Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why I Am Not on the Bash the iPad (Which No One Has Even Seen Yet) Bandwagon

I can still remember sitting in a meeting over ten years ago now with editors like me and the head of the then newly-established electronic publishing department of our company. She passed around an eBook reader for all of us to look at (something I'd been eagerly waiting for her to do). I picked it up and thought,

"This is so cool! This is the wave of the future. No more book bags full of back-breaking books. No more tough decisions about how many and which books to take in my carry-on bag when I fly. No more having to hear my father complain about tiny type he can't read when he can set his own type-size. However, nobody's ready for this yet. The technology is way ahead of its time." I knew the day would come when people would be ready, though, and I, for one, was looking forward to the coming of that day. Why? Because I remembered the coming of the CD before people were really ready. I remembered the coming of email and the Internet before people were really ready. Advances in technology always come before people are really ready.

Shortly thereafter, I went to lunch with my former boss from the library where I had worked before going into publishing. She is another woman like me: obsessed with reading and books. We'd traded so many titles back and forth over the years, I'd lost count. We started talking about eBooks and the future of books, and she said to me,

"I like to read. I don't really care how you feed my stories to me. If it's via some electronic means, I'm still going to read."

She was the first person I'd heard come out and say that to me. Everyone else had been bemoaning the demise of reading and the book. Yet again, I found myself thinking, "Publishers and tech companies had better get together and talk to a lot of readers." We are a varied lot. However: we do all have one thing in common. We want the written word. We don't want videos (those are fine, but not when what we really want to do is to read). We don't want sound. Most of us, I am betting, don't even want to play around with the way someone else's story turns out (writing our own is a different matter). Those are all gimmicks that people who aren't really into reading want, and they are fine gimmicks, and fun toys, but they won't do for me what books do.

But those of us who are truly obsessed with the written word will read no matter how the content is delivered to us. I will read a cereal box. I will read a billboard. I will read a television screen. I will read a newspaper (even though they have got to be one of the most awkward means of delivering the written word I've ever encountered). I will, I am discovering, even read a tiny iPod Touch (or iTouch as those of us who own them have taken to calling them) screen (although it is not my favored method of reading books. It's fine for blogs, and I can read books, but it's still not really how I want my books delivered).

Don't get me wrong. I love, love, love the look, feel, and (yes) smell , as well as the ease-of-use of a book. But I can get lost in the written word no matter how it is presented to me. You may find this hard to believe, but I have never suffered from the sort of eye fatigue others do when staring at a computer screen for hours on end, especially if I am really into what I am reading.

Fast forward five years from my first encounter with an eBook reader and my discussion with my former boss. I'm still reading articles about students breaking their backs lugging around too-heavy book bags. I am watching textbook companies understanding, somewhat, the need for electronic publishing, but they are going about it all wrong, producing companion databases for all their textbooks, and I'm wondering, "Why are they doing that? Why don't they just partner with some company that designs eBook readers and offer all their textbooks as eBooks? They could bundle packages on the readers and cover every subject area."

Fast forward five more years, and finally, my predictions of ten years ago have come true. Amazon has been extremely successful with its Kindle. Other eBook readers have begun to compete. Publishing companies that did not begin to see the light at least ten years ago and have prepared for this day are either already in trouble or will be soon. Textbook companies are partnering with tech companies and beginning to sell eTextbooks. It's amazing.

Enter: the iPad. Do you want to know why I love Apple so? It's because, despite being a tech company, Apple focuses on human beings and what does and doesn't appeal to us. No, the iPad is not exactly the eBook reader I have been craving, but it is so much better than anything else that has been offered that I don't really care. It can do so much. It can provide those of us who just want to read a good book with a good book to read that is on a screen about the size of a typical magazine. If we want to watch a video, we can do that. We can do anything we are used to doing on the Internet, so we can email, instant message, and tweet. I am sure those who want to interact with what they read (or write variant endings) will be able to do that with the iPad.

In other words, the iPad will cater to all of us, readers and nonreaders who want gimmicks, alike. The implications of this little machine are just so exciting. For instance, I may not be a fan of interactive books, but give me something in which I can just click on a pop up rather than having to flip to the end of a book to read an end note, and I am all. over. that. Give me something that allows me to mark up my books with an instrument that is similar to a pen. Give me something that allows me to write notes on blank pages with that same pen. Give me something that allows me to look up information instantly when I am reading a book and want to know more about, say, some historical character who is mentioned. Who the hell cares if I can't take pictures with it (one of the big complaints being thrown at it)? Did anyone ever want to take photos with their TVs or their books or even their laptops? (In fairness, I admit I'm not big on having photos taken of me, nor have I ever been one to see the appeal of taking bad photos with a phone, especially when there are millions of great cameras on the market for taking photos, that are made specifically to do that. Why should an iPad do that? It's like wanting an iPad to make a cup of coffee).

And while I am trying to drown out your tiresome "it isn't a camera" arguments, do not give me your just-as-tiresome "it doesn't have Flash" arguments. Please. Flash is so 2000. It's a technology that's on its way out. It takes boatloads of memory to run. Why would Apple (smart little company that it is) waste its time on that when HTML5 is right around the corner?

You won't even hear me bemoaning the death of the publishing industry with the advent of the iPad (or even the death of the book. My huge book collection will continue to grow and prosper, I am sure. As a matter of fact, my hope is that books will become prettier, that publishers will start paying more attention to their packaging, designing them to last, as they become special the way they once were, instead of the quickest, cheapest way to increase the bottom line). I see nothing but good things ahead for publishing companies willing to think creatively (and who have been preparing themselves for a digital future). I see great new ways of learning. I see more need than ever for a literate society. The future's so bright (I gotta wear shades).


Stefanie said...

The iPad is definitely lust worthy. I like my Kindle a lot but the iPad will be able to do so much more. The notetaking will be better, the internet browsing will be fantastic so, as you say, I can look stuff up I want to know more about while I am reading. The Kindle will access Wikipedia but really, it's internet browsing capability stinks. The Kindle lets me read outside in the sun without diminishing display quality, if the iPad can handle that, I do believe in a year or two I will be getting one for myself.

Rebecca said...

And the people complaining about all the stuff the iPad can't do are the geeks. Who already own numerous devices that can do all that stuff. The iPad is for the non-techy people who don't want it all. And there are a lot more of them than there are of the techy people.

ZoesMom said...

I completely and utterly agree. I think the iPad is a giant leap done in the way only Apple can. Before you know it there will be tons of copycats, but none will be as good. I haven't seen the iPad in person, but I am already a fan and I can't wait to get my hands on one. I am sure this comes as no surprise.

Anonymous said...

I love your attitude. I don't care about email in an ereader, but I'd like one that I can write on with a stylus and that I can use for any ebooks and isn't restricted to one provider.

Emily Barton said...

Stef, lust worthy indeed. I'm sure Apple has thought about the whole sun thing, but, if not, certainly within two years they will have.

Becky, exactly. Let them have their cell phones that will make coffee. Meanwhile, non-Geek over here will take the iPad.

ZM, I was going to say, "Surprise! Surprise!" but you said it for me. Shall I meet you at the Apple store?

Lilian, the stylus is a huge selling point, isn't it?

Lee said...

A wonderful post!

Emily Barton said...

Thanks, Lee!

polaris said...

Emily, I was just thinking about annotation facilities and a stylus in connection with ebook readers, so I agree whole-heartedly with what you said about these. I remember that, while promoting the iphone, Steve Jobs ridiculed the stylus, but I really think that that it would be awesome to have a stylus. It is alright for a book to become electronic, but please don't take away from readers the pleasure of making useful squiggles in the margins!

I'm ashamed to admit that I've never held a Kindle in my hands. I've heard very good things about the e-ink technology that mimicks the look-and-feel of paper. On the other hand, I really hate Amazon's closed-door policies which prevent sharing of books or looking at PDFs. Hopefully, with increasing competition in the e-reader space, these annoyances will be ironed out.