Building a Better e-Book
Open-access scholarship is first and foremost about ensuring access. But the entire concept grew out of a gradual conversion of print to online formats.The continuing evolution in the ways that we access information will also influence future economic and publishing models — and vice versa (see Q&A with Scribd’s Trip Adler ’06).
Shieber confides that he prefers the tried-and-true, conventional book to innovative e-ink technology. Even the most sophisticated e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, he says, are designed more as poor mimics than as next-generation tools.
“Thinking about this from the standpoint of computer science means treating the book as a user interface,” adds Shieber. “To what degree does the Kindle offer a better (or worse) user interface than the book?”
In the early 1990s Shieber, Joe Marks, and Adam Ginsberg authored a paper on a viewer for the now-obsolescent postscript format (PDF has largely taken its place) and had this approach in mind. (Adam Ginsburg, Joe Marks, and Stuart M. Shieber. A viewer for PostScript documents. In Proceedings of UIST ’96, 1996.)
Their interface design, “DeckView,” replicated some of the functionality of a book but didn’t attempt to emulate the turning of a book’s pages. Instead, they aimed for navigation that worked well on the computer screen. The Adobe Reader and iPaper share some of the same features.
This may explain while the Kindle has been slow to take off and why the iPhone, which completely rethought how we interact with digital devices, won out over the clickety-clack keyboard of the Blackberry Storm, which was meant to mimic a conventional input device.
Today, Hanspeter Pfister, Professor of the Practice of Computer Science, is using the Scientists Discovery Room at SEAS to advance how scholars work with a broad array of information, from mouse genome data to touch screen-based collaborative tools. The facility, he says, could greatly assist scientists interested in exploring practical e-book interface technology.
In a recent Harvard Gazette story, Pfister explained that the “Discovery Room is more about interaction, about interfaces, and not about processing large amounts of data. We really want to help the scientists [learn to] use that technology.” (See Alvin Powell, “Humans and Computers Connect in Discovery Room,” Harvard Gazette, Sept. 2, 2009.)
Shieber applauds such efforts like the Discovery Room, but warns that creating the reader of the future will have its challenges. For all its low-tech design, a book has a surprising resiliency — and functionality. It requires only that you know how to read; the only power it takes is that to light its pages.
Moreover, books provide a fantastic means of simultaneous and tactile access — you can throw a bunch of open books on the table all at once; you can put a finger in the index and have another near a page you want to refer to; and you can underline, highlight, and dog-ear pages.
Clearly, the path to a new and successful reading device is unlikely to be an open book — in any sense of the expression.