Redefining what we expect of an ebook

I have for some time thought that ebooks will not oust print books until we have decent ebook reader devices. By “decent” I mean devices that are effective and affordable and are therefore in widespread use. For the last few years it has seemed that such a device would look something like the Sony Reader or the Amazon Kindle, with their high-resolution e-ink technology.
Some people have been telling me that the Que, from Plastic Logic is the thing to get. It is a more flexible, lightweight device but it has not yet been launched, which is a slight drawback. It was due to launch in April 2010, but the company has recently announced that it is postponing release until summer 2010 in order to “further fine-tune features and enhance the overall product experience.” Some commentators suggest that this delay may wound the new device fatally. Once Apple’s full-colour iPad is launched, then monochrome E-ink devices, like the Que, Kindle and the Sony reader, will look less appealing. In short, the coming of the iPad will change the game, redefining what we expect of an ebook reader.
I am inclined to agree with this diagnosis. My worry about the iPad was that as it doesn’t use e-ink technology it would not provide a reading experience that was easy on the eye as the Kindle etc. However, a commenter on the technologizer blog points out that

Most of the pages (print and Web) in the world are color, it’s not suitable to have a reader that does not show color.

He goes on to claim that, whilst e-ink screens have slightly higher resolution, iPad has good enough resolution and is readable in direct sunlight.
This chimed in with a recent very thoughtful blog post from Craig Mod about the tricky transition from printed books to electronic books. He says that, as a book designer, he feels excited about the potential of the iPad for making content available:

With the iPad we finally have a platform for consuming rich-content in digital form.

He draws a distinction between different kinds of books, those with “Formless Content” that

can be reflowed into different formats and not lose any intrinsic meaning. It’s content divorced from layout. Most novels and works of non-fiction are Formless.

and those containing content with form — “Definite Content” — that

is almost totally the opposite of Formless Content. Most texts composed with images, charts, graphs or poetry fall under this umbrella. It may be reflowable, but depending on how it’s reflowed, inherent meaning and quality of the text may shift.

Put another way, “Formless Content is unaware of its container; Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas”. Formless content is usually only text. Definite content usually has visual elements along with text. Craig Mod suggests that the iPad brings the excellent text readability of the Kindle/Sony readers to a larger canvas.

It combines the intimacy and comfort of reading on those devices with a canvas both large enough and versatile enough to allow for well considered layouts.

I’m not sure about the terminology, but I think I see what he getting at. The iPad will expand what will fit comfortably into an e-device.
Now, devices are all very well. But we need business models that work for all sides (creators, publishers, consumers and, dare I say, libraries). We are not there yet but the market places is getting more complicated and I am optimistic that means a solution will emerge. Think early to mid 1990s and e-journals – it went crazy before we had a model that looked like it would work.
When I heard at the end of last year that Highwire were starting to look at ebooks I was very pleased. At last here was a publisher that understood researchers and digital information, and was not primarily motivated by the desire to make huge profits. Maybe there is a chance we might see an ebook publishing model that will work for research.
Highwire decided that the first step was to gather some evidence about the ebook market and ebook usage and they have recently published the results of their research into ebooks (see press release). The key findings they have highlighted are predictable:
* Simplicity and ease of use seem more important than sophisticated end-user features.
* Users tend to discover ebooks through both the library catalog and search engines.
* While users prefer PDFs, format preference will likely change as technology changes.
* DRM (digital rights management) seems to hinder ebook use for library patrons; ability to print is essential.
* The most popular business model for librarians is purchase with perpetual access.
The DRM finding has been highlighted by several people commenting on the report, not unexpectedly. This theme comes up again and again. Freedom to use what you have paid for seems like a no-brainer, but publishers are very anxious that they will lose revenue if easy sharing of ebook content becomes the norm.
The entry of new players like Google, the Internet Archive and Apple into the ebook supply business has yet to play out. I hope we’ll see a real open market, with any device able to display any format and access any distribution channel – but that is by no means an assured outcome. We’ve been waiting so long for ebooks it seemed they would never become reality. We are still not quite there, but a new stage of the game has begun and before long we should know who the winners are. I will be keeping an eye open for Highwire’s next steps in the ebook arena.
Another thought-provoking blog post on ebooks, from Nathan Bransford about the future potential of e-books, ended thus:

The e-book era is going to be one of incredible innovation and unlimited opportunity, and people who don’t see e-books dominating the future of the book world are ignoring the coming innovation and creativity and affordability. I refuse to believe the skeptics and pessimists. Books are about to get better.

I think he is right.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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4 Responses to Redefining what we expect of an ebook

  1. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    Wonderful post Frank! I’m always interested in learning more about ebooks and whether they really will replace their more earth-bound originators.
    Interesting point about Definite Content. While it sounds like ebooks are improving greatly to better accommodate “definite content” forms, I wonder if we can ever get away from looking at such things in paper form? I say this because so many people (including myself) still print out research papers (and their loads of graphs, table, charts, etc) despite being able to read them just as easily on our laptops in html or pdf format.
    Maybe if Definite Content was, from the beginning, formatted for the “ebook canvas” more people would be apt to choose it? (And, of course, once ebooks become cheaper too)

  2. Matt Brown says:

    Might be different for research papers, but I find my iPhone does everything I need from an e-reader. I get through a book a week on it. Forcing text into the narrow screen of the phone renders it like a newspaper column, which I find very quick to read compared to wider displays.
    By the way, have there been studies that show that screen reading puts more pressure on the eyes than print/e-ink – or is it just received wisdom? I’ve personally never found a difference, but I guess I still have relatively young eyes.

  3. Nicolas Fanget says:

    I agree with Matt, my Milestone is very comfortable for reading pure text. The formatting usually isn’t too great with graphics, but it’s still very acceptable (I tried it with the test Nature Epub, now available for all iPhone owners!).
    For an iPad-like device, I’d rather wait for the Notion Ink Adam, the specs are outstanding! And it has an HDMI out, so you can plug it into any reasonably recent TV to view photos/videos, make a presentation etc.

  4. Frank Norman says:

    A bit late with my response, but see my latest post on e-books for some answers.

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