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Dead-Tree Book to the Rescue

I was reading Bujold’s Cetaganda from my cache of the Vorkosigan ebooks (as I detailed here), when my son decided it was his turn on the iPad or he’ll not want to take an afternoon nap.  I was in the middle of a very interesting development in the book, but my son insisted.  So as I was fully prepared to get down from the high I got from the story, I scanned my shelves and voilà !  I have a copy of Cetaganda, after all. 

The evening was enjoyable once again.

One Format to Rule Them All…

A daily routine conundrum, which leads to my wishful thinking but technically possible “big idea.”

Ok.  I’m listening to a non-fiction audiobook at the moment, and the details as it’s dictated to me sometimes flies by at such a pace that it becomes impossible to digest at first try.  More than once I mentioned to myself that it would be extremely useful to crosscheck the audio I’m hearing to the text of the actual source material.  I would buy the book separately just so I can revisit some of the text that was read to me.  Obviously in an audiobook you need to note the time signature of the section you want to revisit, but that is a little difficult when you have both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.

It would be so much easier if I can somehow marry the audiobook and the ebook version of this piece of work, and allow me to manipulate either format and have that synced with the corresponding format. 

Let me illustrate: I’m listening to the narrator saying something about the fall of the caliphate in Egypt and the uprising of the Young Turks a few chapters back and I want to revisit it.  Instead of blindly jumping back and forth on the audiobook timeline, I do a search of the text I want on the ebook version, skim through to the section I want, and click play audiobook from there.  Or alternately continue reading it from the ebook version itself.

This marries two fiercely independent pieces of work in terms of copyright, even though they are from the same source.  There are legal precedents that strictly divides these two disparate artforms, and traditionally they don’t (and can’t, legally) mix.

But let say this marriage between the forms is possible.  Why stop there? 

I have this very vague idea of a new industry standard digital file format to encompass a singular piece of work in all its myriad digital incarnations.  For example, a single digital file that holds the full text of Les Miserables, the unabridged audiobook that is synced with the text, the official (insofar as dictated by the publisher) abridged version of the same work, its accompanying audiobook, a graphic novel adaptation of the work, screenplay, songs with synced text of the lyrics, even movies or graphic novel adaptations.

This file format is not just an audiobook, or an ebook.  It’s a universal container.  A new metadata digital file. 

All media players or ebook readers will read this one format, but can only playback the parts of the work that the device is designed to work with (i.e. the iPod is only able to playback the audiobook or songs portion of Les Mis work, while the Kindle only displays the ebook text.  A computer is able to access all available formats included in this metafile).

Now I know how it crisscrosses across so many legal boundaries relating to the copyrights of each of these individual pieces of work.  This is a high-level idea for now, and the legalities will have to be dealt with later. 

The idea is crystalizing slowly, and I’m thinking that it will only give me rest if I give it a little more form.  Areas of concern include how to include more formats of the work in the same file, who owns the overarching metadata of this meta file?  How to add pieces of work to the same file, as and when it becomes available?

I’ll probably write more later.

My Ideal Ebook Reader

Ok, just before the planned announcement of Apple’s supposed ebook-killer tomorrow, I want to just put out there my list of features for my ideal ebook reader.

I’ve been in love with the idea of the ebook since I found out about the Rocket ebook reader, and I think this is way back in the early or mid 90s (I can’t go online and check as I’m typing this).  The idea that I can lug around my library in a portable device that will enable me to read what I want, when I want?  Fabulous.

I’ll get into the details of why I think ebooks are the bees’ knees, but I just want to say that having used myriad ebook reader software in multiple devices, portable or PC, have made it clearer in my mind what manner of form and function an ebook reader should have.

Here I’m specifically talking about a portable ebook-reading device, and not a smartphone, notebook or PC software (although a lot of these features are implemented as software for the said devices).  The ebook-reading device may of course do other things (e.g. this supposedly multipurpose Apple tablet PC), but looking at its ebook reading abilities, it should cover the following features.

  • Search.  This for me represents one of the truest and most legitimate reason for loving ebooks.
  • Speed.  There should be no slowdowns for whatever reason.  Ever.
  • Font size control.  Isn’t it obvious?  I’m getting old.  My eyes need a break.
  • Colour control for both foreground and background.  This is an immensely useful feature for controlling eyestrain.  One of the first things I do is to invert the display colours; white words on black background.  Of course, if the device is using e-ink, then this particular feature is moot, since an e-ink screen is not backlit like the screens of a computer or a smartphone.
  • Annotation functionality, e.g. highlighting, notes, drawing.  I remember gleefully highlighting quotables from Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray, making remembering witty repartees a little easier.  Wait.  Maybe I shouldn’t admit I do that.
  • Ability to quickly find, purchase and download content.  Apple pretty much spoilt us all with this, and as a direct consequence of iTunes device manufacturers everywhere now have to think about how to effectively and easily allow consumers to get content for their devices.  This is a good thing.
  • Ability to read the gazillion book formats out there.  This gives me the option to purchase content from wherever I want, and I’m not locked down to a particular provider (read: iTunes).  I own DRM-strapped content that I want to get access to using this device.  Since I legally obtained these books, it should be my right to consume this same content in another device of my choosing.
  • Integrated dictionary.  This would be rank up there with searching as one of the more obvious yet incredibly useful ebook functions.
  • Ability to handle uncommon typesets, fonts or drawings.  Alfred Bester’s Stars My Destination has swirling and spiraling words, words going increasing larger and smaller to convey the psychedelic and heady experience the character was going through.  Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy has drawings!
  • Ability to handle colour.  Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was laden with full colour comic strips.  The reader should be able to handle these with aplomb.
  • Since we’re talking pictures, zoom functionality for these pictures is paramount.
  • Ability to display comics, and to display it well.  It should have the display options relevant to comics reading: single page view, full double page spread, per panel, per row, zooming and rotation.
  • Bookmarking facility. Of course, I’m expecting the device to always remember where I’ve been to last whenever I reopen an ebook (this is an absolute prerequisite).  It would be great to have the ability to bookmark whichever page I want for a later revisit.
  • The book-reading equivalent of the odometer.  Captures reading statistics such as time spent reading book, at what speeds were different parts of the books were read, book reading speed per book and on average.  Why would this be useful?  Well, I’m a personal stats whore.  Seeing an improvement in your reading reading speed, for example, is interesting.  Comparing the numbers when you’re reading different materials can tell a lot about you as a reader.  A reader’s profile, if you will.
  • An easy to use page navigation system would be welcome.  Whether I want to turn to the next page, or to jump to different chapters or pages, it should be as easy as pie.
  • It has to run weeks between charges.  I already have an inordinate number of electrical chargers that I have to lug with me for my various devices when I travel, and I don’t want another one.
  • So ok, if the reader can handle media other than books, that’s ok too.  Stuff like pictures shouldn’t be too much of a stretch of the imagination.  But I won’t exactly stamp my feet if it doesn’t play music, audiobooks or movies.  Although it would be nice if it did.  Even if it runs against my wish to have the device last for weeks between charges.  In fact, this is the only reason I’ll accept if the device’s batteries don’t last very long.
  • Newspaper or magazine subscriptions.  This was not on my list for the longest time.  Even when Kindle introduced it I was incredibly skeptical.  But aside from books, I spend a lot of time reading magazines, periodicals and newspapers as well.  imagine you can download the latest of these for immediate viewing on the device.
  • Now this is incredibly important:  it has to be inexpensive.  To pay over RM1000 for what is essentially a tool to read a book, something that you can do with relatively cheaply and easily without such a device, is an incredibly tough sell.  Unless there’s some other functionality offered that goes well beyond book reading, it won’t get my thumbs up without being reasonably priced.  Don’t get me started about the prices of ebooks.

None of the ebook readers out in the market right now can do all of the above at present, chiefly due to the over-reliance on e-ink as the display of choice.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if we’re going the colour direction, either give me the colour e-ink, or just use a backlit screen.  While all the fuss about backlit screens causing eye strain is actually true (I read lots on my Windows Mobile device, then Blackberry, in the bedroom with the lights off, so I can say this with some authority), I’d rather have the convenience of being able to read in the dark if I have to, than not being able to read anything at all on the e-ink display.  Plus if you practice good reading habits and read with sufficient lighting (oops), the backlit screen will not be a problem.

So there.  I’ll be interested to see exactly how many of these items here that Apple manages to hit.