Back to school: On eReader devices

Another post I made to the discussion forum for the Whitireia Diploma in Publishing.

eReader devices

I’m sitting at home typing this on a Tuesday evening but in all likelihood you won’t see it until Wednersday morning at the earliest. Our modem’s broken so I’m offline. Maybe you’ve had the experience and maybe you haven’t, but it’s ironic given the topic and how it touches on growing reliance on connectivity.

So the topic (from memory) is eBook readers. One of the selling points is being able to share books with your friends. You could do that with a print book, though now you can do it with your friends no matter where they are, and from the comfort of your own living room. As long as you’re both online. And what if you want to quote something to them – maybe it’s on page 243. Or is it? Are they reading in a larger font or a different reader or device and viewing different pagination? It’s a problem that’s vexing me: we’re making online equivalents for real world objects, but slowly they’re turning into online objects with no real world equivalent. So long as the network keeps working we’re sweet; when it fails, what then?

But that’s a naysayer’s diversion. (And my partner’s just fixed the modem by turning it off and on again – how fickle!) Plenty of recurring themes emerge and I won’t attempt to respond to all of them but worth noting them. Price and functionality came up plenty, and they seem almost in oppostion. Add a preference for slick design and the iPad looks like a winner. Page turning was a common complaint about eReaders; less common but significant were the technical limitations like processing power and battery life. Colour display and touch-screen with swipe functionality were both popular.

Like many of you I was surprised by the number of devices out there and felt somewhat overwhlemed. I couldn’t help but agree with those of you who cautioned against being the early adopters, wanting instead to see how the market settles down. Like many of you I tend to agree with the suggestion that half a dozen eReaders will emerge as winners.

The point about page-turning v. scrolling reminded me of some pretty stuff I’ve seen online recently – a website that uses a horizontal page that’s far wider than your browser window. It explains its choice by referring back to the original form of the scroll: Horizontalism and Readability (accessed 29 June 2010). I’ve seen a similar approach to horizontal navigation with vertical scrolling on some iPad magazine readers, as well as on this simple rendition of the Guardian news API. I think they’re nice approaches, combining movement in both directions with a clear sense of progression across a title and down through its stories.

The question of how much or how little a device should have is also interesting. For cheapness’ sake, little functionality keeps the price down but what do we get? A relatively poor electronic reproduction of a loved print experience. The more you pay the better quality the functionality and the more of it’s available; it’s Reading+. But plus what exactly? Take the enTourage eDGe as perhaps an extreme example – part reader and part “netbook, notepad, and audio/video recorder and player in one” to quote their marketing (accesed 29 June 2010). It’s got a clear college student market in mind, but are those students really doing anything particularly well? It’s probably great for a learning experience that combines all that functioanlity to read texts, take notes, and record lectures, but immersive reading it isn’t. (Said like a true old man, I know.)

I guess the question is what are we (publishers, technologists, etc) trying to design or create? A replacement for a book or all that and more besides? Leads me to one last diversion: archetypes. Deyan Sudjic, in The Language of Things (Penguin, 2008), talks about design archetypes and devotes a whole chapter to them. His argument is simple: that certain objects perform such a clear function that their design has taken on a level of cultural significance. It’s the angle poise lamp, the old fashioned Bakelite rotary dial telephone, an SLR camera, the Land Rover and VW Golf. I’d add the book to that list; an object with the sole purpose of collecting and imparting a set of information to a reader.

Today’s convergence of functionality into portable devices confounds the idea of archetype: even a simple cellphone does more than make calls – it tells time, does calculations, sends texts, takes photos. Are we trying to create an archetype that encapsulates everything, including eReading? Or is everything being rendered down to its base form of digits and information and the challenge for Apple and Sony and Amazon and whoever else can keep up is to make an archetype that makes sense of it all?

And if that’s the choice, I’m picking something pretty like an iPhone for my pocket (soon as I can afford one that is…).