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Death of the e-Reader, birth of the E-eBook

November 24, 2009

I enjoy reading and I adore technology, but I find it difficult to take to the e-Reader. The problem with e-Readers is that they’re too small a paradigm shift; too small a leap in technology. They’ve been around for about ten years in one form or another, but don’t look like gaining mainstream acceptance. It’s not difficult to understand why. Admittedly, the convenience of being able to carry dozens of books around in a handy portable device is attractive. E Ink is a clever and worthy innovation (which should see wide ubiquity beyond e-Reader use). There are also a few features that make it attractive to certain types of reader (students, researchers etc.) and certain types of books, but that’s about it.

However, anyone who has ever read an entire novel on an e-Reader (if they’re honest) will admit that it’s just not the same. A book has personality, from the content to the cover, which an e-Reader simply cannot articulate. An e-Reader is an electronic device, a gadget, a gizmo, but it doesn’t behave like one. It merely purports to be a book in electronic form, and that’s the problem – it doesn’t offer anything new. In fact, it detracts from the fundamentally enjoyable aspects of reading a book. Turning pages, the most simple and enjoyable of tasks, becomes a chore. When I picked up my first e-Reader (a “Mk 2” model) I couldn’t believe the clunkiness of interaction, and in a post-iPhone (touch) world, users don’t like clunky. Then there’s the book cover, which old proverbs aside is arguably the most influential feature. E Ink delivers a sublime digital reading experience, but does so at the expense of rendering poor graphics and no colour, meaning all pictures, illustrations and photographs look awful. Imposing greyscale images on consumers, even in a literary context is regressing our experience and expectation by decades.

Despite these limitations, there remains support for plain text digital delivery of books via digital technology. Interestingly however it is handheld devices such as the iPhone and iPod Touch that are already challenging the e-Reader, as they offer much wider functionality, greater mobility and better value. In short, they are ‘proper’ gadgets. With the eBook caught somewhere between the physical, tactile experience of real-world reading and the newly emergent rich media literary formats, it’s difficult to see how eBooks will capture mainstream imagination and transcend their niche, ‘freeware’ positioning. Moreover, any dedicated and relatively costly device of predominantly fixed scope and application will find obsolescence difficult to avoid in an advancing market.

Enhanced Editions
In many ways, the iPhone-delivered “Enhanced Edition” is the antithesis of the e-Reader. Especially so when the rich feature-set is considered, together with greater functionality, design and interaction that Enhanced Editions pack into a small-screen form factor. Enhanced Editions is essentially a media-rich interactive presentation on a small handheld screen, as opposed to the eBook, which is a static digital facsimile of text on paper presented on a larger screen.

Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro was the first novel to receive the Enhanced Editions treatment earlier this year, having initially been written and conceived as an interactive multimedia novel. As a format for the future it’s compelling, as the array of content enables the user to read, watch and listen to the book, as well as watch Nick read and listen to audio created for the story. I would not have forseen it as such, but reading through each page as the author narrates in tandem and the page automatically scrolls is a revelation, and positions the enhanced eBook as a genuinely viable successor to the book, either on a handheld device or via an entertainment system. In addition to audio and video features, Enhanced Editions offer the conventional functionality of dedicated e-Readers such as chapter points, scalable type, search and changeable colour scheme, plus additional features that utalise the iPhone’s inbuilt sensors. Developed as an App, this product is all the more admirable having been conceievd for the small screen and yet delivering  an immersive and compelling  experience.


Book and Beyond (enhanced eBook)

Book and Beyond premium eBooks
is a multimedia book format developed by publisher Random House for use with Adobe Digital Editions eBook reading software, and presently only deliverable on PC and macs ( iPhone support is expected soon). As such, this form of literary presentation is competing with Enhanced Editions, albeit through similar distribution channels but different development and delivery methods. Enhanced Editions are developed as iApps whereas Book and Beyond is viewed through Adobe’s Digital Editions software. Both offer DRM or copy prevention measures, and software developer LexCycle’s Stanza eReading software already provides Adobe Digital Edition support on the iPhone. Even so, only the basic eBook content is transferable to an e-Reader as even the latest e-Readers lack the multimedia processing power, storage and technology to present rich media content. This is disappointing and does beg the questions; at what point does and e-Reader become a bona fide computer, and if unable to support enhanced literary media why hasn’t it? Perhaps it’s about to, as it’s precisely this market space and lack of initiative that Apple will exploit with their much-rumoured netbook-tablet. It will be interesting to see what form of enhanced book Apple employs as part of an intergrated ecommerce-distribution-consumption model, and whether Enhanced Editions and Book and Beyond will offer a differentiated user experience. It’s not entirely unlikely that both will be subsumed into a more versatile, scalable and managed solution.

Whatever the approach, it’s clear that there is absolutely huge potential for an enhanced eBook reader that can provide a slick, versatile, convenient and enjoyable experience. Similarly it’s also easy to envisage Apple moving into the publishing sector and completing a three-fold digital downloads model for music (audio), films (video) and books (enhanced literature). On this basis I’d be less inclined to think of Apple’s forthcoming device as a tablet, and more a Personal Presentation Device or PPD. Where will this leave the fledgling e-Reader I wonder, and will anyone care? Further reading:

Digital publishing
IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum)
Google Books
EPUB Wiki
E Ink

Enhanced eBooks
Enhanced Editions
Random House enhanced eBook

eBooks
Adobe Digital Editions eBook reading software
LexCycle Stanza – iPhone eBook reader (including support for PDF, EPUB & Adobe eBook support)
epubBooks.com – Collection of free literature in ePub format

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4 comments

  1. Thank you for another great post. I look forward to many more entries with high quality info. I’m a marketer myself and your information always seems to get my business brain going!!


  2. It seems to me that the ereader’s biggest advantage is eliminating pages. You can hold the device in one hand, tap a button with a tiny gesture, and keep on reading.

    Paper books basically require two hands just to keep a page open, and a page turn can’t be completed without moving both. Plus, you can’t keep your eyes on the same portion of a book throughout because half the text is always on the opposite portion. Ereaders eliminate this whole clumsy ritual so that we are free to simply take in the written word.

    Plus, no more papercuts.


    • An interesting point – the technological benefits are often cited and clearly apparent, but little discussion is given to the ergonomic aspect of book vs device. I think a lot depends on the exact form-factor of the device, and the type of book. For example, I prefer to read a paperback when on the go, but a much prefer the heavier, solid format of a hardback when reading for pleasure and at length. I recently picked up and played with a newer Kindle at the Design Museum and was struck how ‘Apple’ it felt (slick, pleasingly tactile etc.) but found it surprisingly heavy for a thin device.



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