Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Thoughts on iPad, Kindle, and future eReaders

On a mail list I frequent, there were two separate discussions about latest offering out of Cupertino, the iPad.

One of these was about how we unwittingly mortgage our future when we favor closed systems over open ones, and the long-term implications this has for consumers as a whole. That's the subject of another post I'll do another time..

The other discussion thread was about the future of eReaders and eBooks. Since someone on that thread was asking and I'd meant to post on the subject for a while anyway, it seemed time to make some notes. I did so, but then let it sit again for a while. Then this past weekend, I found myself on a sailboat in the Sea of Cortez with Craig Mod, author of this fantastic post on Kindle's implications for an e-book future, and that inspired me to dust off the notes and get them into this post.

I should note at the outset of this hefty list of ideas that not all of them are mine. I stand on the shoulders of (blogging) giants. Craig's and a number of other good posts that stimulated ideas are listed at the end of this post.

Also, I should note that I don't own a Kindle or an iPad. I very much wanted a Kindle (I'm a display technology afficionado and it uses e-Ink!) but opted to hold out because after using a friends a few times, I was disappointed by how much more it *could* have been. In the case of the iPad, the same is true to a lesser degree - it's got the Apple magic - but I feel it still misses as an e-Reader.

So, here I present some ideas in the hope that I can contribute to the conversation and someone will build a better mousetrap (maybe better cheese for the mousetraps is a better metaphor?)

What purpose do books serve?

They serve as many different things to different people. They are containers for ideas: communicating them in a fashion that is both broadcast from author to community and one-to-one conversation between author and reader. They are social objects: Giving a book as a gift or loaning one to a friend says something about both parties and the relationship between them - and augments that relationship in a way - the book is both adjective and verb in that sense. They are part of one's identity: Think of the proudly displayed library many people have.

In this sense, the Kindle seems to have only thought about the book as 'idea container'. As Craig pointed out in his post, there's a whole topic of form vs formless content that isn't addressed well. But beyond this, Amazon and Apple and their ilk are treating the book like it's a thing to be consumed, but no attention is payed to the social aspect. What if I want to share the idea I learned with others, or disagree with it, or debate it? The Nook considered the idea of loaning/gifting books to friends and then did the best they can dealing with publisher licensing silliness, but even then they only thought of it in very limited context.

A clearer example can be found in comics. Scott McCloud said that much of the magic in comics happens in 'the gutter' - the space between the panels. People are excitedly talking about comics on iPad, but mostly about how they might improve (animate, annotate) what is displayed in the panels or the way the panels are displayed. Who's trying to re-think and improve the space between the panels?

How do we consume books?

The e-Ink solutions aimed squarely at the chief complaint about reading on screens - that it's harsh on the eyes. LCDs and CRTs (remember those?) emit light, and which has to contend/compete with whatever environmental lighting is being reflected off the display. the e-Ink solutions depend on using (reflecting) environmental light. Like the dead-tree versions, you can't read them in the dark. Conversely, they work great in direct sunlight where LCDs don't.

Still, this seems like the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making the electronic page as readable (or more readable) than paper. Is there an equivalent of ClearType? Can the rendering of fonts be done differently based on reader viewing angle? Could a camera determine your reading angle and do perspective correction on text so that it appears perpendicular regardless of reading angle (Anisotropic ClearType)? Can the reader use an accelerometer and/or camera to do image stabilization like video cameras do, for readers on a bus or train? Can the bezel have built-in lighting that shifts based on viewing angle (an intelligent booklight)? Maybe tracking with eye movement?

Also, I don't know the specifics of the e-Ink technology causing it, but the "XOR-ing" of the display on page refresh is just horrific. That has GOT to go. At the surface it looks like something solveable with software (and by throwing more memory & compute at the problem) - tracking the state of the framebuffer, comparing the existing one to the desired result, and only spinning the pixels you need to (is spinning the right term for eInk pixels?)

We also consume books differently based on location (at least sometimes). Can geo-location play a role here? If the device sees I'm in bed, default to the novel I was reading last night before falling asleep. And then use the camera to sense if I've fallen asleep and power the device down.

Books and Geolocation

I'd like to see books annotated (by author, editor or crowdsourcing) with geographic data relating to events of passages). Let me walk the streets of London or Paris and follow the paths of characters of favorit books. Conversely, when I'm in a location I find interesting, maybe let me inquire about what books have taken place there in whole or in part. My iphone or ipad should beep when I walk past a location and give me a bit of trivia related to books I've read, much as a friend would; "Hey, this is where that shootout took place in that murder mystery you finished last month".

Social Networks and eReaders

I'm not sure I can think of a form of media that cries out for social network integration more than print. People get very attached to books, and even at the most basic level make a fairly significant time commitment to them. And yet consuming books is usually a solitary act. The book club lets people share the experience, but by constraining when they consume the books and when they discuss them. Forums aren't good at connecting people through existing relationships and you need to find the forum rather than it finding you.

A few ideas of what I'd like to see here:

  • Let me layer my some or all of my reading on top of *ALL* my existing social networks. I might want to share my sci-fi reading with everybody, my kids' books with my local PTA and also family, and my business reading with my linkedin group.
  • Virtual book clubs are an obvious idea. One could imagine extending this to having discussion topics around particular passages - supported by annotations people make while reading (more on this later).
  • Group together findings based on these networks and reading histories ("of the group of you that agreed with this passage, we find you evenly divided on whether you agree on this related work...")
  • Let the author engage in conversations directly with the reader if they so choose. "What did you mean by this section here?", "This passage moved me!", etc.
  • Let me select a ~100 character quote from a book and automatically tweet it to friends with the source and a shortened URL to the book itself.
Of course authors and readers engaging in conversation leads very quickly down two paths of discussion. First is just how "fixed" a book should be. The second is that of business models. More on these in a moment.

Finally, there's a whole other line of thinking we could explore if all social networks weren't fundamentally broken. I did a lengthy post on this a while back, but the short version is that a relationship is a noun not an adjective.

The living book

The idea of an ebook leads inevitably to a collision between the living nature of information on the Web, and our traditional idea that books are fixed expressions of ideas. There won't be one answer as to the question of what the right hybrid is between these two views. I would like to see though, a few things evolve out of it.

  • Give the author the ability to dynamically update books - and provide the reader with the ability to know about that change. A hybrid of footnotes and edit history like you see on wikipedia. One could imagine examples where the original version might be a matter of preference (say a novel or poem) and examples where this history is itself informative (say views on String Theory in a physics text).
  • Citations and references to papers could now be forward-looking, not only backward.
  • There are whole classes of types of annotations that could be imagined. Imagine a progress-slider on an equation to show it's derivation as a step by step animation. Or a time-line slider for a murder mystery that would let me leap around the text. Or a social graph or family tree of all the characters in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, etc. Of course each of these things could be author-driven or crowd-sourced/authored by fans.
  • Books could evolve to leverage web-based application platforms. Letting someone view a location in a book (say Normandy beach on D-day) and let the reader get a first person look at the landscape involved in the story.
  • There's room for a whole meta-game around books, reading and an individual or social network's collectively library. Xbox Live acheivements for the librarian set. Better yet would be to have an open platform for building meta-games. Think of teachers making scavenger hunts through the texts of their students are assigned.

Business Models

This is where my biggest beef is with both the Kindle and the iPad. They are razor-n-blade models. Closed systems that insist that the use of the device comes with the use of THEIR store on THEIR terms.

This has a host of issues not the least of which is a lack of competitive pricing for consumers "buying" books. More important to me is that it comes at the cost of hindering (or at least, not encouraging) innovation in the areas of stores, books, business models and licensing terms.

Beyond that, there's a long-term cost to society of allowing these closed models to become the prevalent ones. They become codified in our laws as the norm (DMCA, ACTA, etc). But that's the subject of the other topic post I alluded to earlier.

I beleive there's a real opportunity here for someone to get into the device game while opening the platform to all comers commerce-wise. Google, perhaps? PC OEMs? Microsoft?

Whether closed or open though, I'd like to see flexibility offered to publishers and authors to experiment with different licensing schemes and business models. Cory Doctorow has ranted about this a number of times (1,2)

Here again, both devices have made attempts at improving discovery. Amazon through their recommendation engine and Apple largely by following in Amazon's footsteps. This is something but it so little compared to what could be done here. Don't show me what other people bought - show me what they bought and LIKED. Don't show me what just ALL other people bought, but those that share similar sentiments regarding books we've both read.


In short, it's ass. I get why it's happened, but at least let authors/publishers opt out of it so that someone can show that maybe the sky won't fall. This isn't just about portability between readers and devices, though that's part of it. The fact that I can't cut and paste text is extremely frustrating.

I want the ability to share annotations with friends and a network at large, I want to highlight sections of text (not just the text, but it's context as well) and flick them off to google to flag for further learning/reading, or flick them off to a workspace where I'm working on a presentation.

In summary

It's clear that these devices offer benefits over the traditional book, despite having a long way to go to equalling the dead tree's readability. That's to be expected given that we've been working on 'version 1.0' for hundreds of years.

While they improve readability though, I hope they'll also start to work on improving the things a paper book CAN'T do.

Further reading

Here are a few posts I highly recommend reading (if pressed for time, choose them over this post):

  • Books in the age of the iPad, Craig Mod, March 2010: A ton of thoughts on layout, typography, and purposes books serve. Among other things I thank him for crystalizing in my mind the idea of "Formless" vs "Definite" content, a concept I'd been thinking about but couldn't nail down the way he did. His follow-up piece is also must-read.
  • Random Thoughts about the Kindle, Seth Godin, June 2008: First of his two posts riffing on what Kindle is and what it could be. Money quote: "Kindle does a fine job of being a book reader, and a horrible job of actually improving the act of reading a book"
  • Reinventing the Kindle (part II), Seth Godin, February 2009: His second post on the subject, conceived mainly while wearing his marketing hat, with a sprinkle of 'how could social networks make this better'.
  • In addition, it was Dave Edery who opened my eyes to thinking of the Kindle as a game platform, which of course it can and will be.
  • Also, this presentation summarizing Portical's research project into the usage of books and ebooks had a few ah-ha's that make it worth reading.
  • Additional fuel the the fire from Cory Doctorow's many posts on the Kindle and the iPad. Many of them related to the other topic I alluded to above, but some of which pertain to things I'd very much want in an eReader. (1,2)

1 comment:

Scott Hartley said...

Hey Kim, just wanted to let you know this is one of the best blog posts I've read in years. Lots and lots of things to think about here. Really nice work by you and the articles you reference!