As genealogists, as a main activity, we do research into original historical records. In the past, all of those records were "locked up" so to speak, on paper or other media, in repositories all around the world. One technological development that made many source records available was the use of microfilm. A brief review of the history of microfilm might be helpful.
The concept of using cameras to create microfilm dates back to 1839 but the idea of using microfilm as a method of preserving original records did not develop until the 1850s. The first really practical use of microfilm was during the Franco-Prussian War (1870- 1871) when microfilm messages attached to carrier pigeons were used to cross the German lines to Paris. However, microfilm was mostly treated as a novelty until the 1920s. See Microfilm - A Brief History.
Two significant events in 1938 hastened the use of microforms for archival preservation in American libraries and institutions. Because of rapid deterioration of the newsprint original and the numerous difficulties in storage and use of newspapers, Harvard University Library began its Foreign Newspaper Project. Today this project continues and the microform masters are stored at the Center for Research Studies in Chicago. This same year also saw the founding of University Microfilms, Inc. ('UMI') by Eugene Power. He had previously microfilmed foreign and rare books, but in 1938 his work became a commercial enterprise as he expanded into microfilming doctoral dissertations.For genealogists, the 1938 date is even more significant. Beginning in 1938, microfilming became a way to move the original source records from the original repositories into the control of the genealogists. The 1938 date is also significant because it is at that time that the Genealogical Society of Utah, the predecessor of FamilySearch, began the process of making those records available to genealogists around the world.
Now of course, FamilySearch was not the only entity that started to make original source records or their copies available to research genealogists. The innovation was the use of microfilm. The process of collection original genealogically important documents into libraries actually started much earlier, in about 1845 with the establishment of the first genealogical society in the United States, the New England Historic Genealogical Society. The Genealogical Society of Utah, the original predecessor to FamilySearch, also began its efforts to collect records back in 1894. Between the invention of microfilm in the 1850s and 1838 when the Genealogical Society of Utah began microfilming records for the sole purpose of preserving them for genealogical purposes, it was the technological change of microfilm that started the process of allowing large numbers of documents to be copied while leaving the original records intact.
It is interesting to note that University Microfilms, Inc. began making selected databases online available to libraries and now does business under the name of ProQuest Online Information Service. You may be familiar with one of their products, HeritageQuestOnline.
Meanwhile, the Genealogical Society of Utah (now FamilySearch.org) continued its efforts to microfilm records all over the world, amassing a huge collection of international genealogically significant records. About ten years ago, FamilySearch started a transition from microfilm to digital images. OK, so here we are today with all sorts of digital records flying around on the Internet.
Apple's announcement about digital textbooks is just another indication of how the world is rapidly moving towards digitization. But it is also a reflection of the rapid changes in progress in our genealogical world.