Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why the Kindle does not have enough Kith

The iPhone is an amazing device, but we are going to look back on it in a few years and marvel at its already much too apparent limitations. For the size, it has a fantastic screen, but it is small. We eagerly await the Netbook-sized iPhone, iPhone maxi or Mac mini, with a screen of similar quality but reasonable dimensions. (say 20cm rather than 8cm diagonal). It should be with us by September/October.

The iPhone even in its small format is becoming the preferred platform for digital editions and ebook development. I doubt that the new improved Kindle will disrupt this triumphal march. Here is one reason why: one of the more important iPhone features, neglected by the dedicated eBook platforms, is that it is very easy to take a snapshot of your screen and email or sms it to someone else.

A screen grab from the Continuum Directory of Publishing 2009

This limited copy-ability, share-ability, via mobile, is a very important feature for use with digital editions which has been overlooked by commentators. It is important because it is now easy to share snapshots of your books with friends and network contacts. This development from the mobile platform is accelerating our tendency to develop social reading habits. We like to share our insights and the references we find in books, and the iPhone makes this easier than many other device to do this. Oddly, it is even easier than on a desktop or notebook computer, because the iPhone interface, for all its simplicity has brought these features to the surface. It is easier and more natural to make a screen grab on an iPhone and email it to a friend than it is on most Macs.

Why haven't the dedicated eBook devices enabled similar screen-grab and shareability behaviours? Three reasons occur to me. The first is that were any form of copying a design feature, 'selling the concept' of the Kindle, or the Sony eBook, to publishers or authors agents would have been harder than it already is. OK it is not hard now, but it probably was an uphill struggle two or three years ago when the ventures were being planned. The second reason, is that the devices do not support emails or SMS, which is to say they are dedicated eBook readers. But that is an easily remedied design limitation: why were they designed in such a way that it is not easy to become a community of Kindle readers, or to engender a tribe of Iliad enjoyers? Which gets us to the real reason why the dedicated eBook readers do not enable the rather limited content-sharing that is facilitated by the iPhone and its cousins. The real reason is that the eBook reader is based on a deeply flawed model of reading which supposes that reading is just a matter of providing a text to the human brain/mind in the most convenient format. A view which sounds plausible, but is radically mistaken because in many ways that are important reading is more like eating a meal: sharing, comparing, offering, tidying up afterwards, reflecting.... not simply a matter of digesting. Reading is deeply social, was made more so by the invention of print, and the exciting future of the mobile network is that it will show us new ways in which to enjoy social reading. The company of books and each other.

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