eBooks Haven't Worked—Here's What Might

You may not think of paper as an information storage and retrieval system, but it is one. In fact, paper is an incredibly inexpensive, portable, and durable medium that requires no electricity or batteries. Binding a few sheets of paper together makes a book. But while books have greatly evolved since the Gutenberg Bible of 1455, they have never overcome the limitations of paper.

It's not surprising, then, that technologists have tried to improve upon books by transforming them into digital media. With regularity that rivals the seasons, eBooks and eBook readers are announced and quietly forgotten. Of course there is a current crop of them that looks promising, as they always do, but most eBooks have all of the limitations of paper and the worst characteristics of current computers and their ilk.

Paper is a wonderful medium that is static, linear, and has a deplorably low information-storage density. But the key characteristic of books is information, not paper. Although novels, dictionaries, journals, and textbooks use the same paper book format, they are completely different. Each different kind of book needs its own unique electronic incarnation that takes full advantage of the power of intelligent devices and frees its information from the bonds of paper technology.

For example, novels are part of a class of information that enlightens and entertains. Yet reading one on a PDA, laptop, tablet, or expensive reader is an act of desperation. So here's how a novel might be better done in digital format:

The information for a novel (or textbook, reference book, or other information source) should be stored in a standard format that allows it to be accessed from many different devices. The software that provides the access should also be able to run on a variety of devices. My collection of novels would be on a tiny pocket-sized device that I'll call myOwn. "My" because intelligent devices are adaptable and I should be able to personalize each of them to my own whims and desires.

myOwn stores the text of thousands of books, but because it reads them to me, at most it needs only a tiny screen. myOwn is not a book-on-tape player, but a text-to-speech device that lets me drive or do other things while I listen to it read to me. It allows me to choose who will narrate a story and the various voices that will be assigned to different characters using voice patterns of people alive and deceased. The use of different fonts to represent different speakers in a document d'esn't surprise anyone. Voice patterns are just vocal fonts. myOwn could read MacBeth with Howard Cosell's voice assigned to Duncan and Meryl Streep's to Lady MacBeth.

Because myOwn performs text-to-speech, it could easily talk faster or slower without the annoying change in pitch that a tape recording would give. You can listen much faster than you can read. To actually read from myOwn, just connect it to any device that displays information: a TV, laptop, PDA, or whatever.

myOwn is also a fine device for reference material, such as dictionaries or phone books, that return a small amount of information suitable for its tiny screen. But like a PDA screen, it's an awful place to display Web sites and other large quantities of text and images. While myOwn has a tiny keyboard, most of the time you'd just talk to it and it would respond verbally, or you could read the answer on its screen.

myOwn d'esn't work for textbooks, which are really collections of learning materials. Authors of textbooks, due to the limitations of paper, create pages and chapters, limit the static exercises tied to each chapter, and provide no easy way to get to the source material used to create the book. While students learn best by doing, paper d'es not allow simulations and other interactive learning. Professors rarely want to use a single book and almost never agree with an author's organization and choice of exercises. Without the limitations of paper they don't have to.

While there are many promising attempts in the digital textbook arena—KluwerOnline being among the best—even it still blindly copies textbooks to digital format, including page numbers and even indexes to those page numbers. Authors of textbooks need to stop writing for paper. And purveyors of digital information need to stop building digital analogs of paper.

Books are wonderful things, but eBooks are an awful idea. The power of intelligent digital information storage and retrieval systems can be used to build personal information devices that fulfill our wildest information dreams. But to do that effectively, we need to abandon the comforting paradigm of the book.

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