Saturday, September 08, 2007

E-ink: A cynical eye

I was going to leave a comment on Adrian Hon's
musings over the upcoming Amazon e-reader, but it started to turn into a full post instead. Adrian also reviewed the Sony Reader recently, and was rather let down by it.

I used to be very excited by e-ink - or, rather, by the idea of e-ink, I guess. Or, rather, e-paper. But then, reality is never what you expect it to be, I'm perhaps less of a geek these days, and, well, sometimes excitement just ain't what it used to be. I've also gone through a couple of handheld devices (a Palm, and a Nokia 770) and tried reading various items on them to various degrees of success (news is good, got halfway through In the Beginning... on the Palm, and found PDFs nice to read on the 770). But replacing books - specifically, I'd say, paperbacks, is a whole different kettle of ink. I'm setting this article down as a cynical challenge to e-readers. That's to say, there are some deeply entrenched views about books, some of which may be changeable, others perhaps not. If e-readers are to leave the hands of geeks and fools then these challenges need to be taken seriously.

From Adrian's articles, it seems like the jump from early-adopters to the mass market is perhaps the most intriguing challenge - the "reality"of the situation once the technology exists. This kind of innovation depends on two things: price, and usability. Paperbacks are hard to beat for this: you pay a few quid (or less in a decent second-hand rummage), and get something you can carry round with you for a few weeks (or months, in my case), spill beer and blood on, push to the bottom of a loaded rucksack, and still whip out when you're standing in a queue without getting funny looks. That's pretty good value for cash.

E-readers, on the other hand, tend to be largely expensive and, while much thought may be put into making them strudy and rugged, still suffer from at least a perception of fragility. Some of this stems from the fact that you've just paid a large amount of cash for the device, and if it breaks then that's it - you've lost all access to your reading material. There's some crazy old saying about eggs and baskets that's useful from the psychological perspective of marketing and usability there. (The same may apply to music and photos, but at the same time books are generally bigger - and expected to be more "rugged".)

Besides the cost-risk compromise though, there are a number of other issues that put me off electronic books. Firstly, it seems very hard to capture the simplicity of books. I can flick through to find pages, I can jump to any page instantly. Necessary book accessories are a) something to act as a bookmark - I often use old bus and train tickets, but even a fish "works" here (or strips of bacon, if I remember my Dad's old librarian tales correctly), and b) an optional pencil, to take notes if it's that kind of book. (Throw in the tactile joy of streaming my thumb over the page edges to get to my position in the book too.)

Slow interfaces are not an option in e-readers - anything that imposes a delay will fail. Personally, more of a dual-screen approach would make sense to me, like the 2 open pages of a book - maybe something similar to this (nostalgia aside). I don't know why 2 screens thing makes sense - maybe it's the symmetric handling. I also like being able to use both my thumbs in a videogame-style way. Keyboards are a no-no.

The second thing is that not all books are equal, yet e-readers insist on treating them so. I have some books just to read them. I have some books because they look nice. I have some books because they're a cute size. I have some books because they're cheap and disposable. I have some books that I scribble in, take notes, etc. I have some books that I like to open at the same time as others (a table full of open books is invaluable when writing an essay, for instance). Books fo different things, and as such get treated differently, and I think one of the biggest questions facing an e-book is: what kind of book are you?

Maybe the key to e-readers then is not to simulate traditional books, but to be their own thing. Work out what functionality books can't provide (such as quick text searching, and hypertext perhaps) and work out which problems that functionality solves (or the other way round, if possible).Otherwise, print e-paper en masse and make each book its own thing - then I could carry round the Baroque Cycle knowing, quite happily, that I don't have a keyboard to take notes on. Choose the book interface you want - like choosing music on different formats. It all depends on the functionality you need from it. (Hey, some people might like scribbling on their copies of Quicksilver...)

The final option is just to wait 10 years for Apple to get round to looking at the whole thing properly ;)

No comments: