Archives for posts with tag: eReaders

For more than a millennium, the codex was king. The gathering of paper or vellum, folded into pages, and bound with a protective cover to a common spine was developed in second century Europe. Over the next two hundred years it would slowly overtake the scroll as the primary vessel1 for the recording, storage, and dissemination of the written word.

And since its development, the form of the codex has remained largely unchanged. In fact, the most important innovation in the production of books — the development of movable type printing in the mid fifteenth century — was a manufacturing revolution rather than a reinvention of the codex itself. Gutenberg’s revolution was finding a faster and cheaper way to make books.

Granted, the print revolution did begin the evolution of the manufacture of codices. Vellum pages gave way to paper. Over time, new binding techniques allowed for the production of books of all shapes and sizes with all manner of coverings.

And thanks to the print revolution, the content contained by codices changed tremendously. The spread of the book form led to a blossoming of knowledge and art.

Information begot information. Books begot books.

But for all the changes in content, for all the new shapes and sizes of book, the overall container — the codex — remained largely the same. The form of the book had been locked down a thousand years before the birth of Gutenberg. In other words, channeling Douglas Adams, if a wormhole opened in a Barnes and Noble today and a paperback fell back in time to the court of Charlemagne circa 785 AD, the famed scribe Alcuin would immediately recognize the alien object as a codex, as a book.

The old adage is that when all you have is a hammer, everything comes to look like a nail. If thats true, then it stands that when the only information container you have is a codex, all information starts to look like a book.

Where there is no real alternative, content becomes inseparable from container. The two collapse into a single, seemingly inseparable form.

Well into the 1980’s, if not the early 1990’s, the codex remained the only mass-​market container for the written word. The advent of new types of recording and broadcast media created alternatives to reading. But none of them offered an alternative for reading.

It’s only been in the last two decades with the rise of eReading devices — first the PC, then cell phones, and now eReaders and Tablets — that reading has taken a truly revolutionary step.

We are in the midst of a renaissance for readers and reading. And this renaissance was facilitated not just by an explosion in publishing, but though the creation of alternatives to the codex.

The introduction of alternatives into a space where they had not previously existed disrupted a thousand year old illusion of a hard bound relationship between form and content within the pages of a book. People have discovered, for example, that novels are, for the most part, platform independent — words read just as well on screen as they do in a paperback or a hard cover. A book is no longer synonymous with its traditional physical container. Today the choice of which version of a text to read — hardcover, paperback, audio, or ebook — is becoming increasingly dependent upon what type of experience a reader wishes to have with that text. And that includes having multiple experiences with the same text over a variety of platforms.

The appearance of alternatives containers for words also opens up new and exciting ways of looking at the present, the future, and perhaps, most importantly, the past.

Thinking about reading on smart-​phones and tablets has given me a new perspective on the books in my library. I increasingly find that my books shelves contain printed apps like cookbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias, how-​to books, travel guides, and directories. These collections of functional information, written for random access rather than narrative reading, and intended for specialized tasks were relegated to books, not because that was the optimal format for that information, but because the codex was the only option available.

Looking at things from this perspective — that these were always apps that we mistook for being books — is it any surprise these categories of publishing have been revolutionized by the advent of electronic reading platforms?

Realizing that digital reading has freed apps hidden within traditional books, points us to the exciting challenge/​opportunity for publishers and creators. Sure, people will continue to write platform independent works like novels. Despite so many fears, there is no real evidence to suggest that long form writing is going to go away. I’m sure their popularity will wax and wane. But while the business models will change, the overall production of that sort of narrative writing will continue unabated.

What is far more exciting, from my perspective, is that creators can now choose between a diverse set of publishing platforms. And that choice opens up new opportunities to create revolutionary works that work to embrace the full potential of their chosen platform. Publishing consultant and all around bright guy, Joe Esposito, beautifully described this challenge as follows in a recent email discussion thread:

[T]here is another model, and that is what I will call the Frostian (from Robert Frost: “all I ask is the freedom of my material”) model. In the latter model, the creative impulse comes about in a struggle with the material – good fences make good neighbors: the operative word is “make.” In this sense, books ARE their containers, or at least they are born of a struggle with their containers.

Now that we have learned how much of our content is platform independent, now that we can stop trying to force apps into the form of books, there’s a wonderful opportunity to create platform-​dependent works. To create books that truly link content and form.2 To choose to work with the codex format and embrace what makes it different than an eReader (and visa versa, of course).

For more than a millennium, the codex was king — the only game in town for the written word. That is now over. We are in the second decade of having real alternatives. And those alternatives are not going to go away in the foreseeable future. In fact we’ll most likely see them expand.

This is such a good thing.

We now have the space, the opportunity, to rediscover the codex and choose to embrace it. We do not need to try and recreate the codex experience on a digital device. After all, the codex has been with us for a long, long time. It isn’t going away. If anything, now is when things get really interesting.

Vive la différence.

  1. Other media for the written word — scrolls, clay tables, chiseled stone, graffiti on walls — persisted, but these were largely relegated to special uses. []
  2. To be fair, there have always been authors and book creators who have worked to tie content and form together. Examples of such works include Tristan Shandy, House of Leaves, and Watchmen … my hope is that this will become a far more common practice. []

On Friday, August 6, Techcrunch reported that Nicholas Negroponte, chairman emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab and founder of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) association, proclaimed that the physical book would be dead in five years. A short article that I wrote in response to the subject is now live at Internet Evolution. Normally I’d mirror it here, but since there’s a lively discussion going on there, I’, just going to link to it instead. Give it a read and join the conversation!

I’m also happy to announce that our panel “Virtuality, Simulation, and Social Life” got accepted for this year’s American Anthropological Association Conference! Even more exciting, one of my discussants is an “anthro hero” of mine: Lucy Suchman! How cool is that!

Thats about it! School starts next week and I’m heading down to Ithaca this weekend.

29/365 (IPAD) by Jesus Belzuncem Licensed Through CCLast week two opposing editorials appeared on TechCrunch representing the two oppositional poles of a discussion on reading and the iPad. On the side of the iPad killing reading was Paul Carr’s NSFW: I Admit It, The iPad Is A Kindle Killer. I Just Wish It Weren’t Going To Kill Reading Too . In opposition to Carr, stating the iPad is going to fundamentally change reading and we need to rethink books is Dear Authors, Your Next Book Should be an App, Not an iBook, written by 21 year old1 Cody Brown.

On the weekend of its launch Cory Doctorow and others (like myself) critiqued the closed nature of the iPad development platform and its relationship to innovation. Others have written in support of it.

What is it about the iPad that activates discussions like these? I mean, it’s a wonderfully engineered device, but it’s not all that and the proverbial bag of chips. Though it may replace some people’s “traditional” computers2 , neither the desktop, nor the notebook, will be going away anytime soon. And, while Apple will probably capture the slate tablet market, there are tons of competing tablet devices on the way. However, if the iPad had “just” been a tablet (like upcoming models from HP, Dell, or Google), I doubt that we’d be been having such focused conversations.

Having been witness to lots of debates on the iPad and its potential effects on publishing by pragmatic folks who, though technologists, are excellent at getting beyond the spin, I don’t think most of these discussions can be dismissed as simply buying into hype .

Nor is it necessarily the given reality of the situation, though transformations within the marketplace, like the move in publishing to agency model pricing is most definitely based in the immediate real. For the most part these conversations, take for example Carr and Brown, are fixated on the future.

So what’s driving all the churn?

I propose that the iPad is the metaphor3 that has allowed/​enabled existing ideas to be developed in new (and potentially more productive) ways.

The iPad’s promise of a tight “device” (versus computer) experience, able to be “infinity” expanded through apps, creates just enough space of ideation to activate all the debates that we’ve seen (open v. closed, book v. app, etc). What the iPad adds to this discussion is a common understand of interaction and experience that allows us to greatly refine the discussion.

Beyond the specifics (like app store pricing and agency models), the iPad offers an “open bounded” experience — neither as single purpose as an “eReader” or as open as a “computer” (or perhaps even a “website) — with an easily understood interface (emphasizing the immediacy of touch) and platform (the easy availability of apps). If you’re in a ‘modern’4 country and within a general age/​demographic grouping, you don’t need to have held an iPad to participate in the discussion — we can easily conceptualize the experience from interactions with other technologies (computers and cell phones being obvious examples, but also think about interactions with touch screen interfaces in retail and other locations).

The brilliance of Apple, for better or worse, is the iPad’s intuitiveness5 — using an iPad is far easier to imagine and explain than any other type of computer (including Macs).

If we take the iPad as both the subject of and a metaphor for the arguments, we can try and “step outside” the discussions to see what’s actually being argued. And the answer is, “the future.” Each of the debates, and positions held there in, encapsulate a specific ideology/​imagination of a future (for publishing, for software, for users) which have been going on for quite a while. Should devices (with the iPad standing in for all) be open (democratic) or closed (authoritarian)? Will literacy fail or be irrevocably transformed? Is all development positive? And what is lost when, with the move to digital production and distribution, “all that is solid melts into air?” 6

From this perspective, the increasing heat of these reactivated debates should not be a surprise. Previous discussions about future7 suffered from lack of a shared conceptualization of computing. We might have conceptualized unfettered computers with transparent interfaces, “elegantly” fitting into our lives, but I don’t think that most of us were truly able to imagine them, at least in a shared way. Turning Marx’s quote on its head, Apple has taken the conceptual and given it a material form. And it doing that, it’s (momentarily at least) reshaped the discussion.

  1. The only reason I called out the authors age is that it was invoked twice within the article, once by TechCrunch and once by the author himself. I’m assuming that being 21 years old is important to understand his right to comment on these issues (as opposed to the fact that he’s a Reynolds Scholar in Social Entrepreneurship at NYU, and on the board of CoPress). For the record, as of presstime, Mr. Carr is 30 and I’m 35. Hopefully our ages are as important to our messages as Mr. Brown’s is to his). []
  2. in particular folks who use a computer primarily for eMail, web surfing, & light word processing []
  3. I’m thinking about a metaphor in terms of Wittensteinian categorization, and not necessarily as Lakoff and Johnson do. []
  4. I admit that Modern is a deeply problematic term. I had initially “first-​world”, but that is equally, if not more, problematic. Any suggestions? []
  5. Intuitiveness should be thought of as a mediation between intangible individual and cultural expectations about how a device should work and its material functioning. It emerges in dialog with an ever emerging total social experience of technology, and is therefore a constantly moving target. []
  6. Marx and Engles, The Manifesto of the Communist Party []
  7. I’d go so far as to say every discussion of the future, as like technology, the discussions around it are in an ever emergent state. Thus categories and concepts are always being created and modified []

Disclaimer 1: I haven’t played with an iPad yet.
Disclaimer 2: While I agree with everything Cory Doctorow wrote about the iPad, I still want one. Please don’t judge me…

Today is launch day for the iPad, and, it’s going to be remembered as an “important” day in the development of computers, as the launch day of the iPhone represents an important day in the history of the mobile phone (and, as we’ve discovered, the eReader and the computer). That said, I think it’s important to stress that the iPad is not a computer.

In an editorial published yesterday entitled “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)”, Cory Doctorow makes the case for why the iPad is not a “revolutionary” product when it comes to user empowerment. Take a moment and go read the article. Seriously… whether or not you agree with Doctorow’s conclusion this is an important discussion.

I for one agree with Doctorow. Apple, by extending the “successes” of the iPhone with the iPad, is defining a new, restrictive, device space — one in which the device you purchase is wired shut (I’m borrowing both the phrase and concept from Tarleton Gillespie1) . As Doctorow points out, as with the iPhone, the iPad is a device that you buy but don’t own.

  • Even though you paid hundreds for it, you can’t take it apart without voiding the warranty.2
  • Even though you paid hundreds for it, you can’t customize it in an non-​Apple approved way it without voiding the warranty.3
  • Even though you paid hundreds for it, you can’t load apps from 3rd parties without going through the Official App store without voiding the warranty.

To appreciate how this model is different, think about a car. I can perform routine maintenance on my car without voiding the warranty (provided I do it correctly). I can put alternative grades of gas in their car without voiding the warranty. Most importantly, I can open up the hood and take a look at the engine without voiding their warranty.

The iPad is, to borrow another metaphor from Gillespie, a car whose hood is welded shut. If you break that seal, even if you don’t touch a thing, you’ve voided the warranty. Further it’s a car in which I can only put in approved gas, and that gas can only be bought from the manufacturer of the car.

This all leads me to why the iPad and other upcoming tablets are not computers. The computer, as we understand it, was the ultimate in customizable equipment. Take a trip to the grocery store and take a look at the magazine rack. Even at a time when magazines are ceasing print edition, you’ll still find numerous magazine dedicated to how you can mod your computer. And even if you aren’t interested in modifying your computer, you still have full choice over what software you can load on it. You can purchase software at computer/​electronic stores, big box business stores like Staples, and even at supermarkets and dollar stores. You can also download software from countless websites. There’s no approval processes. For better or worse, anyone can write and distribute software. For all the reasons stated above, this isn’t the case with the iPad.

The iPad is not a computer. It’s a device which the user has limited control over.

An argument has been made that this closeness doesn’t matter when the platform is so easy to program for that a 13 year old child can create and market their own app through the store. The problem this argument conflates access to authoring tools and a marketing channel with control over the device/​distribution. Put it a different way, yes that child can build their own app. That’s nothing new, precocious children have been programming for years! What this argument fails to take into account is that the child’s ability to distribute that app is controlled not by the child but by Apple. If Apple decides that the app is inappropriate — of course, everything that junior-​high-​school-​age boys produce is always appropriate —then it will be removed from the store. Once that happens, there is no way to load it onto the iPad, even if that child ops to eMail it to friends. Private distribution, outside of the app store, is not a option.

And while someone might say that the child could get around this restriction by building their application on the web, there are two problems with this model. First, there is still no easy way to charge for access to a web app. Second, and more important, the primary graphic tool for building web applications, Adobe’s Flash, cannot run on the iPad.

Others have suggested that the iPad is nowhere near as closed a platform as the printed book. While this is a bit of an “apples vs. remote controls” type of move, even if we take the comparison seriously, I don’t think it holds up. Yes, I can’t directly change the content of the book. I’m not easily able to add pages or words for example (at least not additional printed words). However, I’m free to alter the book in any way I want. I can make notes in the margins. If I’m a dadaist (or a ransom note writer), I can cut the book apart and reassemble the words in different formats. And I can also choose to create my own book, radically altering the form of the book, as well as its contents.

What is particularly interesting for me, as a social scientist, is that this “locking down” of the iPad and other tablets can be seen as reversing a key trend of modernity/​promise of technology. According to its proponents, the “computer/​internet revolution” enabled us to move beyond the “mass” prefix. No longer were we the “mass produced” culture of the industrial age. Technology enabled choice; it allowed us to personalize our commodities and our media. Mass media was replaced by web 2.0 where anyone could create their own content and share it.

The iPhone, the iPad, and a number of other devices on the horizon, step away from this. In the name of user experience4 we are taking a step back towards Fordism (“You can have any app you want on your iPod as long as it’s approved by Apple.”) Cynically, one might argue that what this is really doing is pulling the veil off of the “mass customization” that we have really been experiencing5 — that we have never realized the freedoms promised to us by technology. I’m not quite that cynical.

I, like Doctorow, think it’s important for a space of experimentation and resistance to be available.6 And the failure of the iPad, and a number of other tablets that look to be on the way, is that it doesn’t provide that space. If anything, the iPad works to enclose possibilities, not expand them. My hope is that this model will not win out. My expectation (especially considering that after writing all of this I still want an iPad) is that this will be the future (or at least for a while).

Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)

  1. For an excellent summary of the parts Gillespie’s argument that are especially relevant to this discussion see his article “Designed to Effectively Frustrate.” []
  2. Note that the iPad and the iPhone were by no means the first devices to forbid the user from taking them apart. []
  3. The iPhone was, however, the device that popularized the App store model which has since been embraced by Google and Microsoft. []
  4. Note that I don’t want this to be an either/​or situation. Just about every decision Apple has made can be justified in terms of user experience. Of that there is little question. However, failing to acknowledge the trade offs that are occurring because of this and contemplate how this may be indicative of a larger trend would be a mistake as well. []
  5. See Mark Andrejevic’s iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Internet Era for a particularly excellent summary of this position. []
  6. This is a fundamentally different position than being technological Utopian — I don’t think technology is the solution, its what the people do with the technology that matters. []

One of the many technologies on displays at this year’s TOC was Qualcomm’s new Mirosal display technology. This and Pixel QI’s tech will probably kill the eInk reader. Both technologies are low powered, “quick” refreshing (though not as quick as a traditional LCD, color displays. While they do consume more power than eInk, my understanding is that they are far lower draw than a traditional LCD. That means that the battery on an eReader (or tablet) powered by this technology should be able to easily last between routine charges. Note that all of the smaller displays in the background are demoing Mirosal as well.

Qualcomm Mirasol Color Display from Matt Bernius on Vimeo.

A couple points of clarification. The handheld unit running the video-​loop is not an eReader. Nor is Qualcomm/​Mirasol getting into the eReader business. They are, at this point, just providing the displays. The Qualcomm rep confirmed that we would see Mirasol on an eReader by years end, but could not confirm the manufacturer/​marketer. My guess, based on Qualcomm’s previous relations and the desire to make a big splash with this technology, is that it will either be a Sony or Kindle reader. I don’t think there are other players big enough out there to compete with those two for the technology.

[Rendering of Notion Ink Adam]

As far as it’s competitor, PixelQi… we will see that premier on Notion’s Ink Adam tablet (pictured above) later this year. The Ink Adam is a really interesting device that has the potential to give the iPad a real run for its money in terms of feature/​price set (see comparison chart below — click for higher resolution version).

(BTW, you get my narration in the video because I was not able to synch up with the official Qualcomm rep, and the nice fellow working the booth isn’t allowed to be interviewed)