Re: Sorry iBooks, paper books still win on specs
As much as I enjoyed Dieter's article demonstrating some of the advantages that paper books have over ebooks, I felt that there was a lot of information either not fully explained or left out entirely. I'm not here to tell you that paper books are awful and that ebooks are vastly superior, but rather, I would like to make a more full case for the benefit of ebooks in general and why I believe they will grow exponentially in popularity as the publishing industry begins to iron out some of the kinks in an otherwise fantastic platform. While they have a long way to come, I do feel that we're edging closer to a day where ebooks dominate the market, much as mp3s now dominate the music distribution industry.
Firstly, due to the variety of formats of ebook distribution currently available I have decided to focus on the one I found most relevant to this article: ebooks on the iPad platform. While there are plenty of other means of currently reading ebooks, each with their own advantages, Dieter's article was in response to the Apple education announcement so it seemed most logical to focus on that as a means of reading books electronically. The iPad (as a medium) is a tricky beast to compare to paper books for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, these jump out at me as being the most important, distinguishing specs of ebooks on the iPad (and the reasons why I find them so important):
- Price, price, price
- Space saver
- Multi-functional device
- Full interactivity
- Environmentally friendly
- Requires no lighting
- Backed up
- Fully searchable
- Multiple copies available
- Social integration
- Language support
The first, and arguably most important spec that truly distinguishes ebooks from paper books is price. Although I don't think anyone would argue that a fifteen dollar ebook is not a fantastic bargain, it's important to note that as a student gets further along in their educational career, the price of books skyrockets at an astounding pace. Most semesters in college, I found myself spending well over a thousand dollars for books. Personally, I was lucky that I had the financial wherewithal to afford all my tuition and books but I realize that I was very much in the minority in that respect. We often refer to students as "starving college kids" and crack jokes about living off of ramen and macaroni. These are the people who most need to be saving money on books, especially when considering the astronomical prices they're already paying. All other specs, drawbacks, and negative aspects of ebooks aside, they will succeed for this reason alone. Regardless of how poor the user experience is, if people are offered 80% savings on their student needs, I'd venture a guess that an extremely large portion of them would gladly take that tradeoff and welcome it with open arms.
While not nearly as important, the ability to save space is also a key factor in what I love about ebooks. Don't get me wrong, I love the feel and smell of a good book in my hands, and in many regards I would even say I prefer it to reading electronically. That has much more to do with the experience of turning pages, physically putting in bookmarks, and smelling the paper than any notable advantage in specs. The experience, while more enjoyable from a sensory perspective, is not inherently better. As much as I love curling up with a good book, I also travel a lot and it is extremely impractical to bring more than a couple physical books with me where ever I go. Since I've finished school, most of the reading I do personally are small paperbacks, which are enough of a hassle by themselves, but when considering the size and weight of most high school / college textbooks, this problem becomes exponentially more troublesome. Carrying even one enormous textbook around in a backpack is already wasteful of space and can put quite a strain on the back. Since I already bring my iPad everywhere with me, it simply makes more sense to have my books on there as well. There are always going to be trade-offs when it comes to the adoption of new standards, but I find myself content with most of those regarding ebooks. Sure, vinyl records with a properly set up sound system will sound better than playing tunes on my iPod, but when taking size, storage capacity, and portability into consideration, the iPod is still a much better option for most scenarios.
One of the greatest benefits (and, coincidentally, one of the biggest drawbacks) about ebooks is that they reside on a device that is generally meant for so much more than just reading. This can cause a whole lot of distraction for those with issues concentrating on things. At the same time, it also means that the large chunk of money invested in the product covers a wide variety of uses, whereas a several hundred dollar textbook is really only meant for one purpose. When it comes to reading for school, I find it helpful to use something along the lines of the pomodoro technique. Having a device containing millions of ways to entertain myself is perfect for taking a little break at the end of a chapter or just giving my brain some down time. However, for people like my brother, this would prove to be absolutely torturous and make reading for school that much more of a task. As with most of the specs / issues brought up here, a large portion of it really just boils down to personal preference. Personally, I find that the biggest benefit of a multimedia device such as the iPad is that I can pop in noise canceling headphones, turn off all my notifications, pick some music and completely immerse myself in the story. While this could certainly be achieved by combining other technologies with paper books, they do not support any sort of multimedia experience. To take this one step further, ebooks will be able to contain pictures, video, and audio clips directly within the pages. For personal pleasure reading, this likely won't make a huge difference, but for educational purposes it's hard not to see the immediate advantages of a true multimedia learning experience.
We're living in a time where the protection of the environment is becoming more and more of a concern to the average person and the advent of ebooks only further showcases that. Think about it: what used to happen when data in textbooks was found to be inaccurate, irrelevant, or otherwise in need of alteration? The publishing company creates a new edition of the book and slowly phases out the older editions. This means that they are reprinting thousands upon thousands of books, millions upon millions of pages, simply to update a few minor issues. With ebooks, much like with apps, publishers can simply push the new edition out as an update. I don't know if this practice is fully in place already or if it even will be but the fact of the matter is that it can be done, and that is important in and of itself. With paper books, this also creates a pagination issue. An instructor can tell their students to turn to a certain page in their books, but that is only if every student is using the same edition (from the same publisher) of the book. Most institutions have taken care of this pretty well, but it still seems like a valid concern. In addition, the devices themselves are upgradeable. Apple can push out firmware updates over time that will dramatically enhance the abilities and applications of ebooks as technology progresses. Once a paper book has been purchased, the only updates anyone is going to make will be the underlining and note-taking of the reader. The problem with this, especially in textbooks, is that writing anything in your book will dramatically devalue it when it comes time to sell it back.
As Dieter mentioned, there are a few obvious tradeoffs we make between paper books and their electronic brethren. While I can read my iPad in complete darkness with no trouble whatsoever, doing so in direct sunlight in an enormous pain in the behind. I find myself reading in darkness much more frequently than I do in direct sunlight, but I can certainly understand how this would be a major issue for some. He made another point with regards to longevity that I had some issues with. It seems to me that ebooks would have endlessly more longevity. Even if my iPad, my computer, and all of my electronics were stolen, I could have all my data back within just a few hours through backup services like CrashPlan. While the durability of paper books certainly is impressive, it would essentially take a complete blackout of the internet for me to lose all my data. Alexandria on the other hand, was not quite so lucky. Following the same train of thought, I also find it beyond helpful that once I purchase an ebook I can read it on a variety of devices and once bought, it is downloaded simultaneously to all of the aforementioned gadgets. When a paper book is purchased, that's it. That's all you get. You own one copy of the book and it although I suppose you could photocopy the entire thing into a "new copy" of the book, it certainly would not be considered a comparable experience.
I haven't seen widespread (or noteworthy) application of it yet, but there are far-reaching benefits that will eventually come with the inevitable social integration of ebooks. Currently, with applications like Kindle, you can see passages that have been highlighted the most by other users. While not a groundbreaking achievement by any means, I find features such as this to be enormously helpful. While there are always passages I find more important on a personal level, I also find it incredibly interesting to see what the reading-world collective finds important as a whole. I could sit here and speculate about the myriad social features that will eventually make their way into ebooks, but it would be nothing more than just that: speculation. However, I do find it important to point out that they, whatever they are, will eventually exist. One feature that certainly will (and for the most part, already does) exist, is that of language translation. While paper has remained a constant over an extremely long period of time, language has not. Although most major texts are relatively easy to find in English language versions, there are still plenty that are not. Problem? Not at all. With the simple tap of a button, those texts could be immediately translated into English (or a close approximation). The ability to search through a document or book for a keyword or phrase and immediately
With any new standard, there are still plenty of drawbacks, aside from those previously mentioned, that I find bothersome. As many have mentioned, having to plug in and recharge is an extremely obvious disadvantage when compared to a paper book. In reality, I have to charge my iPad all the time anyway though, so I suppose that it's not a particularly huge issue for myself personally. One that I truly do find myself annoyed by though is Apple's ridiculous skeuomorphic "bookshelf" design. Bookshelves are fantastic. I own a rather large (and cheaply made from Ikea) bookshelf that is filled to the brim with old classics and sci-fi/fantasty books. I love going through it, picking out a book by hand, and putting it back when I'm done. Why, oh why, do companies feel that this will somehow translate onto a digital platform though? You're not removing anything from a shelf (or putting it back) and the designs are wasteful of space and frankly, quite visually unpleasant. I think that we will eventually see less and less of this, but for now we're kind of stuck. The final issue I have a true problem with is DRM which is, much like the iPad's multi functionality, a true double edged sword. Part of me wants to love DRM for being the driving factor in keeping costs so low. If I were to purchase a three hundred dollar college text book, I would be free to write it in, lend it out, and sell it back when I'm done as I'm assuming most people probably do. With ebooks, I get my copy on all my devices, but lending it out or selling it back becomes virtually impossible because there is no physical thing to lend or sell. At the same time, DRM licensing keeps costs extremely low and is exactly what will make ebooks a successful platform, at least in its early years.
I think there will be plenty of room in the market for both of these standards to coexist peacefully for a long time. Certain things are better on paper, while others will remain vastly superior in a digital format. I don't see myself giving up either of them any time soon. However, when looking at overall "specs" from a macro level, I still find ebooks to be a superior platform in general. There are simply far too many upsides and the potential for where the platform can go is essentially limitless. Paper is great, but I think at this point we've gotten it about as far as it could possibly go as a medium. Ebooks may not be there just yet but even in the last decade they have evolved more than paper books have in the last five hundred years. To me, that pretty much says it all.
By Brian Anderson