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The Long Tail and the “ATM of books”

2006 December 14
by qkslvrwolf

Ok, first of all, the “ATM of books” is a terrible way to describe this little doohickey.  (I almost said “how-ya-doin”, and as some of you may know, I would’ve had to go wash my mouth out.  Or hands, anyway.)

This is an on-demand book printing machine.  Call it a personal publisher or something, but it is not an ATM in any reasonable way.  What…was it loaded with the books and just spits them out?  No.  Its actually printing them.

Anyway.  Link here. 

I have been hoping something like this would come out, because what this machine begins to do is move the long tail of economics into the local physical realm.

Up to this point, the long tail has been truly prevalent in two situations:  digital only media, and “infinite” warehouse internet retailors who can afford to keep a huge stock of everything that everyone might want in one place.

With this machine, you have an instant, localized competitor to large-scale bookstores.  The sheer volume of advantages to this is staggering.  You have, in one place:  long tail selection (and, if they do this right, the necessary collaborative and/or social filtering), the human society of being in a public place with people who share at least one interest with you, the opportunity to get out of the house, the atmosphere of a local bookstore (often includes cats, endless shelves of books), instant gratification when you really want to read that one book you heard about, overly expensive coffee and hot chocolate, and a proprieter who will likely learn your name a something about what you like.

For many people, I think this will beat the pants off the barnes and nobles and the borders of the world.  Why do people go to those bookstores vice little local ones?  The same reason anyone goes to a megastore.  Selection.  The ability to get everything you want in one place.

The long tail and internet superstores are already beginning to degrade the market potential of these physical megastores.  Afterall, borders has a lot of books, but amazon has just about every book ever printed (or so it seems).  When I want a specific book to read, I buy it on Amazon or better yet, alibris.  When I want to look at books and hang out with a book reading crowd, I go to borders.  But if I could do both and support a LOCAL businessman who knows me?  Perfect.
Let’s extend this past just books.  As rapid prototyping gets better, much of what you now go to walmart for (cheap crap) will hopefully become manufacturable on demand in what amounts to a 5 and 10 with infinite capacity.  And, because one of the tenants of rapid prototyping is the ability to reuse materials, this has the chance to change the world.  Imagine a world where any simple item that isn’t consumable (by which I mean anything you have to keep buying, from food to shampoo and toothpaste) can be created from an infinite catalog on demand.  Clothes.  Dish and silverwear.  Toys.  Books.  furniture.  Tools.  All the tens of thousands of minor pieces that we accululate just to live.

Now you’ve essentially eliminated massive logistics systems.  You would still have to deliver raw materials (I’m assuming growth of population continues) to the local stores.  But the entire make way more than you need, packing, shipping, repacking,  reshipping logistics train just disappears.

Now, as I type this I think that this could cause people to worry (with legitimacy) about the sheer number of jobs that can and will be eliminated by this sort of technology.  But, if we follow this train of thought, I would have to explain why I think that eventually, humanity will be able (and will have to) sustain a large percentage of its population who do not add anything productive to the mix.  People who are pure consumers.  But I’m not gonna go into that right now, because I’m tired of typing.

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