A Feature, Not a Bug

Excellent article in the Guardian this week about the internet. It seems almost laughable that someone could write a four thousand word essay about the internet these days, so central is it to the way we live our lives. But John Naughton has, and it’s excellent. He makes an excellent point about disruption being an essential part of the internet – a feature, not a bug:

One of the things that most baffles (and troubles) people about the net is its capacity for disruption. One moment you’ve got a stable, profitable business – say, as the CEO of a music label; the next minute your industry is struggling for survival, and you’re paying a king’s ransom to intellectual property lawyers in a losing struggle to stem the tide. Or you’re a newspaper group, wondering how a solid revenue stream from classified ads could suddenly have vaporised; or a university librarian wondering why students use only Google nowadays. How can this stuff happen? And how does it happen so fast?

Naughton argues that we are currently in the midst of a revolution (an actual revolution, rather than an evolution) the outcome of which is not by any means clear. He says that in the future, it’s likely we will look back on the internet in the way we look back at the Gutenberg press – tracing a clear line of consequence between movable type and such massive cultural shifts as the rise of modern science, entirely new social classes and professions and the collapse of the universal power of the Catholic church.

Of course, without the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to know whether the changes the internet and the age of digitisation will bring will be good or bad. It’s very likely they’ll be a combination of both. But nonetheless there is a certain inevitability about it – whether we want it to or not, change is coming.

What has this got to do with books and book technology? Quite a lot. Movable type and the Gutenberg press were at the centre of the communications revolution of the last millennium. The press allowed all sorts of new kinds of communication, and it allowed the rapid distribution and dissemination of books. Will the new communications revolution leave books behind altogether in its race to transfer information ever faster, or are books still a relevant means of communicating ideas in this new age? The answer, according to Naughton, will come to those who wait. In the meantime, of course, we can always speculate. What do you think? Will the book as a medium survive the next four hundred years? If so, why? What does it have to offer that no other medium has?

Review: iBooks on the iPad

Click on any of the pictures for a closer look

So, I’ve had my iPad for a couple of weeks now, and it’s high time to review Apple’s answer to the ebook question. I’m not going to review the entire iPad – unlike the Kindle, the it’s not a dedicated reading device, and there are plenty of other options for reading books, newspapers, magazines and blogs on it.

The iBooks app does not come pre-loaded on the iPad when you buy it, a choice by Apple that has more to do with their relationships with international publishers than it does with their determination to turn the iPad into a reading device. Unlike Amazon, Apple do not want its users to associate the iBooks app with no books on its bookstore.

Having said that, we don’t yet have much of an idea how much content will be available on the Australian version of the iBookstore (can I point out right now that I’m already getting sick of typing lowercase ‘I’s in front of every bloody proper noun in the Apple vocabulary?). When it launches in Australia on 7 June, the iBooks app will be available from the App Store, but we don’t yet have any idea what the range will be like. The US iBookstore, for what it’s worth, seems well stocked enough (by all reports, somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 titles). It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 400,000 available on the Amazon Kindle store, at the moment, but that’s likely as much to do with how long it has been available as anything else.

So what’s it like reading on this thing? Absolutely fine. Unlike the Kindle, the iPad uses an LCD screen, a source of much consternation for ebook nerds. I’ve heard comments that the backlit screen makes it ‘useless’ as an ereader. But this has not been my experience at all. For those of us who already spend a proportion of our days reading backlit screens on computers, the iPad is no worse and arguably a lot better than this. You can easily set the brightness levels to suit the ambient light, and the advantages of the backlit screen are obvious – it can show colour, embedded video and the refresh rate (how quickly each page turns and illustrations are shown) is light years ahead of the Kindle. You can also almost instantaneously flip the orientation of the book between a double-page spread and a single larger page by just turning the device as it suits. There are disadvantages as well, of course. The screen is not a patch on the Kindle for reading in direct light – you can forget bringing it to the beach with you (though I’ve never been inclined to bring my Kindle to the beach anyway). The ten-hour battery life is also nowhere near the Kindle’s ten days – though this is mitigated by the fact that the iPad can and would be used for more than just reading books.

For anyone used to reading ebooks, the iBooks app has most of the standard ereader features. You can look up words in the dictionary (I really like the implementation of the dictionary – it pops up in a small window overlaying the text so you can quickly check without having to leave the page), you can also search the book and bookmark it. For some reason iBooks does not have any annotation capability, though this may be something addressed in a future update.

One thing that really bugs me about iBooks, however, is the way you load books. If you buy books exclusively from the iBookstore, you can do it from anywhere and start reading instantly. However, if you want to load up your own DRM-free, out-of-copyright books you might have downloaded from somewhere like Gutenberg.org, then the only way to add books to the app is to plug it into iTunes, add it to the library and sync the iPad. For a device that sells itself as internet connected and as a netbook replacement, this feels like a massive (and unnecessary) step backwards.

Ultimately, the iBooks app is a very strong contender in the realm of ebook readers. However, the comparative feature set of this single app is not going to be what sets it apart. That’s because the iPad is not just iBooks. For readers who are hooked on the e-ink experience, I’d say that there’s no huge advantage to buying an iPad. Stick with your Kindle, your Eco Reader or your Sony. For people who are curious about e-reading, but can’t decide whether to an ereader is a waste of money – then an iPad is for you. It’s more expensive, but it does far more than an ordinary ereader. It is also much more likely to be future proof – whether it’s Amazon, Apple or Google books you’re after, it’s very likely that they will all be able to be read on an iPad long into the future.