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Why books on the iPad just might work

Philips Wants Us To Know That They’re Ready fo...
Image by John Federico via Flickr

In the past month or so, since Apple’s iPad was announced, there’s been an increasing pushback against the idea that the tablet will be a meaningful stand-in for a dedicated e-reader. In particular, it seems to have really disappointed folks in the e-reading/publishing/new media community, many of whom expected a lot from the Jesus tablet — in some cases expected diametrically opposed things. It’s more ambient complaints than a specific detailed argument, but the general beef goes something like this:

  1. iBooks is an afterthought, it’s US only and doesn’t even come pre-installed;
  2. Nobody’s going to want to read a book when they’re constantly tempted to check their mail, play games, and browse the internet instead;
  3. A lot of the “enhanced ebook” demos so far look pretty crummy (this unites folks who prefer plain-text and people who wanted enhanced books to be more interactive);
  4. It’s a closed system, which means Apple controls it, Apple could censor what you read, and keep you from taking your books anywhere else;
  5. Nobody reads anymore anyway / Big-time e-readers have already invested in their Kindles / Real readers like print.

Now if you’re playing along at home, with the exception of the first, none of these criticisms are really iPad-specific. #2 is the supposed reason people don’t and won’t read on their laptops or smartphones, #3 is the criticism of early efforts at interactive books on the web or CD-ROM, #4 is the iPod, and #5 is just a repurposed version of the anti-Kindle argument, except here it’s strangely (but only occasionally) mounted in defense of the Kindle.

So here’s my argument as to why books on this thing will work. It doesn’t have much to do with the future of Flash or HTML 5 video (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist web people think about), the agency vs retail model of selling books (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist publishing folks spend a lot of time thinking about) or with the future of multimedia unbooks (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist new media folks spend a lot of time thinking about). It’s all based on my imagined psycho-anthropology of an average iPad user.

I’ll start with an axiom. The iPad is not intended to be an ebook reader, or even a music or movie player, or even really a cloudbook. In fact, it’s better if you stop thinking about it in terms of the kind of media you’d like to play or create on it at all. It’s not really about that. Or rather, media is only incidental to it.

It’s better if you start thinking about it in terms of the geography of the human body. This is how the iPhone worked. It had great software, handled all sorts of different kinds of media. But its real success in incorporating all of those different media, and different applications, is that it conquered what had been a highly competitive place on the human body. It conquered your pocket.

It’s not all that different from the kitchen gadgets we see advertised on late-night TV. “You can get rid of all of these gadgets, replace them with the ______, and finally get your counter space back!” It’s weird because we don’t think about our computing devices this way. But that’s really how they work.

The iPad obviously can’t fit into your pocket. And Apple wants you to keep your iPhone there. No. The iPad wants to conquer your backpack.

It wants you to leave your laptop, your books, your magazines, your notebooks, your portable DVD player, your netbook, your Kindle all at home. Or it wants you to never buy them. It wants to monopolize your mobile bag. If not at the airport, then definitely for short trips.

Now, let’s say I buy the first-gen, cheapest available iPad, the model that comes with 8GB 16GB of memory and Wi-Fi only. What is the geography of this device? I could use it at home, as a second computer, especially if I don’t have a laptop. But if I do have a laptop, either the laptop or the iPad may begin to feel redundant. The iPad’s superior portability suggests that it’s best used as a portable device.

But unless you sprung that extra dough for 3G, or you’ve got a local café with decent free wi-fi, you’re stuck with whatever you’ve got on packed away in local storage on the device already. This might be a movie, sure, or music, or a video game. But you don’t have very much room for a lot of any of these things. The only thing you really have a lot of room for is text.

(This is actually why I suspect plain-jane, text-only books are going to have a long life as the de facto default for a while. Dedicated reading machines like the Kindle or Nook can’t support anything else, and more versatile portables like the iPad don’t have the built-in memory or everywhere-internet to support a whole library of these things. Add our inertial devotion to document formats like PDF and it may be a very long time before multimedia books or magazines become mainstream items.)

Now, video games are a good example of another phenomenon that bodes well for books on the iPad. I’m going to call this “the principle of adjacent media.” Here’s the theory. When you buy a heavily multifunctional device, you usually have a fairly limited set of things you’d like to do with it. For instance, when I bought my iPhone, I wasn’t really in the market for a video game machine. I wanted something like could make calls, keep up with email and my calendar, browse the internet, maybe play music and show photos and maybe even read some books. I like video games, but I was pretty much web- and console-only; I never even had a Gameboy, or bought a game for my computer. In other words, video games had no claim on my pocket. But soon enough, I said, what the heck, and bought a few games for my iPhone.

That’s what’s going to happen to books on the iPad. For every user who does a bunch of reading on their iPad, you’re going to get a dozen who are going to buy books based on the “what-the-heck” factor. It’ll be better than buying a book in an airport, or at a shopping mall. The store will be right there. There will be several of them. (iBooks, Kindle, B&N and more will all have apps.)

And I bet that the relative weakness of the entry-level devices, the low memory and lack of 3G internet, will all actually drive iPad owners towards reading. First it will conquer their bags. And when they run out of internet, then they won’t have anything else to do.

(That, at least, is my wholly speculative theory about the whole thing.)


MikhailT says…

You do realize that the cheapest iPad is 16GB, not 8GB? I would use my iPhone to store music collection and just listen to it instead on the iPad. There’s no reason to store music on it, just keep it on the iPhone. So it would feel like I have 32gb of storage between iPhone/iPad.

One of the things that might make iPad much more attractive to certain authors is short stories. I feel like the iTunes store may start offering podcast that delivers short story per week or a collection per month, kinda like the sci-fi magazine Asimov or the serialized stories that we’re seeing all over the Internet. I would definitely pay 9.99$ a month for those content and read it more often on the iPad. Right now, iPad is very attractive to me for my PDF collection of technical books. No other e-book readers can read PDF well.

Tim Carmody says…

Yeah, I totally screwed up the 8GB/16GB thing. I’ve been meaning to get back and replace it. I don’t know what I was thinking, except maybe of the old iPhone 3G specs.

The overall point remains — it’s not a ton of memory. Not enough for a big music library. Even less for movies. And applications for the iPad are likely to be more robust (i.e. bigger) than those for the iPhone.

You can sync and shuffle out other kinds of media if you want. Or you can say, “hey, most of what I read and watch will be on the web or stored in the cloud anyways.” But the fact remains that this thing is suited to store libraries of apps, photos, and text-based documents, and only a handful of everything else.

geo says…

Beyond the fact that the minmum size is 16GB, the sync function almost renders the storage size moot. My iPhone always has new material on it, and I generally don’t consume more than a 7-8 GB between ssyncs.

Enjoyed the article, particularly your remarks about how the iPhone/touch “conquered your pocket.” You’re right. I do guard carefully what goes in my pocket and my iPod touch now “owns” my left front pocket. It’s every bit as important as my keys (right front) and wallet (left rear).

You’re also right that much of my thinking about an iPad has revolved around whether it should go with me in a backpack in almost every situation where I’m not carrying my MacBook. But there is a distinction. What goes in my pocket is hard to steal. When that backpack only has a water bottle and a paperback, I don’t worry about theft. Toss in even the most basic iPad and I would fret more than I would like.

I disagree with you, however, about the dominance of text-only books. I’m currently reading The Riddle of the Sands (one of the first spy thrillers) on my iPod touch and miss sorely the lack of the maps of the German coast that come with any print version of this sailing adventure. I’d be even more disappointed if a $500, richly graphics-capable device gave me nothing but crudely formatted text. It’d be like dining in an elegant restaurant but being served dog food on a paper plate.

We can do better than bare text. We need an ePub smart enough to at least place a properly scaled image in some designated spot, such as the top right of the next page. On large displays, smaller images might be full-sized. On smaller displays, images would be just a thumbnail. In every case, tapping the image would blow it up to full screen size and tapping again would return you to your text.

As a writer, my frustrations with bare text are much the same. My most recent book was a collection of articles by G. K. Chesterton in which he warned, during what was called the Great War, that, if Europe did not end the war properly, with Germany properly chastised, within thirty years there’d be another war with Germany so terrible, it’d make the first look like noting. In 1932, he went further, warning that the next war would break out over a border dispute between Germany and Poland, precisely what happened in 1939.

Since very few people today know much about WWI and the context in which Chesterton wrote, I had to add quite a bit of background. This meant that in one text flow, I had to combine article titles/dates, with my comments and footnotes and what Chesterton himself wrote. And I had to do it without cluttering up the book needlessly. I did with typography–carefully selected font sizes and sizes. It worked so well that Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, wrote me personally to praise the layout.

Put another way, if text on the iPad looks no better than text on an iPhone–merely more of it–why should we spend hundreds of dollars on some new gadget? It hardly makes sense to spend all that money merely tap the screen a little less often.

No, with the addition of color shading, it should be possible to make books on an iPad look as good or better than the most professional done printed books. That should be our goal.

Tim Carmody says…

No, I totally agree — and I wasn’t trying to make an argument in favor of totally raw .txt files, or even what the Kindle puts out. Trust me; I’ve made this argument so many times now, sometimes I forget to plop down a big asterisk to say “I don’t mean ….”

I’m really more arguing against the very heavily hypermedia visions some people have of e-books, e-magazines, etc., where the books look more like resource-intensive flash apps than what we’d recognize as books. And I’m not even arguing against them from an aesthetic point of view. I think multimedia and web-connected approaches to reading are very cool. I’m saying that, from a practical point of view, something more like a DOC or PDF or EPUB, by virtue of being smaller, sufficiently flexible, and (in the case of DOC and PDF) totally entrenched, have a better short-term future than some of the more exotic visions people are trying to put together.

And I’d say the big things driving this are 1) hard-drive size 2) ubiquity of fast and reliable web access 3) what readers expect docs to look like and 4) what readers already have on their machines. As those four things change, then the kinds of documents they’ll gravitate towards on their reading machines will change.

This is great, Tim.

I think focusing on the geography of body is spot on. I’d also throw in a need to think about the spatial arrangement of our lives and bodies too. Laptops are portable – but they require a flat surface, whether a desk or a pair of legs. They don’t quite lend themselves to comfort in the way a tablet or phone – or book – does.

It’s a stupid analogy, but it’s like a meal for which one needs a plate and a table, versus something like a burrito, that you can eat any which way – standing, sitting up, at a table, on a couch etc. They’re different experiences. In the same way, the tablet reproduces the portability of the book in a way neither the laptop or the phone does – though in the case of the phone, it’s about screen size rather than how one ‘spatially uses’ one.

Still, at the end of it, I come back to what I can’t figure out: of whether there’s ‘an ontology of the screen’, of whether the cultural positioning of tablets/screens ‘pre-determines’ (but not absolutely) our relationship to them. I wonder if selling the iPad as a book-reading device is part of the reason people will read books on it, in that it’s almost necessary for the tablet to be discursively constituted as an eReader for it to then seem ‘to make sense’ as an eReader.

To wit – Battles just shared an item in Reader where he suggested that, unlike the pen, which can be used to doodle etc., the neat thing about the keyboard is that it demands you write and only that. Tablets, theoretically, do the opposite – they only demand you experience whatever you want on their infinitely adaptable screens. So our relationship to them has to be constituted in some fashion, and not just by use, but rather, somehow, in speaking about them ‘beforehand’.

Rob says…

Let’s not forget in this discussion where Apple carved out it’s early dominance when Jobs was the CEO the first time around, notably in the field of education. Now, instead of just elementary/high schools, Apple is going after the college students. iPad and ebook portability make a great “fit” literally in place of all those textbooks (some publishers are already ahead on this game). And who can forget those brightly coloered eMacs when Jobs first returned? Who were those cool devices targeted to? In these downtimes, with the Y-gen’s hit so hard, don’t expect them to be purchasing notebooks/laptops in huge numbers.

Great post. I have to agree that new technology is often adopted by the masses for a purpose never intended by its developers (think about the pervasiveness of texting in the less-developed world). We will likely see a very large group of “casual” readers turning to the iPad – especially for their more casual media – i.e. magazines that are more fun in color and much cheaper online.
It will be interesting to see how the iPad sales break down by model.

Personally I wouldn’t get an iPad, for one simple reason. I prefer Amazon’s Whispersync technology. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the iPad has some great qualities, however as a college student, i would like to have my books follow me wherever I go, though any device I want. Keep in mind i am not talking about the hardware, iPad is far supiorior in many aspects, I am speaking to Apples business model. Apple would never let you pull your books on another device without going through hurdles, especially if it was a competitor e-Reader. They took a similar approach to music when i iPod was first released, and being able to make a audio CD was a major pain. There is one major difference between music and books however. cost. I can’t see myself spending hundreds of dollars a semester on books that I can’t have full access to the actual file. If the book is locked into the system, and I decide I want to use an Android device next year, then my books will most likely be unattainable. I lose my annotations, highlight….everything. That is just not possible for me. Seems like a sneaky way of locking in iPad user. Just a thought.

Where is a quote made by Adobe:

“It looks like Apple is continuing to impose restrictions on their devices that limit both content publishers and consumers. Unlike many other ebook readers using the ePub file format, consumers will not be able to access ePub content with Apple’s DRM technology on devices made by other manufacturers.”

Tim Carmody says…

It’s a good point. WhisperSync is a real innovation; Barnes & Noble does something similar with their ebooks; and heck, even iTunes will let you buy a song or movie and watch it on multiple devices.

Another big open question is whether or not Apple will create an iBooks application for 1) the Mac 2) the iPhone or 3) PCs — or otherwise let you read purchased books on your other machines, maybe through iTunes. Heck, iTunes lets you authorize a set number of devices to sync authorized content. The software and the social infrastructure are in place. There are some usability issues to overcome, but those are relatively minor. And the value that I can get from being able to take a book, read it on my iPad, then fire it up on my Mac at home to write a paper about it, as a student, that’s just tremendous.

The ability to CHOOSE between stuffing my laptop or my iPad in my bag — depending on how long a trip it is, what kind of work I want to do, how much I feel I can carry — and still have access to all of the same media (space permitting), that’s tremendous.

While we’re at it, it bothers me that Apple doesn’t let you sync applications you buy to multiple devices. I’ve got an iPhone and an iPod touch. Why can’t I put Instapaper on both?

You get maximum value and versatility from having your media available on multiple devices. Apple’s figured this out for movies. Will they be able to figure it out for books?

You make some really good points. To add to that, the iPad’s success as an eReader may depend on how willing Apple is to leave it open to other folks apps. What drives the success of the Kindle is the ease of getting lots of great books– that and a readable screen. If Apple allows B&N, Amazon, and smaller sites like Fictionwise (a great place for short stories, BTW, for the commenter who mentioned them) to put their content on the iPad easily, it makes the device a lot more attractive to readers.

I do like the “conquer your pocket” description. Very apt! In my case, my Kindle has conquered my purse! I don’t buy or carry a purse unless my Kindle fits in it.

Verndale says…

I’ve already seen Apple advertising the iPad directed at educators, offering them package deals for purchasing multiple iPads at a time.

It’s the convenience factor for many too…
“It’ll be bet­ter than buy­ing a book in an air­port, or at a shop­ping mall. The store will be right there.”

Plus, publishers are no longer constrained by the limitations of distribution, print deadlines, content depth, page count..imagine the opportunities.

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