Adrian Kingsley-Hughes at ZDnet chimes in with another one of those obnoxious “it’s the end of the e-book as we know it (and I feel fine)” posts that we’ve been seeing all too often these days. We all know the premise: since the iPad can do things that ordinary books, or even e-books, can’t, we have no more reason to be bound by the same tired old words-on-paper form factor.

The iPad changes this. Why? Because rather than being a device that’s specifically designed as an ebook reader, it’s a handheld tablet that just happens to be an ebook reader. That might seem like little more than semantics, but it’s in fact a crucial difference because it doesn’t try to keep up all those outdated book paradigms. Instead, it’s a device, with a screen, that can display text and images … and more.

All right, I’ll bite. I’ll even stipulate that iPad can do things that plain books or even e-ink e-books can’t do. But…so what? This is another one of those obnoxious “if you build it, they will come” pipe dreams.

As far as I know, there are not any book-like needs out there that the present form factor does not fulfill. Nobody that I know of looks up from a gripping book, shakes his head sorrowfully, and sighs, “If only this book had a movie embedded in it.”

Movies, DVDs, Scrolls, and Books

Kingsley-Hughes compares the iPad to the DVD, which “revolutionized the movie experience” with the various random-access capability, multiple subtitles and audio, and extra features it brought to home video.

Only, the thing is, it really didn’t revolutionize the movie experience all that much—at least, not in the ways that count. We still watch movies from start to finish. We still experience them as a series of still images that use persistence of vision to fool our eyes into thinking we are seeing motion, combined with an audio soundtrack. A movie on DVD is still largely the same as a movie on VHS—it’s just that the reproduction quality, interface, and extra bits surrounding the movie have gotten better.

Just because there is a new capacity doesn’t mean it will be used unless people see a specific need for it. If you want to make a comparison, compare the change from parchment scrolls to paginated books. The “random access” that a book offers compared to a scroll is much the same as a DVD offers compared to a videotape: for the first time ever, you can flip to any page.

How many centuries did it take after books came along for books that specifically leveraged that random access to be invented? Books that would not have been possible on a scroll but were only enabled by having random access to pages?

As far as I know, the only kind that comes to mind offhand—“choose-your-own-adventure” books—wasn’t invented until the 20th century.

Room for Improvement, Not Replacement

There are a number of things that e-books might do better than printed books, but they’re extra bits, things that might work in conjunction with the books—not entirely new things to be parts of books. Some of them, we’ve seen already: built-in dictionaries that can be used to look up unfamiliar words. Search functions.

Another possibility would be some form of hypertext. Nothing blatant, where every word is an underlined link, but simply the ability to tap on a character name and pull up his entry from a dramatis personae included in the book.

But Kingsley-Hughes writes:

Multimedia is the obvious feature. Why have just images in a book when you could have sound and video. But that’s just the beginning. You could throw all sorts of features into the experience, such as social collaboration, integration with web-based information, updates and much more. We’ll stop thinking about ebooks as books and start to see them as pre-packaged chunks of information, entertainment or news.

Some of that I could see happening. Maybe. But only insofar as it does not change the time-honored reading experience for the reader. Extra stuff like social networking and websites might come along, too, but it needs to stay firmly in the background unless called for. You don’t have to contend with commentary tracks or Spanish-language subtitles on DVDs unless you specifically select them when you start playing the movie, after all.

And multimedia—well, maybe for textbooks or encyclopedias, things that could benefit from the extra information. But novels? No way. And anyway, none of those things changes the form factor enough that a “book” is no longer a “book” any more than a movie on DVD is no longer a movie.

The iPad might offer a better way of displaying a book (depending on where you stand on the eyestrain factor). But something “better” than a book? Not likely.


  1. I too like the extras I get on a dvd (I love commentary tracks if well done), and they could be added to ebooks, as some type of appendage. The new Baldacci release is looking at some of that (prior drafts, etc).

    But what Kingsley-Hughes is really saying is “why read a book when we can watch it?” Not the same thing. So, I ask- how many books (fiction) does he read each month? No many I’ll be. And he wants to destroy it for all of us. What an idiot!

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I keep seeing all this hype about new interactive books and the cool flipping animations of the iPad. I also see comments ringing out talking of how cool color will be (either iPad or color e-ink) and I can only shake my head and wonder, why? Granted I see color being an asset for e-comic aficionados and graphic-novel/manga lovers alike, but what about the core novel-reading crowd? I number myself among the latter and I can say with perfect certainty that I just want to read. I don’t want a choose-your-own-adventure, I don’t want to be bothered by embedded movies when I’m in the midst of an gripping chapter, and I certainly don’t care how I get from one page to the next — so long as the experience isn’t too distracting — be it a brief flash of black on a Kindle or an animated page turn on an iPad.

    It raises the same feelings in me as when I see devout book-lovers wax philosophical about their love for the physical book and mourn that anybody could ever use an e-reader. These things escape me, I care about and desire the content, not the packaging, not the physical presence, and somehow I see these “enhancements” as something that will distract from and obstruct said content.

    Perhaps they’ll prove me wrong, but I’m not hopeful for the future if my e-content is forced into the vaguely described and aspired to “ehanced” state.

  3. Good article, Chris Meadows. All this reminds me of the multimedia hype of the early 1990s brought on by the advent of the CD. Of of the most lasting results of that was Encarta, which was recently discontinued. Probably because most people who want to find out a fact will just go to Wikipedia. They don’t want or need video and sound clips when looking up “elephant”.

    @Richard Askenase: “So, I ask- how many books (fiction) does he read each month?” Bingo. Yet another opinion piece on ebooks and ereaders from someone who doesn’t actually read books. Next up: an article on the future of live music concerts from someone who never goes to concerts!

  4. I agree the DVD movie analogy is flawed. Yes, DVD’s add lots of cool features, but they generally don’t change the basic experience of watching a movie much. They changed what you do after you watch the movie with all the special features (Many of which I suspect are ignored by most… how many people really watch the movie again with the commentary track on?).

    I think what we really need to remember here is that people read for different reasons. For research, news, reading for work, many of the cited features of “enhanced books” might be a plus. For those who read fiction, for pleasure, I am doubtful at how valuable those enhancements might be.

    Consider the following, Publishers have had one method of enhancing a book for centuries; its called the picture. Pictures have often been found to be very useful for encyclopedias, technical and history books, etc. But in novels, targeted at adults, they generally are not included (Other than the cover, which is included for marketing reasons, not for the purposes of narration or illumination). I suppose it would be nice to be able to link to social media to discuss the book with others who have read it, but if the book is really good, I doubt the social media would get much use until the book is done.

    Now another point is this, how good is the iPad going to be at doing many of the multi-media ideas that are mentioned in the article. Yes, it can certainly do sound and video (Though anything more than a short snippet is likely to be very distracting). But how good will it be at social collaboration? Lets face it, a touch screen is a terrible substitute for a keyboard. Ultimately, for any real work, a laptop is going to remain a more flexible tool… particularly since the iPad is not going to allow you to open other applications at the same time. If I am doing research or work, I want not just the book, but also an application open for taking notes, and likely other tools.. An e-book manufacturer will never anticipate all the needs of the reader.

    So, I might ultimately get an iPad or some other tablet computer… but it is not going to be so I can “upgrade” the books I have (Though I am sure the iPad with Stanza, eReader, Kindle or even Apples own iBooks will make a wonderful reader).

    One last nitpick, Chris, you mention that you don’t think any book really took advantage of random access before Choose Your Own Adventure books. In fact, that aspect of books has been around for centuries. The Breviary and the Missals used by the Catholic Church often require the user to flip to different parts depending on the prayers, the day of the week, the season, etc. I suspect other faith traditions also have books that are used in similar fashion.

  5. The problem with the iPad as an ebook reader are the multimedia features. I read more 100 books per year and watch less than 10 movies per year. Or, to put it bluntly, I have zero interest in a multimedia book. Granted, I’m a slim minority there, many occasional readers will flock to the multimedia features, but core book reader may not be so interested to flashy whiz bang add ons when all they want is words.

  6. I’d say this comes down to that question, ‘What kind of text is it?’

    For fiction, we read a text the way we watch a movie, generally from beginning to end. Criticisms of Kingsley-Hughes as far as novels and short stories go, is merited.

    But consider a manual for your car. Wouldn’t it be nice to have bits of video showing how to take out the spare tire, where to set the jack, how to change the oil? Consider a history textbook. Wouldn’t it be nice to see some clips of President Johnson’s address where he announced he would not run for re-election?

    And for all you who mock even the idea of CD-ROMs and fiction, the video game industry is moving more and more into plotted, storyline scenarios, with scripts, actors, costumes, props. In a culture that watches a lot more TV and movie stories than it reads fiction, multimedia ebooks do have a value — an added value over the plain print editions (thereby justifying high prices for ebooks).

    I think little kids would rather have an animated, jumping, talking, dancing ebook than a static picturebook.

    So here the question arises, ‘Who are the ebooks for?’ Are they meant to sell to today’s readers — the ones who in polls consistently say they ‘couldn’t curl up with a screen’ and ‘love printed books, the touch, the smell of them’? Or are they meant for the people who today never read a book, but who watch TV and movies and play video games?

    — asotir

  7. “Multimedia is the obvious feature. Why have just images in a book when you could have sound and video.”

    Ignoring the missing question mark at the end of the sentence…

    I just complained (in another on line forum) about a very good book that had very nice black-and-white illustrations that I found distracting. I felt they took away from the book. Now this clown wants to intrude sound, or worse multimedia presentations? No thanks.

    Jack Tingle

    Hey–you kids–get off my lawn.

  8. The technology to embed pictures in paper books has been around for quite a while. How many fiction books have you read in which images were an integral part of the book?

    Authors are writers, (usually) not illustrators, (usually) not directors, actors, animators or even photographers.

    Multimedia books have certain applications, how-to guides being a good example, but they will mostly be the work of a team of people, much like most movies are today.

    One excellent example of multimedia “books” are the Living Books series. They’re adaptations of existing children’s books, and they’re a lot of fun. I consider them more to be games than ebooks; they’re not the future of ebooks IMHO.

  9. The weird thought that comes to my mind while reading these articles is basically: “Considering what you say about multimedia/networking ebooks as true, why isn’t the market flooded with that type of ebooks, as we have those devices named PC’s which are perfectly capable of doing everything you are saying?”
    This guy is talking about the iPad as if it had invented multimedia and social media, and we all know both have been available for many years. Portability is something really good, but I just don’t get why all these people who aren’t interested in reading off a multimedia device sitting at their homes today will suddenly get crazy about the idea of doing that same thing in a portable multimedia device.
    All this iPad craze is getting really tiring.

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