Better Technology for e‑book Readers

by Krishna on May 20, 2011

Nicholas Carr has a detailed critique about the drawbacks of electronic book readers:

E‑books are much more rigid. Refreshing discrete pages of text on a fixed screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flipping through pliant pages of fixed text. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational protocols and routines on the user, allowing certain patterns of use but preventing or hindering others. All sorts of modes of navigation and reading that are easy with printed books become more difficult with electronic books — and even a small degree of added difficulty will quickly frustrate a reader. Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e‑book requires the reader to adapt to it.

This, to me, seems to be a classic mistake of comparing the early versions of a newer technology (e‑book) to the sophisticated versions of an older one (paper book). There are still many ways an e‑book can be improved that would definitely improve the usability.

First is getting a material that can merge the benefits of e‑ink and LCD screens. For example, the iPad and Nookcolor come with touch, but they have problems with readability unlike the Kindle. An ideal material would be a color screen that is readable and allows multi-touch gestures. Also something that is durable for writing on using a stylus. And perhaps has different modes of operating in sunlight and poor light.

Allowing gestures would allow you to “flip” through a book. For example, you can just swipe your finger horizontally across the face of the screen and you jump several pages in proportion to the speed or pressure of your finger and the surface you touched. This could be complemented with a scrollbar — you can scroll or click at a particular location, just like in a media player. Combining them, you could jump to a particular location and have the e‑reader mimic flipping through several pages forward or backward at a speed you like. How quickly you want the pages to flip can be controlled by the speed of your gesture.

Writing and drawing should be easy to implement. The good thing about an electronic device is that you could connect many different kinds of input devices. It is probably faster to type than write. You could have an external drawing device that allows you to draw on a page using pens and markers of different colors and thickness. Also allow you to layer different notes. tag them and only show relevant notes. If you have to write with a pen-like device, handwriting recognition could convert much of it to digitized text that you can later search on, reducing the duplication involved in typing the notes up.

I also fail to see why an e‑book reader cannot fail to create a graphical representation or a metaphor of dog-ears or folded pages. After all, a dog-ear is a bookmark. You could easily bring up a list of bookmarks and navigate to that. A folded page is the equivalent of a hidden page and you can also bring up a list of such pages. E‑book readers usually employ a full screen layout reducing distractions from email and such. Future readers may also have the ability to switch between books faster or connect to external screens so that you can compare multiple books. Maybe even project to a screen.

In the long-term, People may end up owning multiple e‑book readers as prices go down. One reason is size. You might want a larger e‑book reader for technical documents or school textbooks. Granted, if future e‑book screens are flexible, maybe that wouldn’t be needed.

This is nothing to say of the advantages of e‑book readers. e‑books are less expensive. You can start reading them immediately (no shipping waits) after purchase or downloading. You don’t need storage space for books (especially those who you have no intention of reading again). Reading a large book is much easier on the hands (less weight). There are also some temporary advantages of regular books. Lending and loaning are easier. The existing inventory of paper books in libraries means that you don’t have to purchase non-public domain electronic books.

In the future, libraries will necessarily have to transition to e‑books. One model I have read on some blogs is to have libraries purchase e‑book readers that can be lent to library members. Some libraries nowadays use Overdrive which provides e‑books to check out. Most library patrons can purchase their own e‑book readers (given that costs are now less than $150 a pop). Poorer community members can use the library provided ones. The cost of providing these devices can be offset by purchasing more e‑book versions instead of paper books.

For example, most pulp novels (without graphics) can be moved to electronic versions. Public domain books can be sold off to technology laggards who still insist on collecting paper versions while they are still alive and active. The space freed up can be rented out! You can think of all sorts of ways to design the modern library. The challenge is converting people like Carr in understanding that the new ways present more opportunities beyond their temporary disadvantages which can be overcome with improvements in technology.

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