Sunday, December 02, 2007

E-book readers: they look good on paper

There's been some talk about Amazon's new Kindle e-book reader being the "iPod of books." This analogy might be cute and catchy, but it's deeply flawed, and wishful thinking at best.

First, being the iPod of books is a very ambitious undertaking. Much more so than being the iPod of music. Here's why:

  1. With the iPod, the content that the device was built for is music. The display is only an organizer for it. The actual presentation of the content is audio playback. With an e-book reader, however, the display has to serve not only as an organizer, but also as the actual presentation canvas for the content itself. And that's hard, because
  2. electric devices have been able to play back music for decades. Most users were already satisfied with the sound quality of existing MP3 players even before the iPod debuted, so Apple's device didn't need to achieve a technological breakthrough in its core competence of music playback. However, no electric device exists today that could "play back" a book or a newspaper at an acceptable quality. Therefore, a successful e-book reader will need to break new ground.
  3. Listening is passive, while reading is active. Listening to a song only requires you to push the play button, and the rest will just happen to you. However, reading a book requires constant and conscious interaction: not just scanning the text with your eyeballs, but also physically navigating the book by turning pages.* A device for reading has to facilitate that as well in a very humane and user-friendly way, not to mention providing additional functionality such as annotation features**.
*What if an e-book reader could automatically scroll, tracking your eyeballs?

**This blog post of mine is serving me as a great lesson about procrastination. I've been working on it for over a week, and in the meantime, several other web authors have posted their opinions, which are in some cases very similar to mine. Ars Technica's John Stokes, for example, mentions annotation features, as well as several other points I also visit.

The Muzak of Books

But there's more on the iPod analogy front. The music you hear on an iPod is comparable to what you hear on your stereo. Sure, the quality is certainly not the same as on a high-end device, but it's is acceptable for the vast majority of users, most of whom would be hard-pressed to tell much of the difference anyway.

However, just imagine, for a moment, an iPod that could only play a MIDI version of any song. You would hear your favorite songs arranged for generic software instruments, and some machine voice would do all the vocals.

Would this device be a hit? Would you buy it?

I'm asking because this is more or less what Kindle, or any other e-book solution on the market today, does. What it presents is nothing but the MIDI version of a book. Layout is generated on the fly, using a generic font. Sure, the original words are kept, just like the original notes in a MIDI version of a song. But yet it's not the same song, and it's not the same book. It's the Muzak version of a book. It looks more like a webpage. Compared to the real thing, it's an abomination.

Readers want the real thing; the book as it has been designed and laid out by design professionals.

Sure, Muzak has its place in elevators and public toilets, but it's not the music you love, it's not what inspires your kids to write fan mail. And the same way, Kindle is perfectly suitable for reading an end-user license agreement or a shopping list – but not something you care about, not something you grow attached to.

A book reader? That's me!

And finally, there's a third thing. Your iPod does not equal to the music on it. The two are very separate things. An iPod is just the device that plays your music. The music is something you cannot touch, wherever it's coming from. A band, a stereo, a clock radio, an iPod: these are sources of music, you never think of them as the music itself. You don't even think of a CD as the music itself: it's just a recording that you have to get music out of by playing it in some device.

It's not that I have a penchant for stating the obvious, but this is a very important difference between music and books. Books have a physical representation that music or films lack: they are objects. The volume that you hold in you hand isn't a "source of book," or a "book recording" that you have to "play back." Nope. It's the book itself. It's a thing.* You need eyes and hands to read it, no other devices are necessary.

*Again, someone else has said it better as I was plugging away with this post. Damn.

Envisioning a device that will one day complement, substitute and perhaps even replace paper-based books, and calling it an "e-book reader" is a mistake. If such a device is to emerge, it won't be "playing back" a book: it will have to be the book.

I picture a featureless, lightweight, white or semitransparent, sublime-looking object, about the weight, size and shape of a book. Its surface would appear to be paper-like, with text and images apparently printed on it: it would show a page from a book. (Or maybe a spread. I know that there would be some serious and hard design decisions to be made, like how to accommodate oversized layouts such as a newspaper's.)

Looking at this thing from a distance, you could even mistake it for some high-tech version of a book. Not a reader: you're the reader. It's the book.

You would turn pages by imitating page-turning gestures on its touch-sensitive surface. You could flick it by manipulating its side. It would need to accommodate loads of other familiar gestures, in order to make you feel like you're reading a book (like, half-turning a page to see what's behind it, then turning it back). And the whole thing would need to bring you as much as possible of the whole book experience, such as layout, design, typography, look and feel, and even as many as humanly possible of these partly tongue-in-cheek, yet entirely perfectly valid points.

Maybe the world isn't ready for such a device. Not in the "world's not ready for Vista" sense, but simply because the hardware needed for such a device isn't feasible yet.

Of course, this thing will happen one day. Maybe it will work through directly stimulating parts of your brain to give you a complex multisensory illusion of reading a book, and you shouldn't expect it before 2100. Maybe it will happen next year. But it will be there.

We need to save trees. We need to simplify logistics. We need more interactivity: spoilt by the web experience, how many times did you wish you had hyperlinks or search boxes in a book or newspaper you were reading?

A real-world need

Two years ago, I left my home country. Among various other changes, I'm no longer able to read my favorite newspaper as it's not available where I live now.

Even though it's the year 2007, there's still no technology out there that could help me out. And no, Kindle won't be the answer either.

Back in the days, I would drive to work for an afternoon shift, and I'd make a stop at a drive-in restaurant for an early afternoon breakfast. I would buy my favorite paper, fold it out in front of me, and read it while eating.

I would look at the front page, and see what's above and below the fold. I would look at the teasers, the headlines, the subheads, the captions; the different fonts and typefaces, the weighing of contents by the size and position attributed to them by the editors and designers.

I would subconsciously use the placement of photos, the clever typographic solutions, and all the other subtle ways of presenting all the information and meta-information, to choose which stories I would read, and in what order. To this day, I can recall some of the stories the paper broke years ago, and my recollections are always complete with the entire layout, not just the words and the pictures.

After looking at the front page, I would go in. As I'd turn the pages, some familiarly distinct features would appear, making sure both that I feel at home and that I can find my way.

For instance, there was be the opinion page, one of my favorites. One big editorial, serious in tone, set in boldface (a bit of an assault on readability, but still, I'd grown to like it). A short, rather caustic opinion piece, in a larger font, set in italics. A small box with a short scathing op-ed always by the same guy, day in, day out. And in the center of the page, a large essay on some controversial issue, with an attention-grabbing pull quote: something I was almost certain to read every day.

When I moved halfway across Europe, I was looking for ways to keep reading that paper (which was not available on newsstands in my new adopted home). A subscription was out of the question: both the expense and the delay would have been forbidding.

So I subscribed online. I was looking for the same experience, or at least something similar. But it wasn't meant to be.

It's not just that I was unable to take my subscription to a restaurant. It's not just that I was confined to a computer for reading. All I could access was a page with a list of headlines. I could click on each, and the text would appear in my browser. As would the photos. I could also search, and get yet more clickable lists.

That was it. No layout, no design, no presentation. Just the words and the pictures. It was a website, except that the stories were not written for the web. They were cut and pasted from the paper. It was less than a website, and much less than a newspaper. It united the disadvangates of both.

I despised it and canceled after a few weeks.

Apparently, whoever was in charge of the online version thought that content was the only thing that mattered, where content would equal all the words and the pictures. According to this belief, when you buy a paper, you pay for words and pictures, and that's it. Today's newspapers place these things tediously on pages, requiring a lot of human effort, but that's only because a printed page has a limited capacity, and working with this limitation is hard. In a better, more advanced world, there will be no more paper, therefore there will be no need for laboriously placing the contents on these things called "pages." You would just present a table of contents, and the contents themselves, which are free to flow without any spatial limitation.

Therefore, a newspaper or a book would be just like a webpage, and all you'd do is search, click, and then scroll, scroll, scroll and scroll as you read.

Welcome to the brave new world. Luckily, this will never happen. Anyone who thinks that a newspaper, a magazine, a book, or basically anything that gets printed, is nothing but a sum of its words and pictures is seriously, sadly mistaken, and will not be the driving force behind a successfull e-book concept.

Anyone who doesn't know the vast, incredible importance of layout and presentation simply doesn't get publishing, period.

Anyone who gets publishing knows that an online HTML version of any print publication is not an equivalent of the original.

Apparently, Jeff Bezos doesn't get publishing. He's good at selling books and other things. He's a salesman. He may even be a sales visionary. But that's it.

An acceptable presentation of a book or a newspaper in an electric solution means that it has to look very close to the real thing. It has to make you forget that you're looking at a gadget.

Apple's chance

Currently, the only company that seems to even come close to "getting" things like these is Apple. In addition to its obvious lead in user interface design, its famous dedication to any design, and very specifically, typography, is a clear indication. Remember, the Mac was the device that kick-started desktop publishing in the eighties.

I think, or rather, I hope, that Apple will introduce a device to top Kindle, turning Amazon's attempt into the kind of roadkill that litters the technology highways. Kind of like the iPod did to the likes of the Archos Jukebox.

Three years ago, based on the success of the iPod, I thought Apple could probably be the one company to pull it off.

Now, in 2007, Apple has unveiled Multi-Touch, as well as an embedded version of OS X. If e-books are going to be more than a blip on the radar any time soon, they will be courtesy of Apple, not Amazon.