Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Kindle DX is here. So what?

Let’s start with this. Books are technology. Ebooks versus bound books is NOT high tech versus no tech.

I’ve read hundreds of books on computer screens, as many on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, and now a handful on the e-ink screen of a Sony Reader. They all have their advantages and shortcomings, obviously, but I think anyone who spends time reading on an ebook material they would otherwise read in a bound book (not the preposition difference; I think it’s significant) will be struck by what a sophisticated piece of tactile feedback technology a bound book is. A bound books helps you manage your reading experience in ways I never appreciated until they were gone. For example, it turns out knowing where you are in a book by touch (the size of the pages in your right hand relative to those in your left) is VASTLY preferable to the x of y pages counter at the bottom of my reader. If that’s not enough, try falling asleep reading your ebook in bed. And don’t even get me started about picture books. . .  Anyway, I could go on and on (as others have), but that’s not my point. Here’s what’s really interesting to me. I’m beginning to think ebooks might be a good thing for bound books. Here’s why:

I think there is a phenomenon that surrounds technology, especially established, widespread technology, wherein  a rush of what appears to be replacement technology has the effect of refocusing the old technology on what it’s truly good for—and thus people fall in love with it again.

File:Vynil vinil 92837841.pngFor example, I submit  LP records. This was a dominant technology for years and as such it acquired a huge variety of content, much of it rather ill-fitting (remember those promo records that came with cereal?). Then, it got swamped by a wave of replacement technologies (from tapes to CDs to MP3s), all of which addressed specific shortcomings of the older technology.  So, now it’s 2008 and eight-tracks, tapes, CDs, minidisks, MP3s, high-quality lossless digital audio, and Blu-Ray have all taken a whack at LPs over the course of 30-plus years. Nothings left, right? Even the audiophiles have digital formats that should make them ditch vinyl. All the shortcomings are accounted for, so bye-bye LPs, right?

Wrong. Vinyl is not dead. Not even close. Vinyl sales experienced double digit growth in recent years. Best Buy, the third largest music retailer in the nation, is selling LPs at select stores. Granted, the growth is from near zero, but it’s not insignificant as a trend and a lesson about technology—that phenomenon I mentioned above. Let’s call it refinement by attempted replacement.

The replacements stripped away all the dross that had accumulated around LPs (audiobooks, greatest hits albums, gone-in-a-second pop singles, etc.) and then they satisfied all the needs that LPs weren’t designed to meet (portability, among others). What’s left is a technology focused on what its good at and only what it’s good at: music with excellent fidelity, durability, longevity, and a great tactile experience. Refinement allows listeners to love vinyl again (or for the first time) because they can see it clearly. 

I think this refinement by replacement should apply to books, too. And I think the picture should be substantially better (in other words, books won’t fall nearly as far as vinyl, if they fall at all). I can’t yet articulate why I feel it should be better for books. Perhaps its that bound books are relatively better technology for text and static images than vinyl  is for audio. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the book is millennia old and record music is barely a century. I’m not sure. This is enough crystal-ball/naval gazing for a day.


Debbie Diesen said...

When I was in library school, one of my courses was co-taught by an art and design professor. He was the quieter half of the team teaching pair, but he became quite animated one class session when he discussed the technology of books -- all the variables that go into book design (font, page layout, margin size, line-spacing, page size, paper thickness, paper edge, covers, book size, binding, on and on) and the years of testing and fine-tuning that have gone into book development. In the context of a curriculum focused primarily on electronic information retrieval and organization, it was a nice reminder that behind its unassuming demeanor, the lowly low-tech book is actually a highly sophisticated invention.

Though I don’t own a Kindle, I’m not anti e-book, and I’m sure I’ll embrace and love many of the text access innovations yet to come. Still, you can count me amongst those who believe the old-fashioned print-on-paper book will endure, and may quite possibly outlast them all.

Tim A said...

As you say, it's the interface of a book that is so good.

I want an e-book that is a book. I want to be able to flip through it quickly and scan the whole contents in three seconds, I want a tactile high-contrast reading experience; I want it not to run out of power; I want to mark my place with a book mark, I want high resolution images and I want to be able to take my book and use it in any country anywhere, with or without a stable electrical supply. It must be available for use instantly, and I must be able to add notes to it. I want it to be lightweight and cope with a bit of rain, and it must look good on my coffee table.

But, I also want to be able to download a book from my 3G internet connection and I want to be able to store lots of books in one book. I'm not sure how far we have got towards achieveing this, but we can't be that far. It's e-paper that is cheap, thin, flexible, and doesn't need power to display that is the key. Invent that, and the paper book may start to erode.

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