This is part of a series of articles about the technologies that are changing eReading. For those who have been following them so far, it’s probably becoming clear that like O’Reilly’s Andrew Savikas, I see mobile devices as the mainstream future of eReading. Previous articles have touched on the GMS mobile telephony standard and how the iPhone has changed the expectations smartphones and other screen based consumer electronic devices and mobile OS’es On the eve of the announcement of the iSlate, it’s a discussion on how Apps transform expectations.

How Smartphone Apps will change our Experience/Expectations about Computers

Over the past few articles, I made the argument that smartphones have changed our expectations about the availability of touch and downloadable 3rd party apps on similar devices. These expectations are because of similarities in visual appearance, functionality, and price point. Put another way, because my Kindle costs roughly the same amount as my (subsidized) iPhone (or Droid, etc), is mostly screen (like my smartphone), and is used for the display of digital information, I expect it to have the same features (touchscreen, color, apps). If I paid more for the Kindle (or other eReader) than my phone, then it definitely should have those features.

As recently as this past December, Jeff Bezos touted the fact that the Kindle only did one thing well:

And then for the Kindle device, we want that to be the world’s best purpose-built reading device. It’s not a Swiss Army knife. It’s not going to do a bunch of different things. We believe that reading deserves a dedicated device, and we want Kindle to be that device. It’s like a digital camera. I like having the digital camera on my smart phone, but I also like having a dedicated camera for when I want to take real pictures. (Jeff Bezos, Newsweek Jan 4, 2010)

Unfortunately, the problem with uni-functional/dedicated devices is that the average consumer isn’t willing to pay a heavy premium for them. Take his example of the digital camera – unless someone is a gadget person or an aspiring photographer, chances are that they paid less for the camera than they did for their smartphone. In fact, it wasn’t until the price of a digital camera dropped below $200 that they truly took off as a category. (Side note: I’m unsure if consumer digital cameras will survive in the long run given the increasing quality of cellphone cameras.)

The same is true for eReaders. If the Kindle cost less than $150, I think people would have an easier time treating it as dedicated device. For the moment, that isn’t the case. And, not surprisingly, last week Amazon announced that they are bringing apps to the Kindle platform.

But what happens when you start to bring apps to a given device? As I mentioned last post, one thing that can happen is that the applications lead to a reinterpretation of the “purposes” of that device. As previously mentioned, even though in 2008 Steve Jobs didn’t think people would read on the iPhone, 3rd party app developers and iPhone didn’t see things that way. Taking advantage of the iPhone’s mobility/portability, its multi-touch interface, and its ability to easily access content from the internet, apps like Stanza turned the iPhone into an eReading platform.

Note that we shouldn’t forget the users in this account, as they are as much a part of the story as Apple and the App developers. They had to discover the reading application (either by browsing the app store or via word of mouth) and figure out a way to integrate them into their own routines.

I’ll get back to the role of the user in a future post. For the moment though, I’d like to think about the intersection of hardware and software. Returning to smartphones, I want to discuss how their ability to combine “contextual” information with a constant connection is going to change our expectations about what both devices (including computers), and perhaps even books, can do.

By context I mean that the smartphone is constantly “aware” of its position in the world. Between GPS and cell tower triangulation, it’s possible for the phone to locate itself down to a few meters. The accelerometer within the phone can judge its orientation (landscape vs. portrait) and if it is in motion. Newer phones even include magnetometers (or digital compasses) to provide information about which direction the phone is pointing. Finally, specific environmental information can be conveyed through the phones recording devices (camera and microphone). Add that all up and mix in constant internet access and the result is a device that not only knows where it is, but it’s able to share that information with outside services.

This “awareness” is the foundation of applications like the popular Foursquare. Foursquare is a location-based social networking game. Users gain points by checking-in at venues using text messaging or a smartphone apps application. Acquire enough points and you become the “Mayor” of a specific venue. In some locations, venues have partnered with the service to make special offers to subscribers. What’s important to note is that this type of application would be difficult to execute, let alone build a significant following, using laptops or other portable computing technologies. The success of the Foursquared platform is directly tied to the specific capabilities of smartphones.

Looking to the future…

With recent increases in the processing and graphic power of smartphones, lots of interesting things can begining to happen. Rather than talk about new chipsets that are just becoming available from companies like Nvidia (btw, at this moment their stock is severely undervalued – hint hint), let’s go to video evidence:

This is an HTC HD2, a currently available smartphone, acting as a Playstation emulator. While gameplay is a little slower than on the PS1, it’s still an impressive leap. As these capabilities become standardized on smartphones, it will allow for Augmented Reality interactions. Augmented reality is used to describe a live direct or indirect view of a real-world environment whose elements are merged with (or augmented by) virtual computer-generated imagery – creating a mixed reality. Here’s an example of an ARG developed by grad students at Georgia Tech. Using a smartphone and a specially designed gameboard, the students have created a unique zombie shoot-em-up game:

The interaction with the game board is based on the QR Code (3d Barcode) technology. The software recognizes the image of a static graphic matrix and decodes information orientation information from that matrix in order to render the building structures. Here’s a similar example, using a desktop computer, where a print ad for the Mini was enhanced by an AR rendering of a Mini.

In the case of the Zombie game and the Mini ad, the majority of the information about the graphic code is contained within the app itself. The graphic simply provides positioning information. However, that doesn’t always have to be the case. A QR Code, for example, can encode up to 4,296 characters of alphanumeric data (30x the limit of a twitter post). Already there have been a number of interesting experiments with QR code enhanced reading:

These are all examples of hybrid projects that rely on the capabilities of a smartphone (or technology commonly found within a smartphone) to function. Each integrates with print to deliver an enhanced reading experience. It’s also possible to think about how cell phone technologies could enhance an ebook experience. Imagine for example a constantly updated electronic Zagats guide that uses a phone GPS technology to find nearby resturants, provides walking/driving maps to your dining location of choice, and actively solicits you for feedback on the location you just visited.

For other ways that the eReading experience might be enhanced, we turn to an interesting project from Japan. Nintendo Japan and Harlequin are teaming to release Love Stories for Adults: DS Harlequin Selection for Nintendo’s portable DS game system. Each of the 33 eBooks released for the DS will feature a character relation chart which is updated as you progress through the stories, view summaries of what you’ve read so far glossaries of terms and names, and background music. There is also a social reading component. Readers can record impressions of the works by simply selecting keywords, and will be linked to online columns about the work.

We’re just beginning to beginning to see what enhanced ebooks might look like. Clearly social reading (like social networking) will fit into the experience.