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Digital content’s “Quadricycle” era

This month marks the 118th anniversary of a milestone in the life of Henry Ford. It’s not the Model T, which is 106 years old later this summer. I’m talking about Ford’s very first vehicle, the one that came before the Model T and was called “The Quadricycle.”

The Quadricycle doesn’t get much attention these days. Sure, it has a page in the Wikipedia and lives on at The Henry Ford museum, but that’s pretty much the extent of it. When we think of the first commercially successful automobile we think of the Model T, not the Quadricycle.

I’d argue that we’re in the midst of our own “Quadricycle” era in the digital content world. We might think we’ve come a long way with the latest formats and devices but we’re still in the very early stages of digital content transformation.

Product names are generally a good indicator of where a new concept is on a timeline. We struggle with how to name a new product so we try to extend the name of something it’s related to. Quadricycle is a great example because everyone knew what a bicycle was back then and this new contraption sat atop four bicycle wheels. Early cars were also called horseless carriages, another example of how the name of a new concept often starts as a modified version of something everyone is already familiar with.

So when books, newspapers and magazines entered the digital realm they became ebooks, e-newspapers, e-magazines or digital replica editions. Up to now, our vision for these digital versions has been boxed in by the characteristics of the physical (print) versions. That’s also why we include worthless features like 3D page-flipping in most reader apps.

Ford’s original Quadricycle didn’t have basic features like brakes or a reverse gear, but it was the ultimate minimum viable product. He was so focused on revolutionizing transportation that the invention he built in his shed turned out to be too wide to fit through the door opening.

At some point this new method of transportation got renamed the automobile and the car, neither of which have any connection to horses or bicycles, which were two of the more common modes of earlier transportation.

When will the same thing happen with digital content? When will the term “ebook” feel as funny and old-fashioned as horseless carriage or Quadricycle?

When will digital books, newspapers and magazines stop looking like nothing more than print under glass?

Keep in mind that 12 years passed between the Quadricycle’s invention and the rollout of the Model T. Sometimes these things don’t happen as quickly as we expect them to, but what’s important is to realize that today’s state-of-the-art digital books, newspapers and magazines will definitely be perceived as quaint and antiquated in the not-too-distant future.

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