spacer image
spacer image

Welcome! You're looking at an archived Snarkmarket entry. We've got a fresh look—and more new ideas every day—on the front page.

August 17, 2009

<< Launch Emma | The Spines! The Spines! >>

Snark By Snarkwest: Kindle 2020

The iPod wasn’t the first digital music player, but that doesn’t really matter; when it was introduced in 2001, it was the first digital music player that made ordinary tech-inclined (but not necessarily tech-savvy) consumers pay attention.

I graduated from college that year, so I remember that time very well. Let’s review; Napster had been shut down. I didn’t own a DVD player. In fact, I didn’t even have my own computer. (I bought both that December.) I didn’t have a cellular phone, but some of my friends did. (In fact, I didn’t get one until 2005.) I had never used wireless internet, ever. I had bought an APS camera two years before, on study abroad. (Digital cameras cost about a kajillion dollars.) Instead of writing a blog, I kept email lists of everyone I knew and periodically quasi-spammed them with prose poems, Nietzsche quotes, outlines for essays on Bulworth (“The key to understanding Bulworth is that it’s not very good”), and news about my life. Oh, and I used telnet for email.

The time hardly seemed propitious to launch a device that would effectively break wide open handheld digital media. But that’s what happened.

It’s worth remembering this, because we’ve now had eight years of the iPod, iTunes, and the Apple Store, during which we’ve had to clear all of these technical and commercial and psychological and social hurdles to get to the devices that most of us carry around (in one version or another) every day.

What does this year’s model of the iPhone (already almost three years removed from the announcement of the first version) have in common with the first iPod? It fits in your pocket; and maybe - maybe - you still put stuff on it from your computer - to update the firmware, if nothing else.

That’s eight years of the iPod. I’m glad I saw it, because 21-year-old me wouldn’t have believed it. All the more so because none of what happened is in retrospect at all ridiculous.

Now let’s imagine twelve years of the Kindle.

Now the Kindle in 2020 might not even be the Kindle anymore. Maybe Sony or Apple or Google or Microsoft or someone we don’t even expect might shoulder Amazon aside and take center stage, or readers will be more like the smartphone market right now, with a handful of solid competitors egging each other on.

But the Kindle now, like the iPod eight years ago, is the first electronic reader that most of us tech-inclined but not tech-savvy users have paid much attention to. It’s already gotten better, it’s already spurred competition, and the chances are good that we’re going to see some significant advances in these devices before the end of the year.

In twelve years, we know electronic readers will do more, store more, work faster, look cooler, and offer more things to look at then it does now.

But what don’t we know about the Kindle 2020 yet?

Robin, Matt, and I - yes, all three of us - have proposed a presentation for South by Southwest Interactive where we — and some other supremely smart people — are going to try to figure out just that.

Here are some basic questions:

  • What kind of devices will we use to read?
  • What formats will be used to deliver documents?
  • What kinds of documents will be “read” - text, image, video, audio, hybrids?
  • How will documents be written and produced?
  • How will documents be bought, sold, and otherwise supported?
  • How will contributors be compensated?
  • How will reading work in different industries?

And here, I think, are - for me, at least, some more interesting ones:

  • What could turn an electronic reader into a totally NECESSARY device - like a mobile phone, or iPod?
  • What features will the reader of 2020 have that nobody’s even talking about yet?
  • What are we going to use it to do that nobody uses anything to do now?
  • What’s going to be your favorite thing to read on it?
  • Forget your favorite thing - what are you going to use it to do over and over again, whether you like it or not?
  • How are you going to write with it?
  • Who’s going to have one? How are they going to pay for it?
  • How do we share what we read?
  • What will we still want but not get?
  • Here’s the big one: how might it change the entire FIELD of media consumption, handheld devices, computing, reading, etc… Will everything restructure itself around the reader? Or will it be a fun, handy curiosity, plotting its own logic while everything else goes along unchanged?

Beginning today, you can vote to help get this panel accepted to South By Southwest. I am way excited. First, I am a nerd for all things related to the written word. Second, Robin and Matt are the most talented futuronomists I know.

Finally, in addition to being awesome, Austin is (oddly enough) geographically centered for the three of us. If you look at our locations (Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Francisco), Austin is the country’s fourth column, which (I think) bestows it with Penumbra-like magical powers.

Between books, papers, and screens, I think we might just have this covered. But see, this is where we start to worry about our own blind spots or idiosyncratic enthusiasms, not because we want to lose them, but because we need to put them in context.

So we don’t just need your vote. We need to know what you know. And we’re willing to use the patented Snarkmarket figure-four leg-lock — by which I mean, your comments in the thread below — to get the conversation started.

They say that hindsight is 20/20, but that’s not really true; some people remember the past better than others. The future, however, really is 20/20 (especially in 2020). Right now, we all know just as much about the future of reading as everyone else.

The only difference is that we — you and I — are focused.

What do you see?

Posted August 17, 2009 at 3:56 | Comments (12) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Object Culture, Technosnark


(Gotta throw this in there, too: Tomorrow Museum's panel proposal is the novel in 2050, and how could would it be to have both of these on the schedule? You could go from one to the other & your head would spin from the passing of years...)

Anyway, I was really taken by your iPod v1 --> iPhone observation. You're right, they really have so little in common... and yet the progression from one to the other was so necessary. No iPod, no iPhone. The iPhone can't leap fully-formed from Jobs' brow.

It's interesting to extend that to the Kindle, and the Kindle-like devices around the corner.

I've been reading a book of letters by Ursula Nordstrom, a famous children's book editor who worked with E. B. White, Maurice Sendak, and many more. She was working at a time when children's books were being pretty radically rethought and reinvented -- a time that gave us many of the classics that kids still read today.

So, I wonder if it's a defect of our age (and self-regard) that we tend to focus on future forms for LITERATURE and JOURNALISM first. Maybe the beachhead for the reader of the future is actually children's books. The most amazing children's books the world has ever seen.

For some reason I have a vision of a children's book/device with a tiny projector built into the top. It shoots images up onto the ceiling of a child's shadowed room while she's lying in bed, or being read to. The book is there in your hands, the words are on the screen, which casts a gentle glow of its own -- and there's this ghostly projection of the story dancing all around your head, too.

(BTW, my comment doesn't quite do justice to the expansiveness of your framing, here. "What DON'T we know about the Kindle 2020 yet?"—I really like that.)

It's not an accident; journalism and literature are 1) Important in a capital-I, self-evident kind of way and 2) the people who care about them read and write and get on other media a lot.

But, let me say this, as a reading geek and young dad, the EXISTING technology of handheld, touch-interfaces, text+audio+video hybrids has huge, underutilized potential for children's books.

Think about a book where you can activate different layers - audio and video tracks, text titles and subtitles, interactive elements - for readers of different ages. You might need a little more processor power, but it wouldn't be much different from an iPhone game.

You can read the book image by image (and line by line), or you can animate transitions. Each word you touch can speak that word, or show a video explaining what it means. When you touch the rubber duck, it squeaks. When you poke the cow, it moos. If you tickle the baby, she laughs.

You can also imagine a book for small children that's essentially a board book with a touchscreen inside each page. This way, little kids - who don't have a whole lot of tactile subtlety - still get to flip pages, but benefit from the variety of the hidey games. Or maybe it's a mix of digital and old-school elements; a screen next to a little mirror, a fuzzy patch below buttons to press.

I'll jump into this discussion by cautioning Robin against getting that dream of a microprojector into his head. It'll disappoint you every time.

Actual remarks forthcoming.

I lot of this is too abstract for my simple mind and a bit over my head. But, for the sake of sharing some thoughts, I think we're absolutely heading toward a tablet market with a variety of cloud-based apps for a variety of books with various functions. So, in this respect, it will probably be more software innovation than hardware. And who knows who the players will be ... Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, or the next Google.

There will be books that are part animated action: Comics and children's books. Books that are part live action: Nonfiction and historical fiction. How will this video be integrated? Perhaps a tap of the pad (like clicking on an apture youtube link) or something smoother, like specific panels for motion and for stills in a specially designed comic book reader (like the Tales of the Black Freighter feature for Watchmen).

One minor thing that I certainly see coming is the ability to use an integrated camera to snap a photo of the cover of a book you see at a friends house or in a store and have your device bring up the mobile store to download that book on the spot. We already have Redlaser, so this feature is so close I can taste it.

Posted by: Zack on August 17, 2009 at 04:52 PM

Yeah, maybe my long intro was too coy; I really just want to geek out on a hundred and one gadgets and gizmos we can hook onto this thing.

In that mode -- re: integrated cameras, linking to stores -- I totally see that. In particular, let's rethink the stylus. Styluses that just tap on a screen are totally lame. But what if a stylus also came with an actual red laser that you could use to read barcodes? It can also scan alphabetic letters too, like a pen scanner. It all begins with the smaller-than-iSight camera lens, so instead of waving your notebook-sized reader around, you can point the stylus at stuff, like a little photographic wand, check the picture on your screen, and shoot with it.

You know, another quality of our typical discussions of the future of books is that we tend to focus on the experience beyond words. We get excited about the possibilities of motion images and stereo sound and hyperlinks. But I tend to agree with Jeff Bezos as paraphrased by Nicholson Baker, one of the many reasons certain types of books are so good is that "they disappear when you read them." I think it would be impossible to read Tolkien or Tolstoy if you were constantly aware of the machinery of the book and its many wonders.

So even as Kindle 2020 might project Maurice Sendak's Wild Things onto our children's ceilings, it would also have to be able to disappear even more completely than the books of today. I wonder how it might do this.

Might the lines of text follow our eyes in a subtle infinite scroll, presenting us with a page to turn only when the author has demanded it? How might the form of the thing communicate formlessness?

I've had a book that KEEPS disappearing when I read it, because it always ends up in rooms I don't expect, underneath the mail, behind the couch, etc...

Seriously, believe me when I say it: Words are awesome.

But, for the most part, words alone are easy. That is, representing words on a screen is subtle - but it is comparatively easy.

It's paper and pages that are hard. The interface, the experience - not the words.

The problem of disappearing into a text is, to be honest, much larger on a computer than it is on a dedicated reader. This is one of the reasons why I think the web browser as it is is actually a terrible client for reading or writing -- there's just too much going on!

I use a pretty good comic book reader, called ComicBookLover, which points the way towards some simple ways to handle reading on a laptop or tablet-like device - for instance, you can view books in landscape or portrait (it auto-rotates if your lappy has an accelerometer), fit to height or width, navigate easily from page to page (and book to book), tag your library, make playlists, etc. And fullscreen is pretty much default (although lots of other views are possible).

It's built for image archives, not books. So it doesn't handle text, really, at all. But you can actually get that experience of flow, even with your laptop held sideways, pressing the space bar to flip from page to page.

Flow, in short, is a combination of a smooth and relatively intuitive interface, your learning curve in managing it, and the quality of the material you're reading. And despite all of the distractions, these days I'm way more likely to get tunnel-vision-absorption looking at a screen than a page.

"Words alone are easy." Totally. To the degree that we can imagine the future of the comic book (and the children's book) we can imagine the REAL future of books.

Sounds like a great panel; come next year, I gotta get me down Austin way!

Here's where my fancy takes the Kindle by 2020: realizing that they need a revolutionary means of accessing text speedily and intuitively, Amazon's engineers succeed in miniaturizing touchable hologram technology and put it on board the new Kindle EX. The revolutionary display concocts a shimmering 3D image of a book floating above the screen's opalescent surface; along each edge, subtly-recessed rows of blowers gently waft the user's fingertips, providing the convincing sensation of 88-lb Somerset book bond paper with an eggshell finish. In a Borgesian 1:1 mapping, Amazon's engineers bring you the codex.

The ghost book. What a beautiful image.

spacer image
spacer image