Thursday, November 11, 2010

What's the Next Page for eBooks?

Justin McGuirk |
... For all its quirks, the Kindle is a perfectly effective reading device – which is what it's intended to be. Amazon chose to forgo the touch screen and flashy multimedia connectivity of the iPad and other e-readers, first to keep their product cheap, and second to appeal to a more conservative audience. Yes, you can use the internet on it, but it's rather like using a Roman wax tablet with dial-up. It's only really good for buying more books from Amazon.

The Kindle is, in other words, what Marshall McLuhan referred to as a 'horseless carriage', the term first given to automobiles – in other words, an in-between stage on the way to a technological leap that we haven't quite grasped yet. The Kindle's one-dimensionality is strategic, but it is also short-sighted. Everything is pointing to the likelihood that the book will be absorbed into a multimedia world in which we switch from text to video to the internet in quick succession – some even believe all at the same time.

The design firm IDEO recently unveiled three possible futures for the book that re-imagine not the format, but the medium itself. In slightly patronising design-for-dummies style, they have cute names. "Nelson" allows you to read a text while simultaneously checking the sources and comparing other material on the same topic; "Coupland" links your reading tastes to a social network, so you can see what friends are reading and generally keep up with the Joneses; while "Alice", "an interactive reading experience", turns the book into a form of computer game.

The first two ideas sound potentially useful and plausible, depending on how well they're done. It's Alice that worries me. IDEO's designers are not the only ones predicting that the book is going to morph into some hybrid gaming experience, in which readers can interact with characters and even contribute to the story – like a multimedia version of those fantasy books I loved when I was 10, where you turned to a different page depending on which door you opened (do they still exist?). The "participation" rhetoric of the web 2.0 era insists that we all want to be involved in everything; that we cannot simply sit back and enjoy. I would much rather put myself in the hands of a master and be taken wherever they will rather than add my own jumped-up tuppenceworth. But that's me. ...