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seem like little more than semantics, but it’s in fact a crucial difference because it doesn’t try to keep up all those outdated book paradigms.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.