An iPad tsunami is upon us, judging by the number of articles about how the iPad is becoming the device of choice for reading, or raving about it in one way or another. iPad seems the wrong term judging by some of these articles. The way it is dominating and obliterating all other competitors suggests it should be called the iStomp. Anyhow, the technical press can make it seem that everyone is ipadding.
I confess, I have succumbed and bought myself one. It certainly is a nice piece of equipment that makes reading easy on the eye – I like the easy way you can make the screen image bigger and smaller – be it text, images, or whatever. The touchscreen interface is generally very good – it is a relief to be free from keyboard and mouse. I haven’t yet tried using it for substantial amounts of typing.
I do find it a bit heavy in the hand: trying to hold it in one hand while reading is just a little uncomfortable after a while; it is much heavier than a typical paperback or magazine. It’s more portable physically than a laptop yes, but that doesn’t mean you can carry it everywhere. I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking it everywhere with me where I might want to take something to read. Carrying a cheap paperback around casually or leaving it propped up in a bar or cafe temporarily is fine but I can’t see myself doing that with a piece of kit worth several hundred pounds.
Much reaction to the iPad is very positive – see these recent posts from a librarian, a writer, an academic, a scientist and a clinician. I liked what the academic said (though not sure what it means exactly): “It connects you to your physical and intellectual surroundings, rather than alienating you”. This finds an echo in the experience of the clinician, who said the iPad was “useful for communicating with patients. patients commented it was the first time they understood their disease”. Stanford medical school is giving away iPads to medical students: they are “distributing iPads to the incoming class of 91 first-year medical school and master’s of medicine students during orientation in August as part of a trial program to integrate the mobile device into academics”. Lucky beggars! Stanford says that the core goal of the iPad initiative is to improve the student learning experience. The University of Muenster is trying something similar on a smaller scale.
The iPad is not just a device for reading or consuming content, but that is one of its big attractions. Back in April Martin Robbins highlighted the potential of the iPad for scientific communication:
“The iPad may be one of the nicest ways of reading scientific literature around, at least for some people …A research paper could become more than something you just write a few notes on and file away, it could become a living thing, a platform for exploring the findings presented.”
Martin Fenner has also been captivated by the capabilities of the iPad for scientific reading. In his review of the iPad app Flipboard he said:
“It can be used out of the box for journals that tweet their table of contents or at least the most interesting papers… also a great tool to follow science blogs… would also work very well to cover the blogging and tweeting of scientific conferences.”
I particularly liked Flipboard for the way it makes content browsable. My biggest complaint about e-journals and e-newspapers is the poor browsing features.
The popular package Papers is already available in an iPad version and Mendeley soon will be. The BMJ hopes to be available on the iPad by the summer and I keep seeing announcements from journals with iPad plans or now reviews of books in iPad versions (the latter says “Could this be a new era where information really does get to the bedside? The short answer is yes”).
Most of the discussion about the benefits of iPads and e-book readers is anecdotal, but we are starting to see some research, and it is not positive. Jakob Nielsen, the guru of web usability, compared a printed book, an iPad and a Kindle 2. He found that It takes longer to read books on a Kindle 2 or an iPad versus a printed book. His sample size was quite small so it would be interesting to see if anyone can replicate these findings. An interesting Taiwanese study compared an (unspecified) e-reader with printed books, again in a student population, and found that “reading an E-book caused significantly higher eye fatigue than reading a C-book. This is mainly due to the low contrast and resolution of the display for an E-book”. A Hong Kong study again looked at students’ use of ebooks from a variety of viewpoints. Again they noted problems with the readability of the screens. On the other hand, a study of US students looked at the Kindle and found that “the portability of the device and its convenience of use anywhere and any time is pivotal for enhancing the students’ reading experience and outweighs the limitations of the device’s usability”.
Of course, it is not just about readability – ebooks can be used in different ways and may link with electronic workflows better than printed books. Institutional attitudes to ebooks may also be important. A recent UK survey suggests that ebook adoption is slowly taking off in UK University libraries though Andy Powell in his blog post about the survey suggests
“My suspicion is that we are at a point in the hype curve around e-books that has tended to push librarians (most of the respondents to this survey were librarians) into thinking, ‘we ought to be doing something here and we probably should expect a sharp rise in uptake’ even though general demand from the user community (i.e. students and teaching staff) remains quite low to date.”
The Scholarly Kitchen blog has something to say too, in a blog post entitled It’s the End of the Book As We Know It – and I Feel Fine they say that there are various trends “tearing through the land of the printed book”, and point out how the book business is changing as a result. They suggest that book content will follow the model of music, with electronic consumption meaning much easier availability. I am not convinced we are at that point yet, as e-book readers are nothing like as widespread as mp3 players.
The iPad is going to be a significant device for reading e-content, but there will be other devices soon. I bought my iPad after reading an article suggesting that the competitors had missed the boat and the iPad would be the only game in town for a long time. I’m not so sure of that after reading further reports.
The last word though must go to McSweeny’s though, for their incisive analysis which concludes that ‘the newspaper’ is the best e-reader on the market!
Thanks to Oliver Obst and Eric Rumsey for all their tweets on ebooks which have been very useful in preparing this.