-inches. About the size of a paperback, easy to stow in your bag or jacket pocket. Matching the size of that future iPad we'll all be talking about for the next few weeks.

Note: This blog first appeared on our sister site  Computerworld - read more at http://blogs.computerworld.com/evans - Email Jonny at [email protected]