Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why the iPhone is a Better Reading Environment III

The Berkshire Encyclopedia of China in coverflow mode

The Page-turning feature that one frequently finds on Flash solutions for digital magazines or digital book readers, has always struck me as a dire software innovation. Unecessary, slow, boring -- because the page turning is always the same experience. Gimmicky: I have even seen versions which emulate turning a creaking page of parchment! An example of software ingenuity which is orthogonal to the direction of travel. I suspect that the method was originally introduced because Flash can be quite slow with large book files and the page turning covers up the download delays.

So, I was not overjoyed to see the first Dutch review of Exactly comparing the App's 'pageflow' feature to page-turning Flash catalogues (read the review in Google's englished version here). The review is otherwise OK, (I think its quite polite, but Google or I may have misunderstood something), but this seems to be a false comparison. Pageflow has some crucial advantages which page-turning does not match:
  1. The context of the book or the magazine is preserved in pageflow because the reader actually sees the pages flowing past in rapid sequence (it will be rapid if the connection is good) This is giving us a lot of information and it is preserving and in some respects enhancing the utility of the print object. The codex was a great invention! With a book you have a sense of 'how far' through the book you are. Using the slider button in Exactly you can actually navigate, slide through, the whole package and you can't do that with the merely serial page-turn in Flash.
  2. Although thumbnail pages do not give you enough detail to read a page properly, they give a surprising amount of information, even in books that are mostly full of plain text. The advertisements in magazines or illustrations in fancy books are clearly very handy in the thumbnail mode.
  3. Connected point: some of the puritanical types who argue for eBooks, seem to assume that the only point of a book is to read it. Perhaps because we have also lived with magazines, we think that skimming is good. There are many ways of reading a book or a magazine, and reading some of it and skimming the rest is OK (in my book). The pageflow mode is ideal for skimming. Please skim with a good conscience using pageflow.
  4. Final point: the ergonomics of the iPhone. Taking advantage of the iPhone's shape and size, pageflow enables the iPhone to be useful in different ways according to the way you orient it. The portrait mode (right way up) is obviously the right way to read a portrait page. With Exactly the reader has two landscape options, 90° anticlockwise which puts the App and the iPhone in pageflow mode, and 90°clockwise which gives the best landscape mode for reading close text. I hope that this option set (which I have only as yet seen in Exactly) becomes a general convention for iPhone Apps that want to use pageflow or coverflow. Notice that the small size of the iPhone makes this use of orientation as giving alternative modes of navigating the text an even easier and more attractive option. I am sure that the mooted iPhone/tablet will also support these features and gestures, but if Apple had started with a tablet the size of the MacBook Air, we might not have seen orientation as such a strong element in their 'touch' interface.

Using pageflow to find a specific page

Swing the iPhone to read the page selected

Once again the small size of the iPhone is, in a curious way an advantage, in that it has pushed Apple and App developers to innovate. The Kindle did not originally offer a landscape mode, but perhaps under the influence of the iPhone it now does. It is a matter of some interest to me that the 4th side of the iPhone (180°rotation), the portrait mode -- wrong way up, has not yet been found a use within the Exactly App. Perhaps this should become a way of navigating a library, of switching between books or magazine titles within a subscription? I am sure that the development team will think of a better use and a better solution.... but turning the book upside down surely has its uses?

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