Why Print Still Rules: The Fading Legacy of E-Books

Woman reading KindleFor the better part of my career, my areas of concentration and expertise have been intellectual freedom, copyright (and copyleft), free and open source software, open access and net neutrality. But because I also have expertise in technology, people often ask me if I think e-books should replace print. They assume I would be a fan of digital books replacing paper and ink.

Personally, I prefer print books, but let us put my personal feelings aside for a moment.

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Truly Readable E-Books (Thanks to HTML5)

Screenshot of Bluefin e-book

Reading a book on a website is a bit like holding a book upside down and turning pages with your nose. Because most websites are designed with standard HTML, there is no easy way to give a user true page-by-page performance. The result is the incessant scrolling and clicking that you do with normal web pages, only magnified by however many hundreds of pages the book has.

The ideal solution to this problem is to construct some type of interface that allows natural page turning, avoids scrolling, and presents the user with readable text. It should be something that works equally well on a desktop, laptop, and tablet.

One possible way to accomplish this was to use a third-party plugin like Adobe Flash Player. As a parent, I’ve seen numerous sites for children that rely on Flash to give early readers the page-turning book experience. But Flash brings its own problems. For one, it is proprietary, requiring users to download non-free software. In fact, having to download anything at all is enough to turn off some people. There is also the problem of device support. Tablets like the iPad, would be excluded, as would screen readers for the visually impaired. Flash text is not real text, and basic interaction (copying, pasting, right clicking to get the browser’s menu for tasks like searching for words, and interacting with extensions) are not supported 100 percent. This leaves users with a less than pleasant experience.

Continue reading Truly Readable E-Books (Thanks to HTML5)

The iPad hype and why books are safe

There has been much talk about the cybersphere with the release of Apple’s new iPad.  Some of that talk has reflected the views of people who believe the days of print materials are numbered.  And please don’t mistakenly assume that because I am a librarian, I would shed tears over such a loss.

From the perspective of historical preservation, appreciation of literature, and a general love of books, I would certainly miss holding a book in my hand — the smell and texture of the pages, the feeling of turning each one with my fingers, and the weight of the object in my hand.

Nevertheless, I recognize that a change must come.  Printing anything on paper is destroying our environment, the only earth we have. Something must replace the traditional book, but the real question here is whether e-book readers like Amazon’s Kindle or over-glorified e-book readers like the new iPad are the answer to this dilemma.  I think not.

There are two main problems with this theory.  The first is cost.  While there may be future devices that are inexpensive and easily distributable, these devices are not.  As much as Apple fanboys would have you believe that everyone and their mama is going out to buy an iPad, that simply is not the case.  If people have to pay more or even as much for a reading device as they do for mobile service or cable television, people will simply stop reading.

The second problem is format.  Digital media is currently laced with poison (i.e. DRM).  It is a hassle that you cannot share your e-books with others as easily as you would shared a print book.  It is ridiculous that libraries cannot do this, and until they can, e-books will always be second-rate.  The format problem is also reflected in the devices themselves.  No matter how thin they get, they are not going to replace the look and feel of a real book.

I believe the real solution is something like I saw on Caprica: a page that looks and feels like paper but is electronic.  We have the ability to synthesize almost anything these days.  I am lactose intolerant but can eat soy cheese and hardly notice the difference.  Paper can be synthesized and so can book covers that are stronger and more resilient than the current offerings.  Imagine hold a book that looks and feels just like a real book, but you can press a button when you are finished reading and turn it into the book’s sequel.

I am not writing this because of nostalgia or my love of books but just based on my observation of library patrons and people in general.  I believe that until we reach the point where the benefits of e-books outweigh the inconveniences and high cost, print books are safe.