Much recent chatter about the promise of the iPhone for book publishers to which we have contributed. See BookSquare, Brantley, PersonaNonData, Digitalist, TeleRead, amongst others.

But there is another side to this: what if the iPhone gobbles up text as easily as it gives digital access to published works? The iPhone has a camera, is a capable computer, is well connected to the web, and a lot can happen when you put a web service at the disposal of millions of people with hand-held computerate, camera-scanners. This paragraph from Scoble caught my eye:

…..visited Evernote, which makes a great note-taking app. This is the most useful app I’ve loaded on my iPhone so far (which has more than 30 apps loaded on it). Really killer thing? Take a picture of something with text in it. Say a sign, or a business card. Or a newspaper ad. Or a bill you received. Save it. Then, search for something on that bill. Wow. It turned all the text in the picture into something you could search for. This is the coolest thing. iPhone Developers have a blockbuster weekend

That sounds a bit primitive. He does not say that it can digitize the editorial pages of Newsweek (sounds as though it can capture the ads). But you can see where it is going. Sooner, rather than later, you will be able to point your iPhone at a book/magazine, flip the pages, upload it to some web app and have a ‘searchable’ version of the publication and a good scanned copy at your fingertips.

The likely availability of distributed, low cost, intelligent, OCR-scanning will put print publishers in pretty much the same boat as the music industry. Digital copying of text will be as easy and as useful as digital copying of recorded music (until recently digital copying meant copying the dumb image, not capturing the textual information in the typography. Google Book Search changed that).

I point this out not out of a desire to “put the frighteners on” print publishers, but to suggest that there is still time enough for print to get out of the hole the music business has dug itself. Get licensing those digital editions! Provide legitimate low cost access to everything for which you have a PDF file and valid title! There is no point in hanging back, publishers must build those digital markets before your customers start mode-shifting your content — its a business imperative. The iPhone creates great potential for publishers, but if they dont seize it, they will find they have lost much more than a new opportunity.