Two brief thoughts: iPad book design, and what “books” are (or not)

Via Mark Crane, I came across this:  “Designing for iPad: Reality Check,” from iA.  This is pretty geek-heavy because iA is a web design firm (as far as I can tell, they do a lot of German language newspaper web sites) and it’s talking about some of the complex and largely invisible design issues of type and readability.  For me, the most accessible/usable points they make here are toward the end, and how the design elements being encouraged for the iPad by Apple to make it more object-like– wood and leather grain, for example– are what they refer to as “kitschy.”  I don’t know if I agree with that or not, but I think they are spot-on with the problems of the iBook app (and, for that matter, kindle) in terms of not knowing how many pages are left.    As they put it:

Having the same static thick paper stacks left and right in your e-reader application on the first as well as on the last page, is not just visually wrong, it is also confusing; it feels wrong and it is wrong. It’s kitsch.

I have to say that this is one of the things that I don’t particularly like about electronic reading on my iPad or my iPhone, and I’m not quite sure what it says about me as a reader.  Do I really need to know how many pages are left?  Is that a bad thing, always wanting to know where the end is?  Especially when I read before I go to bed (which is about half the time before I go to bed), I often will look ahead to see how far I’ve got to do before a logical place to stop.  Reading on an iPad doesn’t facilitate this that well, and some of the elements that the current designers are doing to help people bridge that gap between paper book (like these fake page stacks) and electronic book don’t help much.

I’ve also been thinking lately and again about the definition of “book.”  The experience of reading electronically– be it on an iPad or a phone or on a computer screen– has bubbled up in the news a bit lately because of Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows. I’d buy it to take on my upcoming vacation/trip and also because it sounds interesting, but it isn’t available for Kindle or iBook yet.  (Yes, that irony is intended.) But as far as I can tell, it is a book-length treatment of Carr’s 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” To over-simplify, I think Carr’s basic point in the article and (probably) the book is that reading a book on the page is a more “real” and meaningful, deep-thought experience than reading it on a screen.

This is problematic for lots of different reasons, but the one that struck me again this past weekend is the definition of “book.”  What I think Carr means is the same sort of thing most of my students mean when we discuss the anxiety around the end of “the book.”  Generally speaking, I think Carr et al thinks of books as the sort of thing you buy in Borders and take with you on a trip or you give as a present or you read while in bed or in the bathtub or while sitting in an easy chair listening to soft music and drinking Chardonnay.  But a lot of books aren’t these kinds of “books” at all.

Last Saturday was the annual Normal Park (my neighborhood) yard sale, where there are like 100 yard/garage sales all going on at the same time on the first Saturday in June.  We didn’t have anything to sell really, but I put out some boxes of “books” that were in the garage and that needed to be disposed of with a sign that said “free.”  There were a couple of things that did actually get taken, a twelve year old copy of What to Expect When You are Expecting, for example.  But most of these books were textbooks, anthologies, writing handbooks, and instructor manuals, and those books, even free, were not taken.  And as I tell my students all the time, computers have eliminated all kinds of things that we used to think of as “books,” things like research databases and indexes, the MLA bibliography, dictionaries, and soon (more or less now), the phone book.  No one seems particularly broken up or wistful that these “books” are no longer.

Anyway, while I would like my iPad books to have more of a look and feel of a “book,” I have a feeling that Carr et al’s anxieties about these new electronic books will fade sooner than later.  And then we can all lament the loss and feel if the iPad book for something new that comes along.

A few miscellaneous thoughts on iPad reading

I’ve come across a lot of articles about reading on the iPad lately, and thought I’d pass along some of them with some thoughts:

  • Jakob Nielsen doesn’t think the iPad is that cool in terms of usability. I dunno, seems a little like he’s a hater, though Nielsen does raise some interesting points about how the iPad exhibits the growing pains of moving from one kind of literacy technology to another.
  • How to self-publish a book for iPad. Really, how to self-publish a book for ePub format period.  This combined with this NYTimes editorial from Garrison Keillor, “The End of an Era in Publishing,” makes me think.  On the one hand, I don’t think that “self-publishing” is automatically going to spell the end of publishing business simply because there has always been self-publishers trying to get their work out there. Some were, for their time, pretty successful too– I believe Leaves of Grass was initially self-published.  On the other hand, this certainly changes the ease and scale of delivery possible with self-published electronic books.  Print something up on paper and your distribution point is pretty much limited to the street corner, maybe the trunk of your car; make an ePub book and the distribution point becomes international.
  • An interesting review of reading on the iPad, comparing iBooks, Kindle, and GoodReader. I personally think the differences between iBook and Kindle are pretty negligible, and really, Kindle has two possible advantages right now.  First, has A LOT more books available than Apple/iBooks.  Second, I can read Kindle books in multiple places.  So, for example, I have been reading (very slowly, in fits and starts) The Omnivore’s Dilemma on Kindle.  Sometimes, I read it on my iPad, but as often (maybe more often, since I do this at the gym while on the stationary bike) I read it on my iPhone.  What’s nice about Kindle is the book syncs up to my place.
  • I think a lot of the “love of the object” of the book is sort of misplaced, sort of like the sentiments in this NYTimes editorial, “Further Thoughts of a Novice E-Reader.” Verlyn Klinkenborg is mostly lamenting the loss of paper and look, probably smell and touch too.  Interestingly, it seems to me that a lot of what’s going on with the iPad is also a love (or hate) of the object.  I don’t think that the iPad or other tablets is going to completely eliminate the sort of fine books that Klinkenborg feels she (or he?  what is Verlyn?) might miss, but what might be a good thing is that these devices might save a lot of trees.  As the post “To Kindle or not to Kindle?” from “Limited Prerogatives” points out, a lot of those wonderfully smelling and feeling paper books end up wasting a lot of trees.  She quotes a NYTimes article about how the book and newspaper industries harvested something like 125 million trees, and something like about a third of books printed are returned to the publisher and/or “pulped.”
  • And while I don’t have any links to it, I’ve heard some interesting reactions to the Wired iPad App, which I (of course!) bought.  I don’t think it’s fair to complain about it because of all of the ads, because a) the print version of Wired is basically a Geek Glamour magazine, intensely heavy on ads that many of its readers actually want to read; b) a lot of the ads are pretty cool and interactive, and c) it’s how magazine publishers make money (dirty little secret).  I don’t think it’s fair to complain that it is just the print version on the iPad since I never had a print version of Wired that included video and audio.  And I also think it’s only a little fair to complain about how the Wired iPad app doesn’t allow for “cut and paste” copying or bookmarking, because while I would agree that these features would be nice, Wired is not exactly the kind of thing I read to “cut and paste” from.  Besides, they still have a web site.

    What I thought was more interesting with the new Wired App and all of these other things is how they are the latest in a long history of what happens when we make the transition from one literacy technology to another.  A number of people talk about this with the transition from early handwritten manuscripts into printed books:  at first, the printed books looked a lot like the handwritten ones, but then, after people figured out the capabilities of the technology, they looked different.  We still call web pages “pages” because they initially looked a lot like “words in a row” pages with some links, and once we figured out the technology, they ended up looking a lot different.

    But I’m not going to keep paying $5 a pop for it.  They either are going to have to set up some sort of subscription service (the print version delivered was about a third of the price on the newsstand), or they are going to have to drop the price for me to be a regular reader.

  • Finally, I downloaded and installed onto my iPad (as part of my iBooks library) Cory Doctorow’s new YA book For the Win. Despite his dislike of the iPad, I like Doctorow’s thinking and writing a lot, and I very much admire his practice of putting books up online for free.  But the iPad and similar devices raise an interesting question about the sustainability of this practice:  before the iPad, I might have been inclined to buy one of Doctorow’s paper books because as a matter of convenience and form, I would much rather read the paper book than the PDF (or whatever) on my computer screen.  As a result, Doctorow (and his publishers) would still sell a lot of books.  But if I’m inclined to read one of his books on an iPad or similar device anyway, why would I do anything but download the free version?  In other words, since the “free” version is no longer is a means of selling/promoting the “not free” version, how long will it be before Doctorow starts charging something to download the ePub from his site?

C&W 2010 Part 2 (sort of): Conferencing with an iPad

As I mentioned in this post a couple weeks ago, I decided that I was going to try to not take my laptop but just my iPad with me to the Computers and Writing Conference at Purdue.  I will admit that this was a bit of a “stunt,” mainly because I had about four or five back-up plans if something didn’t go right, and the truth of the matter is I probably could have gone to the conference with no computer and been fine by borrowing, using the hardware/software set-ups in presentation rooms, etc.  Stunt or not though, it was an interesting experiment, and there were a couple of interesting iPad moments. Continue reading “C&W 2010 Part 2 (sort of): Conferencing with an iPad”

The iPad as a writerly tool/space

Before I get too far along but also without going into a lot of detail, let me say a few things about my general “writerly” locale habits and how they’ve changed.  When I was in my PhD program, I worked with a tiny laptop (a PB 100!) at a very large desk set up in Annette’s and my “study” in the second bedroom of our small apartment. Then for years, my writing locale of choice were area coffee shops and my primary writing tool was my laptop.  Even at home, I had a small desk and a laptop.  Then both my interests in working with video and my work environment changed, so now I have quite a large desk area again, this one quite a bit nicer than that Bowling Green apartment. My primary writing station is an iMac souped up with extra RAM and such, and with a second monitor.  With this space, my writing habits have changed in that I now routinely have a dozen different windows open, two or three different applications going, etc., etc.  Plus I do about 80% of my work at this computer and this desk– teaching online, writing, commenting on student work, etc.

So, for the foreseeable future, my iPad is going to remain a sort of “second banana” as a writerly device, something to use when I’m writing and not here, which is to say not that often. Continue reading “The iPad as a writerly tool/space”

Some miscellaneous iPad thoughts (including an answer to the “need” question)

Before I get to the writerly part of things, a couple of thoughts and iPad links:

  • Folks have said some very nice things about my iPad posts here and comments elsewhere, which suggests something about obtaining ethos that I hadn’t really thought of before:  if you don’t necessarily know what you are talking about, it is best to  a) be first and b) be willing to say what you think, wrong or right.
  • In my role as an iPad “expert,” I have been asked by people “why I need an iPad.”  This has happened surprisingly frequently.  Well, “need” is a concept that can be reduced to the very basic (e.g., water, food, shelter) or it can be rather frivolous (e.g., chocolate, scotch, snow globes), and everything in between.  I will say this though:  I am of the opinion that in modern American culture, almost everyone “needs” easy access to a computer, a television, and a radio (which is often replicated by the computer, of course).  I don’t know if everyone “needs” an iPhone, an iPod (which for me is my phone), a DVD player, a coffee maker, high speed internet access at home, or a car, but for me, all of these things are indeed “needs.”  Then there are things like washers and dryers, lawn mowers, and dishwashers:  these are kind of on the edge for me.  For example, when our dishwasher broke a few years ago, it took us almost a year to replace it.Anyway, for me, I think the iPad is somewhere between an iPhone and a dishwasher.  If something happened to my iPhone today, I would go out and buy another one, pretty much no matter what the cost.  If something happened to my iPad, well, I could probably go without for a while.
  • I continue to be amused and puzzled by iPad polarization, the “this is the end of civilization as we know it” versus the “this is the best thing ever.”  The latest thing in this category is this whole “the device just disappears” argument, as retold in this Wired Gadget Lab piece.  That strikes me as a little much.  (BTW, Wired has lots of good iPad articles collected here).
  • In more examples of how the iPad is actually useful for developing content:  check out this cool video of drawing on/with the iPad. The fingerless glove is a nice touch to prevent unintentional touching.
  • Obama apparently said something about not liking the iPad, though his comment (as discussed in this piece) is more along the lines of “the kids today.”  Not that interesting.  More interesting to me is this comment that comes from Fox News Channel psychiatry correspondent Keith Ablow in response to this:  “The president is doubly correct. First of all, he is right (as I have written a number of times) that the Internet, Facebook and, yes, the new iPad and many other devices can interfere with people becoming wise and knowledgeable, rather than simply deluged with facts. They can also become estranged from real relationships and from themselves as they become obsessed with pretending to be stars on YouTube or worthy of “followers” on Twitter or popular with thousands of “friends” on Facebook.”  In other words, pretty much the same thing that Socrates said about writing in Phaedrus.
  • Here’s an interesting piece about reading on the iPad versus reading good-ol-fashioned books.  I don’t know if books are going to “disappear” or not, but this guy’s reaction here is different from mine.  I will admit that I don’t do a lot of reading on my iPad– I’m still mostly a paper kinda guy when it comes to magazines and books, for example– but I do find it very readable and light enough.  And I don’t constantly fear that I will be robbed if I take my iPad in public nor do I get a lot of inquiries about it from strangers.  Of course, I tend to take it out in public in “too cool for school” Ann Arbor.
  • “Two weeks of travel, Ten iPad lessons” by Michael Gartenberg over at slashgear is very good advice about using an iPad for travel instead of a laptop.  Every one of these lessons rings true to me, and I will find out a lot more about that and other iPad travel experiences very soon since I’m going to be going to the Computers and Writing Conference this weekend without a laptop and with my iPad. (See below).

Okay, with all that out of the way….

Keyboarding and iPadding: A return to the Apple store?

I am typing this post on my iPad with the use of the iPad docking keyboard right now, and I wish before I had bought this I had read the reviews. The keyboard itself is fine– about the same feel as other Apple keyboards– but the problem is the dock set-up.

First off, it doesn’t fit into the dock unless I take it out of the protective rubbery case I bought for it. I suppose this isn’t a complete deal-breaker because it probably isn’t a bad idea to take the thing out of its case once in a while, but it is definitely a pain in the ass, and it is not something I’m all that crazy about doing every time I plug it in. I’m sort of surprised Apple did this.

Second, with the dock sticking out of the keyboard is a) kind of awkward, and b) kind of ugly. If it was just a keyboard, there would be a certain level of “sleekness” to it all, but the dock thing sticks out like an appendage.

Third, I’m locked/docked into portrait mode– probably not bad for most keyboarding-type things, but I think we all like flexibility.

And fourth, a bluetooth keyboard is smaller (and thus easier to carry around/on a trip), and it can actually be used for more than just the iPad (and thus is automatically twice as functional as this keyboard.

So, back to the Apple store tomorrow. Fail, Apple, fail.

iPad “killer apps” for Academics (maybe)

Okay, one more iPad post, and then on with my regular (not necessarily relevant) postings.

Being an iPad expert (as I have owned one for an entire week now), I’m still pretty darn happy and impressed with it. So far, it’s mostly for me what it has been billed as:  a great “experience” for reading/consuming text, audio, and video.  It is not (for the zillionth time) a computer, though for me, it is something like a netbook.  I realize that this wouldn’t be true for everyone, especially non-Apple computer people, but since the rest of my computers are Apples, the iPad syncs and “just works,” which wouldn’t be the case if I was working with some kind of Windoze netbook.

Typing is an issue, but that’s the case with netbooks too, right?  For me, I can touch-type well enough on the iPad when it’s landscape mode, but if I’m going to type anything longer than a couple paragraphs or an email response (or this blog post), then I’m going to use a real computer.  I might break down and eventually buy a keyboard for the iPad, but that would kind of defeat the purpose of the lean simplicity of the iPad.

And it doesn’t strike me as particularly “magical” either, though given the fondness for fantasy and science fiction in my household, perhaps my standards and definitions of “magical” are different than Steve Jobs.  All the things the iPad does best– stuff like IMDB, Yahoo Entertainment, Netflix, various weather and newspaper apps, photos, music, videos, etc.– are all great, but not really beneficial for my job as a writing professor.  Safari is okay (very quick, but, as the entire world knows, no Flash) and email is great, but neither are reasons to get an iPad.

I have played around with Keynote and Pages a bit, and while there’s some potential, I have to say I’ve been a little disappointed.  On the plus-side (as I wrote about with this post earlier), both Keynote and Pages demonstrate that the iPad is indeed a device with which a user can make content.  But the problem with both apps is that they don’t quite synch with my desktop versions of the software– different fonts, not all the effects and builds work, etc. Plus there are the previously mentioned keyboarding issues. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it does mean that if I take only my iPad to a conference or something instead of a laptop, I’ll have to make some adjustments.  Again, not a reason to get an iPad, at least not yet.

All that said, I do think there are so far two (or three, depending on how you look at it) potential “killer apps” for the iPad:  PDF annotation and books, both iBooks/Kindles, and “books” that are really applications on their own.  Too long of a ramble/review after the jump.

Continue reading “iPad “killer apps” for Academics (maybe)”

Anybody who says that the iPad is the end of user-generated content or the internet does not know what they are talking about

Emily posted a link to an NPR story from yesterday I missed, “Apple’s iPad: The End of the Internet as We Know It?” Here’s a tease quote:

On its Web site, Apple boasts that the iPad makes you “feel like you are actually holding the Web right in the palm of your hand.”

Paul Sweeting, an analyst with GigaOM, sees it differently. “With the iPad,” he says, “you have the anti-Internet in your hands.”

Please.  Buy a clue.

Oddly, the review on GigaOM’s web site of the iPad seems pretty positive to me, so I’m not sure where this Sweeting guy is coming from, other than he gives good sound-bite and NPR took the bait.  In any event, as an iPad expert (for I have had one now for going on four days), let me point out some obvious things:

  • The iPad is not a computer. It is not a substitute for a desktop or laptop computer anymore than an iPhone or an iTouch are substitutes.  It might be a substitute for a netbook for some users, but that’s a debatable point.  This is not to say that you can’t do a bunch of computer things on an iPhone or iTouch (email, listen to music, surf the web to an extent, play with/use apps, etc.), and it is also true that I think that the iPad generally handles these tasks better than its smaller ancestors.  But no one should think that they can get an iPad instead of a computer.  That’s just dumb.
  • No one is stopping you from uploading your own music and videos to the iPad. Again, just as is the case with the iPhone and iTouch, you can put whatever music, podcasts, or movies that iTunes can handle on the thing, and that includes stuff ripped from other sources.  Like everyone else in America, I have music on my computer that I did not pay for (most of it is stuff I checked out from the library) and I have a few videos that I ripped with the help of Handbrake.  I transferred them to the iPad, played them, and the Apple police have yet to knock on my door.  And of course, if you create the music or video content yourself, you can play that on the iPad too.
  • No one is stopping you from making and distributing your own ePubs that are then readable on the iPad. And while I haven’t done this yet, there are a number of pretty easy to use conversion tools out there that will take that novel that has been rejected by every publisher out there and turn it from a .doc file into a .epb file.  From there, you can just slap it up on the web at your own site or use one of the various distribution networks for such things and completely bypass the Apple store.  Users can download your ePub, import it into iTunes, upload it to their iPad.  Done.
  • The iPad has some pretty cool apps for actually making content as it is. Pages and Keynote are both pretty slick, and when it comes to layout, the touchpad might make it easier for novice artists like me to move around images and stuff by just touching them instead of dragging them with a mouse.  Plus I’ve got Brushes (a paint program that I wish I was more talented to use better), Draw (simple drawing program), iAnnotate PDF, Dragon Dictation (though I don’t know how well that one works yet), and Whiteboard.

Honestly, I do not get what the haters are getting at.  It ain’t the end of anything; at best, the iPad is the beginning of something else.