Tuesday, May 15, 2007

eBooks Redux

Wattpad recently made a comment to my post on Reading: Interface and Design. To sum up what Wattpad is offering, they're enabling users to read eBooks from their mobile phone via SMS. Of course their solution has two problems, one of which they're ready to admit: the fact that you're reading a novel from a tiny screen. Of course to me, this "problem" is less noticeable in a non-Romanized language such as Chinese or Japanese, which takes up less space per character (and is one of the reasons why certain Famicom games worked but lost a lot when translating it to the NES). The second problem is that your phone probably needs a lot of memory to store the eBook. I mean while mobile phones are prevalent here in the Philippines (to the point that crooks rob you of your cellphone but not your wallet), a lot rely on the Sim card for memory, and phone memory isn't a lot except on the high-end models. Barring those two flaws, the product seems to work (haven't tested it yet though since my phone needs to have an Internet connection--another limitation--in order for me to download it), especially in light of its biggest advantage: it's free and works with commonplace technology.

Going back to the subject of eBooks, another hurdle eBooks has to overcome is its history. What I mean by that is that eBooks would probably have been more acceptable if books didn't come before it. I mean rising from the primordial soup, if humans suddenly discovered electronics and skipped the stone age and the metal age, eBooks would probably be widely accepted as the medium for reading. But that's clearly not the case. Whenever you're grasping an eBook (or rather the device containing the eBook), one can't help but compare it to a similar product: the book. In fact, regular books are probably the biggest competition eBooks face. If we eliminate conventional books from the face of the earth, more people would probably consider learning how to use/read eBook more. But that's simply not the scenario here and probably won't be in the near future (but the distant future is another matter), making the point moot.

An important question few dare to ask is whether the current direction of eBooks is where we want to go. I mean the medium of paper is clearly different from the medium of a computer screen. There are things one can do that the other can't. Take for example Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine books. That's simply one book that will never make a complete transition to the eBook format. Sure, you can have the images, and even have certain things "pop out", but you can never capture the feeling of opening an envelope and smelling the stamps for example. Having said that, there are also things that an eBook can do better than your ordinary book. Take the Choose Your Own Adventure line of books. It's something that feels like it was designed for a video game, and perhaps the best method to capture it would be through eBooks. No more sifting through pages and "accidentally" reading through the other possibilities or paths. What you read--and what you choose--dictates the story. Sure, you can cheat, in the same way people can cheat memes, but at least doing so would be intentional rather than forgetting to track where you are or a misturned page. eBooks can give readers a level of interactivity that conventional books can't (although I'd argue that Nick Bantock's books are quite interactive, but that's the exception) but it's not heading in that direction. The question is, should it or should it not? I mean just because you can pack a lot of features into a DVD doesn't mean the companies do so. But whereas it's perhaps more clear-cut in the movie industry (yes to additional features!), it's perhaps an unexplored topic in the eBook field. People are merely converting printed books into a digital format when it is capable of doing more. Should we unearth this latent potential, or let tradition rule over this technology?

Presently, the current mentality is that books are more valuable than eBooks, whether it's in cost of production or the price consumers are willing to pay for them. I mean the first argument that comes to mind is that publishers pay to have a book printed while that's not the case with eBooks: the latter remain as softcopies. I think publishers should take note of that mentality: present readers are unwilling to pay the price of a book for an eBook. It doesn't make much sense to them, especially in light of DRM, the fact that hard drives can be more fragile than books (although that's not necessarily the case), and the fact that they're used to reading books but not eBooks.

Of course in the far flung future, that mentality needn't be true. In fact, I envision the reverse. A thousand years from now, people will be willing to pay more for eBooks than books. This assumes of course that computers and technology become more prevalent than what it is right now.

  1. eBooks are easy and cheap to reproduce. All I have to do is "print" it. Books, on the other hand, are difficult to replicate. One needs to access a photocopier in addition to the labor needed to copy each and every page.
  2. eBooks is a portable medium. I can store it in my flash drive, in my computer (especially when computers become smaller and smaller), in my mobile phone, in my PDA, or whatever digital accessory that becomes developed. Suffice to say, I can make lots of back-ups (and is one reason why DRM is currently hindering the growth of eBooks). With a book, once it gets wet, burned, torn, it's gone. eBooks are for the long term while paper books are for the short term.
  3. eBooks are easier to loan to other people. Whether it's sending it via email, a web server, WiFi, an SMS message, etc., it's probably more convenient and cheaper to pass around an eBook (much like #2) than it is for a book (especially due to shipping costs).
  4. It's easier to maintain a digital library than a physical library. It works for music and it should work for eBooks too should the idea be embraced. I mean right now, just look at people and their iPods. People don't carry their entire CD collection with them, they just carry one or two music devices. For eBooks, archiving even becomes easier. Interested in looking for a certain passage but don't know where to look? Forget the Dewey Decimal System, just use the search function!
  5. Instant delivery. Just download the book and there you have it. No more waiting for shipping dates or taking the time to go out of your house and visit your local bookstore.
  6. I can read eBooks with nearly any device instead of simply relying on paper.
Of course in order for this to be all true, sufficient technology is needed and it takes time for people to undergo a paradigm shift. I mean presently, #5 and #6 are perceived as assets of books (taking the time to browse through a bookshelf, the fact that paper is more convenient than an electronic screen) but those same advantages might appear as liabilities in the far flung future.

What I mentioned, however, is simply a possibility, and it bears watching how long the "paper revolution" will resist the technological one.

1 comment:

Ivan said...

Thanks for writing about Wattpad. There's actually a few ways to read with Wattpad. If you have a data plan, the book is streamed to your phone so memory is not a problem, you can read an entire book with less than 40kb of memory. If you don't have data connection on your phone, you can download the entire book to your phone via PC. This way you don't incur any data charges. I hope this helps.