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!

Saumilzx
Mumbai
16 Oct 2009