Even though Nicholas Negroponte is correct when he says that books cannot be distributed to enough people -- real books, that is, as opposed to ebooks -- he forgets that, currently, ebooks are not very convenient to use. Especially in the developing world, which he thinks will adopt ebooks quicker than First World countries, "because they don't have anything else".
He talks about sending a laptop to an African village with a hundred books loaded in it. "When we ship, with our laptop, books to a village, we put a hundred books on a laptop, but we also send a hundred laptops in, each with a hundred different books. That village now has 10,000 books. This is an African village without electricity." ("Then what do the laptops run on?" I wondered. The answer is: batteries and alternate power sources like car batteries.)
But it's hard to carry a laptop around the way you carry a book around, so even if you have a hundred books, that doesn't mean you'll read them. You're not going to stare at the screen for hours reading, the way that I can snuggle down in my favourite armchair with a book and instantly lose myself in a story.
The devices that do make ebooks portable, convenient and easy to read are still largely inaccessible. People talk about more books being sold for the Kindle (Amazon.com's ebook reader) than ever before, but the Kindle doesn't even ship to Malaysia. Without it, you can't purchase ebooks from Amazon, either. The most basic iRiver model, an ebook reader which you can get via MPH Bookstore or in Digital Mall and Low Yat Plaza, costs RM999. The iPad costs even more than that; and, like the Kindle, it's also not on sale in Malaysia, as far as I'm aware.
Plus, hard plastic devices aren't ergonomic and even though portable & convenient, they don't feel good when you hold them. Your fingers are pushed straight and flat against the back of the device when you grip it, which is tiring and awkward for the hand muscles. Books can bend and are easier to grasp (for this reason, I don't like hardcover editions either!).
So I don't agree with Mr Negroponte when he says that physical books are likely to vanish in five years. I think that's an extremely optimistic prediction. Just because the technology is there to squash more books than you could read in a lifetime into a tiny chip, it doesn't mean people will automatically or even naturally take advantage of the technology. There are more things to consider than that alone.