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    Location: Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom

    I am the owner and managing director of Information Automation Limited (IAL), a company that specialises in research, consultancy and training for the information profession. We are particularly interested in all forms of electronic information resources (e-journals, e-books, etc) and I teach a course in electronic publishing at the Department of Information Studies in Aberystwyth. Drilling down still further(!), my interests centre on the quality and evaluation of electronic information, and in the thinking that underpins activities in library and information science.


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    Sunday, May 11, 2008

    On reading and design

    I was reading a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by Ezra Klein, The Future of Reading, which explores his experiences with a Kindle, and - more generally - with reading on something that is not paper-based. Klein quotes
    William Powers’s brilliant essay “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Why Paper Is Eternal,” (pdf) which considers the evolution of paper and the way it has subtly shaped not only the way we read, but what we read.
    A little later he goes on to say:
    The problem is that the Kindle tries to compete too directly with paper. It attempts to electronically mimic the experience of reading a book. But the book is very, very good at providing the experience of reading a book.
    That is when it struck me! Clever as all the e-book reading devices are, their essential problem - which inhibits their uptake by the reading public - is that they have evolved from the computer family (laptops, personal digital assistants - PDAs and so on) and not from the book, or even from paper. They do not share a common history. They can never presume to equality. They can never expect to be viewed as a book.

    John Markoff, in The New York Times, reminded us that Apple's Steve Jobs
    was skeptical about the Amazon Kindle book reader because most Americans don’t read... So if he were going to reinvent reading, how would Mr. Jobs do it?
    We may have moved on from re-inventing the book to reinventing reading, but the implication is the same: Jobs would shape reading to fit in with Apple's computing designs and the so-called 'Safari Pad': our understanding of reading and of the book will need to change to match the technology. Will the Safari Pad (or any next e-book reader) look and feel like a book? No. Will it succeed? The power of Apple or Amazon may move it in the right direction, but it will not replace paper and will not succeed until the designers remember what it is that they are designing. Ezra Klein suggests that:
    At the end of the day, the true advances won’t come in the Kindle, but in the content. Just as the capabilities of the device will shape what authors decide to do with it, so too will the decisions of authors shape the evolution of the device.
    While I agree that authors will benefit from taking advantage of the technology, I think that this view is still too optimistic. Success will only come when the physical reader offers the same experience as the physical book - not just the screen, but the feel, use and the heft of it. As Klein says - books are very good at what they do - they have been perfected over several hundred years. The (clever) ability to place an e-bookmark, scribble notes on a screen or to read an e-book socially is not enough. You can do that with real books!

    Without learning new techniques. Just plain better!

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