There is currently a debate going on in the IATEFL Young Learner SIG Yahoo Group about the the pros and cons of publishing digital ELT materials/resources as compared to paper-based ones (i.e. books).
I have been reading the posts on this thread with a great deal of interest, and can't help thinking that those defending the paper model echo what many in the music industry were saying about digital downloading when the first effective model (Napster) came on the scene. There was a time some years ago when the music industry had a real chance to utilise the emerging technology to provide a new business model for the industry. Instead, they chose to ignore the change implied by the new technology. As we all know now, this has led to widespread adoption of illegal file-sharing and huge losses by record companies all over the globe. Despite efforts to stop this (DRM, court cases, legal file-sharing through iTunes, etc), most people feel the battle has been lost and musicians are starting to realise that the money has to come from elsewhere.
What has this to do with ELT? It's tempting to think that books are different, that we will always want to hold the physical objects in our hands, to own and collect them as objects? This is true of our generation maybe, but what of the next? The current generation is fast becoming used to a different model, where access to information (video via Youtube, digital music streamed through programmes such as www.spotify.com, etc.)
Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference wortks have been the first books to suffer (like it or not, Wikipedia is fast overtaking the Encyclopedia Britanica as a source of information - the pros of Wikipedia far outstrip the cons: in the 21st Century, our sources of information need to be up-to-the-minute and dynamic).
What about the other arguments for paper-based material? Reading on a screen is not sustainable? You can't take it with you on the train? Devices such as Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPod Touch and the iPhone have changed that. I no longer buy a daily newspaper - I download the news from the BBC and El Pais to my iPod in the morning and read that on the metro.
What about the parts of the world where the Internet does not reach? The signs are that this will change in many of these areas. The Internet probably won't come via PCs, but will instead be available via mobile phones (did you know that most mobiles are in the developing world?), which are becoming ubiquitous in most parts of the world.
As we have seen (most recently in a heated exchange on Twitter between a wide variety of ELT professionals), there is a demand for digital copies of resource books and textbooks. The ELT publishers have yet to cater to this demand. The danger is that unless something is done, then what awaits them is what happened to the music industry re. digital downloading.
In fact, it's already happening. There has recently been a proliferation of websites and blogs offering illegal copies of most ELT textbooks and resource books. These are generally scanned copies of the books advertised by the sites as 'free ESL books to download.' The website authors claim they are providing a service to people, "freeing information", etc. but look carefully and you'll see the sites are generally full of advertising, so their aim is to make money by illegally copying and distributing the books. I am not providing any examples of sites as I really don't want to encourage this sort of activity. Of course, the publishers act against these websites when they are found (it is common for authors to report them to the publisher), but I fear they are fighting a losing battle if legal downloading of digital copies of ELT books is not going to be offered.
How things will turn out is difficult to say, but you can look at trends and predict. We are currently experiencing the death of the newspaper (http://www.newspaperdeathwatch.com/ - talk to any newspaper journalist and you'll hear the same thing). As mentioned before, the emergence of new reader-friendly devices and increase in Internet mean that the demand for digital downloads will increase whether you like it or not.
Although I am a book-lover and know I will continue to buy and read books for the rest of my life (I am also writing one!), I do think that the shift from paper to digital materials in ELT is inevitable.