Ebooks vs Printed Books (or no reading at all?)

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5 points that ebook gadgets will need to address to be viable alternatives to print.

A blog debate at nytimes about whether our brains like ebooks, has some excellent views across the history of reading, and if humans were meant to read at all.

For instance, Plato disliked reading because it was apparently a ‘new’ distractive medium. Incidentally, I just bought an audiobook of Plato’s Republic (itunes for $1.99). This is great, as the masterpiece is anyway in a dialogue form.

In ancient India, oral traditions of knowledge were the key (partially because there was no printing technology few thousand years ago, but it was about listening more than writing or reading). Sound permeates the space around and mantras had chandas (a meter of specific syllables per quarter-verse) for rhythmic renditions. In fact, letters and words represent the sound they make. So reading is about speaking sentences to yourself.

However, no one can dispute the value of a printed page, which offers parallel pieces of information. Can be distracting or can be useful as a whole, if it is a chart or a graph.

Ok, the debate is, if electronic publishing such as ebooks (with or without audio visual additions) will be viable alternatives to printed books.

Firstly, there is no reason to believe that print will be totally obsolete- just as drawing and painting are still valid art forms even after photography and film have been around for over 150 years. Now it is digital photography… So a book like a drawing- requires ‘no processing’ or rendering on a device. It just ‘works’ when you flip pages.

Now looking at it from the view of ebooks. Based on current options the readers are not quite there. Most gadgets-kindle or whatever-fall flat. The iPhone versions are crisp, but way to small to be meaningful alternatives to print.

So what enhancements are needed for ebooks to be seen as viable alternatives to print?

1. It should feel like a real book!
Yes, we need at least a tablet of 5×7 inches. Then you need a curvy-curly feel with the look of pages/binding etc. If Apple makes a tablet, they will have focused half their efforts on just this aspect. So comparing a yet-to-be-disclosed tablet vs printed books are not meaningful, because half an Apple can overhaul the current state of (pathetic) ebook renderings. … the test for this will be if a book is open on a tablet and lying on a sofa or desk, would you mistake it for a printed book?

2. Free of Distractions.
Since your book and content are electronic, you have an option to keep looking for different options because of widgets, notifications, and just our ever inquisitive behaviour of looking for updates or doing a cover flow of your virtual library.

But just as they overcame distractions in Plato’s time, they can eventually in this era. The device has to impose a stricter locking metaphor. For instance, many writing tools- such as WriteRoom on the Macs black out the screen- windows and icons- so that you can do nothing else but write. If it is a ebook gadget, such an impostion for reading will be needed. Can be done.

Such distractions are valid, for instance, on the iPod as well. Since you can access all your song albums you might tend to not listen to anything specific properly. But nobody can dispute the fact that an ipod is a viable alternative to CDs or tapes. (Of course the main difference between ipod and ebook analogy is that the way we listen to music- the speakers or earphones have remained the same, so an iPod was instantly accepted as a new technology. This is a matter of point 1, above).

3. Fixing/Flexing Book Sizes?
I can tell you that arriving at the right size for a book is one heck of a major time consuming headache (having printed photographic travel guides, in postcard size and mini-coffee table format). When you print, the sheet sizes of a press have to be fully utilized in order to save costs. This is not much of issue for novels, but for photographic books, you want a large size for impact and for convenience you need a small one (especially in travel).

So the ebook will solve this problem? Not sure!
Scalabilty of content has progressed (for sure) since two decades of desktop publishing. PDF and Postscript were invented exactly for this- to scale shapes and fonts- and to render on screen and print in a consistent manner. Safari on the iPhone displays web content brilliantly with pinch-zoom…. but wait.. is not our point 1 about a feel of the book? If you pinch-zoom-scroll then it is not like a real book!

However, this does not mean that when content does not fit in a tablet or display, you undermine the medium just because of scrolling or zooming.

But this issue of size, is where utmost caution will be needed by designers of ebook gadgets-

a) those books which can fit the display, they need to make sure the zoom options are kept off the interface and users are forced to dig in if they need to zoom, (only it they must). Perhaps revert to normal page size when powered on/off/or launched. When all is exact, let it look real!

b) When the content does not fit display, use an overall containing frame as ‘virtual’ magazine or newspaper. The internal areas can then follow conventional zoom, scroll mouseover etc.

The Times Reader (RSS) by Dustin Macdonald on Mac OS X – does a brilliant job off fitting dynamic content within a look of a newspaper, with headlines and articles flowing into allocated columns. The overall newspaper look is of fixed size, but content flows in, and then details can be viewed (as in RSS summary and full page etc).

I would also love to see what I have mentioned in a earlier blog- to dock an ipod touch into many CPU-less tablets of various sizes

4. Annotation and scribbling as if it is paper.
A lot of avid readers love books because of the ability to mark, highlight and scribble notes on the pages. The digital medium should do this better than print (Preview, the default Mac viewer already does a basic job), and if openURL is adopted then referencing other books in a collection will just take research and referencing to new levels.

Also, for touch based devices the disadvantage of accurate scribbling an annotation has to be addressed! see tweet

5. Text to speech cannot be ignored.
Audio books by real people narrating a story is great. But Text to speech (TTS) has made huge strides. Alex the new voice introduced in Mac OS X Leopard was is an indication of how natural it can be. So listening to text rendered by a computer should not be underestimated. My first podcast on a famous cricket match after Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 was using TTS.

We may be in for an era of listening and r
eading to go hand in hand. Both are after all sequenced forms of communication. I do it all the time, rather than print. Relaxing my eyes and saving trees as well!

16 Oct 2009

iPhone vs Android is like Mac vs PC?

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So the buzz is that Android sales (OS for handhelds, from Google) may tip the iPhone by 2012? Sounds like a Mac vs PC debate. Well sort of, but the Mac debuted in 1984, when PCs had already been pushed by IBM with DOS. However, Apple was in the Personal Computing business earlier than the PCs and was already the pioneer to beat. So there is some similarity here, but this time

1. The iPhone is already in by a few years, so developers have invested in this platform. Legacy is what dictates the future more often than creativity (unfortunately), but in this case Apple has both.

2. Buying apps from a store which guarantees one-click download, no silly forms each time you buy something for $0.99 and ensuring -what you pay for you will get for sure. This is what the iPhone App Store has achieved.

This however, does not mean that things cannot change. We live in a world where you cannot predict technological breakthroughs (in price or paradigm).

Now getting to the heart of the debate-

3. iPhone and Apple products are proprietary as have always been. Android is open source based on Java, and will run on various hardwares (like Windows on PCs), whereas the iPhone/Mac OS run on Apple products.

My view about this open/close issue has always been that Apple never lost out to the PC for this fact, but had more to do so with Macs in 1984 were way ahead of their time for most programmers to learn a GUI and event driven model, when all they could do was write print commands on a black screen. 1984, User friendly = developer demanding, and the Mac was always the second choice for those learning computer programming.

However, today Apple has done a brilliant job in making sure that developers get all the resources to learn and build for their platforms. User interfaces and GUI libraries are object oriented with tools/support from all over the web. So there is no reason a developer who wants to do just simple things -like a report or costing for internal use, needs to stay away from a platform which demands sophistication (the DOS printouts were not WYSIWYG, but useful enough to output as rows on a dot-matrix).

Being ‘closed’ will not dictate the future of iPhone, though Android will get market share being licensable to third parties. Personally, I’d care less if Android has more numbers in 2012, as many handheld devices will do many trivial things for which an iPhone or smart PDA will be an overkill.

In fact, this time it may be a win-win for all.
The generic devices running Android are truly open (unlike generic PCs which had a proprietary Windows on top). The world always needs many generic tools which can be tweaked- which Android can be right for. The world also needs nifty gadgets which have everything consistent and designed insanely right. This can only happen when a platform is closed and developers see the same API but things can be fine tuned inside. Apple will deliver that-as proven time and again. 68K-PowerPC-Unix-Intel, yet the Mac is not that different in experience!

4. So the key for Apple is to keep an eye on development ease and productivity- if someone comes out with a radically easier way to code (you never know!) and programmers can build something in minutes instead of days, Apple can adopt/promote it.

Apple had missed the boat with Hypercard in the ’80s (hypertext links in a stack of cards, leading eventually to the web/http) and then with Applescript ’90s (GUI Scripting/Recording has by far been the most productive non-programmers tool- but Quickeys and OneClick were needed!).

ObjectiveC may not hold up too long when Java and Ruby are languages that most programmers talk in. The good news is that they are ahead with Ruby support on the Mac.

Win-win for all? We will need to wait a bit longer. I had the same hope in last year’s blog article

10 Oct 2009

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iPhone vs Android

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Google is releasing Android, an open source platform for handheld devices. They will not manufacture devices but will license it to vendors. Sounds like the Apple v Microsoft days of the ’80s. iPhone will have an advantage of tightly integrated interface with the phone/pda to create a product(s) which is sleek and easy to use, whereas Android will try to be ubiquitous but every vendor will close it the way they want to.

As a first reaction, Steve Jobs has done well in slashing iPhone to $199, a move which Apple had missed during the early Macintosh days. However, since Android will be Java/Open Source based you can expect portability with genuinely different hardware, not like DOS/Windows on PC clones which were not offering a compelling difference as such.

Are we entering the Golden Era of Personal Computing and Communication?
Proprietary gadgets to offer seamless and customized functionality for a given task, whereas Java based devices to help deploy variety of useful and general purpose products to meet flexible demands.

Perhaps, hopefully…

6 July 2008

To click or not to click

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Good introductory books, as in Chess (Capablanca, Nimzowitsch), Math-Logic (Russell, Godel) or Physics (Stephen Hawking), work well with online resources such as the Wikipedia.

The printed book actually helps you keep a tab on the hyperlinking on the web resource, since classics are always well organized in their chapter sequence and will include the key or mandatory points which a reader must know before knowing something else which is more advanced. The web resource is then better used as a tool to clarify and enlist details which you need to know more about, rather than get lost in surfing around in circles.

So a mode of reading which does not have clicking options (print) or has restricted clicking (audio, video), is perhaps necessary to control our usage of a point and click medium- such as the web.

Some ideas for ebooks or an ipod touch … as an entry device to the web.

4th Feb 2008

iPhone Copy Paste?

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On a recent TV review on NDTV India, Virkam Chandra and his colleague commented that the Safari Browser in the iPhone was implemented in a revolutionary manner with pinch zooming and crisp rendition. They however felt that the lack of copy paste was a serious ommision- perhaps a lapse on Apple’s part.

Well folks, as it turns out most webpages are as such copyrighted material and owned by the site creator or licensed from another source. Not having copy-paste should have been a natural implementation on the early web days- to encourage more serious econtent which is not dependent on ads or sponsors. Then ebooks publishers and independent authors can consider the web as a serious medium for content and charge even nominal fees- per view/reading or annual subscription.

(The fact that a travel publisher such as Lonely Planet still prefers to look at the print medium – even though loads of books and tons of text have to be re-printed every other year for each destination, is an indicator that content sharing failed on the web. Lonely Planet should have benefited immensely from the web in the past decade- in theory – since they are a text based publisher with emphasis on little details or simple maps for every other area of a town. A hypelink and search approach should have enabled them to focus on their job of creating guides rather than estimating stock to print. But so far content can be lifted off from webpages, even after initial payment. So neither the publisher is interested in serious content creation, nor do readers get reliable e-content at affordable prices)

I have not yet put my hands on an iPhone but I hope this paves the way for e-books and audio books. Those who wish to publish free info can then find a way to release the data and allow download or copy-paste.

The iPhone is doing many things right, which the net could not earlier on. This product promises to be a content-platform for sure, hopefully.