E-readers and E-books: Reading the Road Ahead

October 23rd, 2009

Its hard to ignore the eReader and eBook attention. Almost everyday in the past few months news stories appear talking about the next device and the overall market for eBooks and its impending expansion. Book publishing in general has been a late arrival to the new media party but they are rapidly playing catch up due to both an evolution of devices, technology and a consumer market that is finally ready to embrace reading materials on something other than tried and true paper. But as I will explore here, there is much more than just moving print on paper to print in digital bits and bytes. Many are speculating that what may ultimately emerge from the nascent ebook market is a hybrid technology that blends both the written word with both multimedia components in ways that have not been seen before. It would be more than just embedding audio, video and interactive graphics into text. That has been done on the web for years, but something entirely new. Such innovation requires several elements to create a perfect storm of innovation: 1) You need technology that is ready for primetime 2) You need consumers who are ready to try something new and 3) You need content providers who are willing to break with tradition and begin thinking out of the box or in this case out of the book as we have known it for the past five centuries. It seems all three of these are about to converge in the book publishing industry pushing us into new directions with the media that has been the pillar of civilization for half a millennia. (note: apologies to early readers of this. I posted before a full edit could be done. Fixed many typos, etc!)

Its hard to keep up with all the headlines, but here but a few that have appeared in recent weeks….

“Could an iTablet Rewrite the Book on Publishing?”…

“Hey Princeton! You should have waited for Sony”…

“Rebooting the Book (One Apple iPad Tablet at a Time)”…

“Before Choosing an E-Book, Pondering the Format”…

“How the E-Book will Change the Way we Read and Write”…

“Best Buy and Verizon Jump into E-Reader Fray”…

“Will Amazon Open the Kindle to Developers?”…

Getting a handle on all the current headlines, its important to consider the past and the road that technology has taken to get us to this point. So rather than hammer out a timeline for you, I created a timeline that can illustrate this progression. You can see this here (small PDF). ebook_tech_timeline.pdf

The specific technology that has led to the boom and the buzzword craze of e-readers is E-Ink and the rise of the plethora of e-readers that use this technology or something similar. E-Ink is not a perfect technology by any stretch as we shall see, but for better or worse, it has brought the linear, written word into the digital world kicking and screaming.

To gain some perspective on this, I created another small handy pdf timeline (eReader_timeline.pdf) looking at some of the significant e-reader releases by a range of hardware makers. I have undoubtedly missed some models and manufacturers here, but you get the point. There are a lot of e-readers out there. Only a few, like Sony’s Reader and Amazon’s Kindle, have really grabbed the attention of the general consumer population in the United States.

Physical e-reader devices are just one of the equation in this brave new world of e-books. The other issue is one of formats. The e-book content needs to be in some format that the hardware can render and display easily. At last check of Wikipedia’s e-book formats, there were no less than 26 of these out in the world. Good grief! Its like 1990 all over again with proprietary formats everywhere. Many of these formats are obscure and not widely supported or used, but nevertheless, this is something that needs to be straightened out. The big shakedown is about to happen and the formats that may be left standing above the rest are the following:

1) International Digital (.epub) – This is an open source standard format that many, many e-books are in already.

2) Amazon Kindle (.azw) – This is Amazon’s proprietary file format for books bought through Kindle. The application Stanza (that Amazon now owns, can convert other ebook formats to the .azw format with mixed results)

3) eReader (.pdb) – This is the format the new Barnes and Noble Vook uses. It was originally developed as format for reading text on Palm Pilot PDAs but has been given new life on the Vook. It is supported on all the major OS platforms and includes a number of features such as highlighting, footnotes, bookmarks, etc

4) Adobe PDF (.pdf) – This format needs little introduction as its been around since 1993. It is still poorly supported or not supported at all on many e-readers, but since so many documents are in the PDF format and its now a mature technology, this may be the format of choice for technical documents, academic

5) Mobipocket (.mobi, .prc) – This largely open format also has many of the features of the eReader format but can also support the insertion of blank pages along with user drawings, annotations, etc. Amazon uses a slightly altered flavor of this in its proprietary .azw format. The Mobipocket developers are reportedly working on software to convert .epub files to .mobi files.

Honorable Mention: HTML 5 – This major new release of the HTML specification will yield much greater and more powerful interactive features. It could be part of the glue that pulls together the content for viewing hybrid multimedia book content which could potentially be read both online and offline. HTML 5 holds great promise to be disruptive to established technologies like Adobe Flash and other browser plug-in technologies used for viewing interactive media and files containing audio and video.

So its important it keep an eye on formats as they are a big part of the e-book puzzle for both the producers and consumers of content. Related to this is the publication which came out in July 2009 by Freedman titled, “A Kindle in Every Backpack”… It does make a compelling case for e-books in education but with some notable areas missing from discussion. First, Freedman used the term interactive several times. One of the big drawbacks about the current crop of e-readers is that they are definitely not interactive. Technological constraints of the devices and the E-Ink technology are the reason but this may soon change in the coming months. Second, he makes no mention of formats for e-books. I would argue that the most important thing for getting e-books into the hands of students is to standardize an open source format that is supported on many devices giving students a chance to pick what device they would prefer to read their e-books on. As it stands now, the proprietary .azw format for Kindle books is not open for third party tinkering. The minor exception is the application Stanza produced by the company Lexcycle. Stanza can convert documents into the .azw format for uploading to a Kindle, but the end results can be wildly unpredictable. Nevertheless, Stanza is excellent e-reader software whether you use it on your desktop computer or your iPhone, where the Stanza app really shines. But I digress. I think that Freedman should perhaps issue an addendum to his paper calling for a standard format(s) for e-books and then perhaps we may see a device in every student’s hands and lightening the load both on the wallet and the back would be welcome too, as the price of e-books appears to be holding at a much cheaper price than printed versions. And no longer would one necessarily need a beefy backpack to haul around half a dozen textbooks. Their e-readers will hold hundreds or thousands and weigh only ounces.

This issue of format is rapidly becoming important as Google gears up to launch its Google Editions unleashing volumes of digital tomes onto the web in open sourced formats such as the .epub International Digital format.

Before one gets too excited about hardware and software formats ( I know, hours of great conversation), I think its perhaps more important to discuss what all this really means for the venerable book and our way of interacting with it. To do this, one need to look no further than the excellent writer Steven Johnson’s take on what this all means. His Wall Street Journal article published on April 20, 2009 titled “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write” sums it up nicely. He says it far better than I…

It will expand the universe of books at our fingertips, and transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social. It will give writers and publishers the chance to sell more obscure books, but it may well end up undermining some of the core attributes that we have associated with book reading for more than 500 years. There is great promise and opportunity in the digital-books revolution. The question is: Will we recognize the book itself when that revolution has run its course?

He makes a number of compelling points in the article which can be summarized thusly,

- This point will eventually be moot in the future, but for now the vast majority of books are not online, thus they are not indexed and rendered searchable by web search engines. Google is trying hard to make inroads into this issue with its Google Books project. On Oct. 9th, 2009, they have scanned some 10 million books through 20,000 publishing partners using scanners that are capable of scanning up to 1,000 pages an hour. But it takes time to digitize humanity’s written works. So don’t expect wonders yet, but its happening.

- Once books are digitized and indexed, expect new ideas and innovations to bloom. Linkages across works, citations and annotations, etc. can all be made effortlessly in the digital realm.

- Expect new types of software to emerge which will be able to cross index and sift though volumes of book data to link together related information in ways not seen before.

- One drawback is that we may loose the total immersion into a story that traditional books give us. Yet, there may be room for something new that can add to what is taken away.

- The e-book may generate new ways to write and generate income such as writing on a chapter per chapter basis and writing for optimized search on the web.

- And then there is the issue of page numbers. Digital books, especially the Kindle formatted books, don’t have page numbers, so new ways of citation and annotation may need to be developed and standardized so that we all are on the same page so to speak when we refer to passages in work.

- Finally, this is my question, not Johnson’s, but what will become of the author signed book? They may truly become even more valuable collector’s editions.

While Johnson talks about the influence of the eBook in general, what about education specifically?

Blogger Ron Miller notes in his “Who’s Going to Develop an Ideal Academic eBook Reader?” that cursory studies show that students like several things from e-readers:

1) Students strongly prefer a larger screen that more closely resembles the size of a textbook.

2) Students said that the readability, weight and size of eReaders are mostly right on, but that battery life and the speed of turning pages needs to be improved.

3) Students strongly preferred reading on an eReader rather than a laptop/netbook.

However, while these are things students want, it does not necessarily mean recent offerings are delivering. Nilay Patel at Engadget, notes that recent responses to the Amazon Kindle DX experiment on several campuses across the country did not garner glowing reviews. Students at Princeton called the DX a “poor excuse of an academic tool”. Most cited problems with annotation, no page numbers for citations and clumsy highlighting. So its clear while we are headed in the right direction, we are by far from getting to the point where every student will want to use one of these devices on a regular basis for education purposes. But hope in on the horizon. Sony released their PRS 600 Reader which has received good reviews and appears to be a better option to the Kindle DX. It features multiple ways to mark up text including a stylus, touch screen and hardware controls. It has a standalone note taking feature that can be used independently of any book stored on the device. It also uses the .epub open source format so it can access the growing pile of Google Books that have been scanned. One can also view books in color on a computer while the device only shows things in various levels of grayscale with the e-Ink screen. Its not perfect, but looks like a better alternative to the Kindle DX. Writer Chris Dawson covered this in his post “Hey Princeton! You should have waited for Sony” piece over at ZDNet Education.

Not to be outdone, the highly anticipated Barnes and Noble Nook ereader just launched that offers two screens, one is a small color touch screen for showing book title covers and a navigation system for access your library, etc. The larger screen is an e-Ink grayscale screen just like the Kindle and others. However, it has better highlighting, note taking and sharing capabilities than the Kindle DX which only has some basic annotation and look up features. It also runs the Android mobile OS in addition to sporting the E-Ink screen. The Nook has mostly garnered good early reviews. Expect many new devices to show up that keep piling on the features and ease of use. The field will get crowded but the standouts are the Nook, the Kindles and Sony’s Readers.

To be clear e-readers currently have these drawbacks:

1) The devices are highly non-interactive, mainly designed for passive reading of text. This is largely a function of the e-Ink screen technology

2) They only offer grayscale viewing of text and images, but this may change soon as e-Ink is rumored to have color screen technology in their labs and other readers may use color non- e-Ink screens such as Fujitsu’s spendy color screen e-reader introduced earlier this year in Japan.

3) They don’t integrate or play well with other media and are not well integrated into the web yet.

4) They are specialized devices that basically do only one thing.

5) The interfaces are largely kludgy.   

Despite these drawbacks, e-readers offer these benefits which will likely only expand as the devices evolve

1) They typically have longer battery life than other tech gadgets and have lower power consumption largely due to the e-Ink screen technology.

2) They are easy on the eyes so reading for long periods of time is much more comfortable.

3) One can store and carry a huge number of books on a single device.

4) They are light and highly portable.

5) Some can integrate content from newspapers and blogs which are delivered wirelessly such as the Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.

As the e-readers proliferate, the question becomes what is next for these devices and the written word remixed into the digital domain. That answer is elusive right now but there are tantalizing glimpses of what may just down the road. The alternative to the e-Ink screen based readers and other devices is some form of a hybrid book and device with which to interact with the content. Such a device may be coming in the next few months from Apple and Microsoft as rumors and speculation rise to new levels, especially for Apple.

200910212059.jpg 200910212059.jpg

images from Gizmodo.com

So what would such a new device do? There are many possibilities, but it could very well shake up our notion of what a book is. As Johnson mentioned in his WSJ article, “The question is: Will we recognize the book itself when that revolution has run its course?”

Yet another NYTimes article titled “Curling Up with Hybrid Book, Videos Included” puts forth the thought about where books are heading in the digital age:

“But in the age of the iPhone, Kindle and YouTube, the notion of the book is becoming increasingly elastic as publishers mash together text, video and Web features in a scramble to keep readers interested in an archaic form of entertainment.”

“Some publishers say this kind of multimedia hybrid is necessary to lure modern readers who crave something different. But reading experts question whether fiddling with the parameters of books ultimately degrades the act of reading.

“There is no question that these new media are going to be superb at engaging and interesting the reader,” said Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University and author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.” But, she added, “Can you any longer read Henry James or George Eliot? Do you have the patience?” – from Motoko Rich, Oct. 1, 2009, NYTimes.com

Some would say that the interactive book is already here and its called a Vook (not to be confused with the Barnes and Noble Nook). Vooks are books with video embedded in them that are used to illustrate a point made on the text or to visually add some variety to a piece. However, its not what one would called truly revolutionary in the way we see or interact with books. Vooks have been criticized for simplified interfaces and poorly thought out media integration and add to increased budgets for additional media (video in this case) production. To some, these harken back to the days of the CD-ROM when books were rushed into the digital age without much thought for how we might really interact with text and other media digitally.   

The bottom line is this: Ebooks and Ereaders have been around in some form for awhile. However, they are just now coming into their own as the consumer market seems poised to accept them on a broad scale. Additionally, the technologies such as E-Ink and touch screen interfaces are also helping this last pillar of traditional media truly integrate into the digital world. Like the audio, video and interactive graphics before it, new technology developments are ushering in a new era for text that would make Gutenberg proud. Expect the innovators such as Apple to shake things up and challenge us once more about how we interact with, share, create and publish our media going forward. This is an exciting area that will see lots of change in the next few years, especially for education and the publishing industries. One area I am particular curious about is how will this new technology handle the glossy, coffee table photo book? Stay tuned…the next chapter you may not be able to put down.


A Kindle in Every Backpack?…Would we even need backpacks?

July 29th, 2009


In July, Thomas Freedman of the The New Democratic Leadership Council published a short call to arms paper about outfitting every school child with a eTextbook reader. He heavily refers to Amazon’s Kindle, including it even in the title of the paper A Kindle in Every Backpack: a proposal for eTextbooks in American Schools. The paper outlines plenty of good reasons why our education systems should embrace eTextbooks and their associated e-readers. These are very clear. However, I think to get the impact Mr. Freedman is advocating, two things need to be addressed which are not mentioned in the paper. One is that instead of a particular device such as an Amazon Kindle, the focus should be on a universal, open source format. This format can deliver the textbook content to many different e-reader devices instead of just one or two that work with a proprietary format. And second, the technology Freedman mentions that kids want is not exactly ready for the e-readers of today. Let’s take a look at these two critical areas as they are important to this discussion.

Amazon’s Kindle format is fairly closed and the tight control Amazon exerts over it was evident recently when George Orwell’s 1984 was yanked digitally off the devices without the owners knowing it until after the fact. It caused quite a stir and had Jeff Bezos candidly apologizing for this. In this day and age, closed formats need to tread very lightly and e-books are no exception. Yes, I understand that we need to deal with copyright and rights management. Hopefully the lessons of the music industry can be applied to this nascent area of technology. The Kindle does support other formats which are more open as well in all fairness, but they are clear that they want you to buy your content from them.

As it stands now, there are plenty of proprietary formats already floating around from Amazon, Sony and soon, Barnes and Noble when they work with Plastic Logic to deliver e-books. Now, I can understand that distributors would want to seal off competiors by making their devices only read their proprietary format, but for educational purposes, this is not a good thing and so I think it should be clearly stressed that for such a national inititiative, an open e-reader format should be embraced and supported, perhaps with government support. Don’t let one tech company lock everyone into one format. Keep the eTextbook format by demanding, by law, that eTextbooks should be as openly accessible as possible. Just as paper textbooks can be loaned, shared and exchanged easily in the traditional book format, so too should an eTextbook. Learning cannot be proprietary.

Enter the Portable Document Format (PDF) that has become our ubiquitous digital document format. While it was created and is controlled by Adobe Systems, they have given the PDF format a long enough leash that it is supported on all major platforms and is quite portable in the digital domain. And while PDFs can have some embedded multi-media, this is far from the norm. Its mostly text and images that you get with a PDF. Many of the current e-readers do support the PDF format and can display their contents on the E-Ink screens. The viewing mileage you get out of looking at PDF on something like a Kindle or Kindle DX will vary. Its not great but it works on the E-Ink screens. E-Ink is developed by a private company and licensed out to the manufacuterers who want to use the E-Ink screens on their devices. The big problem with PDFs on e-readers, especially the smaller ones, is that the documents are static. The images and words do not flow to fit neatly on the small screen for reading. You have to zoom in on a page, then scroll around to read it, or you are stuck looking at the PDF at one size such as the case with the Kindle DX, which has a large screen, but you can’t resize a PDF to suit your viewing needs. One e-reader manufacturer does make a device that is specifically for looking at PDFs. It uses its own software to take a PDF and make it fit on the page nicely with text flowing around images and fitting on the smaller screen better. Its not perfect, but its a step in the right direction. But again, we are really talking about text and images, not other types of multimedia.

This brings up the other point related to Mr. Freedman’s article. He mentions the ability for students to take quizzes and have multimedia, etc on such devices. Well, that may take some time and if that is truly desired in the near future, then one needs to look at other devices such as laptops, netbooks or tablets that have operating systems (and batteries) capable of handling video, animation, web connectivity and interactivity (i.e. Flash). He points out that about half of students questioned about what they wanted in their classrooms responded with wanting access to real time data visualized like what you get with Google Earth. As a huge fan of the GeoWeb, I could not agree more, but you are not going to get a Google Earth experience on a Kindle or other e-reader (btw, Google Earth requires some high bandwidth connectivity and a decent graphics card to really shine). E-Ink is rumored to have color screens out perhaps in the the next year or so and is playing with them in their labs now. However, for this technology to support all the multimedia goodness we are used to on our full computers, this may still be out a few years. For now, the e-reader devices promise heaps of books in your pocket (see no backpacks needed) and the ability to have instant access to your personal library. But they are mostly still a passive reading experience. And that is fine, but don’t expect them to sing iTunes and do the Flash app dance. The Kindle does have a rudimentary web browser and its Verizon Whisper sync wireless technology is nifty for delivering books, blogs and newspapers, something the other devices are lacking to a large degree, but e-readers are not multimedia machines (yet). A possible exception to the multimedia dilemma is found on Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch which are quite capable multimedia devices and decent, if not perfect e-readers too. I have found the iPhone Kindle app to be surprisingly good at reading Amazon’s Kindle books. The device is always there so I read at times I normally would not, such as waiting in line to get on a plane, see a movie, etc. Its there when the moment strikes to read a few pages. In addition several iPhone apps offer decent PDF viewing experiences too such as Readdle’s ReaddleDocs app or their new PDF Expert app. AirSharing and AirSharing Pro also offer some good PDF reading capabilities. And it is highly likely that Apple will release some form of a tablet like device in the next six months that will handle multimedia along with e-books so this could perhaps bring the future to us a little faster than E-Ink screens will.

So these are my words of caution for embracing eTextbooks for all school kids. I think this needs to happen and it will happen, I just hope it happens smoothly and those that make it happen keep formats open and embrace new technology that will merge the written word with the moving image and beyond. This perhaps will get people reading in an entirely new way while transforming the learning process and moving the venerable textbook into the age of bits and bytes.


You can read the PDF (perhaps with your e-reader!) of Mr. Freedman’s paper here.

A book we should all consider…

May 16th, 2008

I just found out about this book and the synopsis at O’Reilly has me very intrigued (its out in early June). It is a book perhaps we all should take a look at as educators in the digital world of the 21st century. The title is Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track by Russell L. Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg. You can order it from O’Reilly or other book sellers. The Overview at O’Reilly gives you the details so I won’t go into them here. It could be worth a read. Have a good weekend…a little more here.

Addendum: This is not out yet! Should be available in early June. The link below goes to Amazon where you can glimpse some of the content.

Keene Haywood (University of Texas @ Austin)