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Why the iPad is not an eBook reader

By Edited Feb 24, 2014 0 0

If you're like me, then you read several books per month (anything from fiction to travel accounts), you love the smell and feel of printed books and you love it even more to plunge into a text while adventures start happening in your head. If you also travel a lot, or you like gadgets, then you might have been thinking about getting an ebook reader. While Sony was first to market, it wasn't until Amazon came along with the Kindle that the ebook market started to move and get exciting. Early adopters bought the first eInk based readers and many are now (in fall 2010) upgrading to a new generation of devices with better usability and better screens. While there is (as of yet) just no comparing ebooks to printed books when it comes to (worldwide) availability, they do have many advantages. They are easily portable, you can carry a large number of books with you even on a plane, you can buy them from an online shop without getting up from your couch. Apple, apparently, recognized these advantages and is offering an ebook reading application as one of the killer applications of their iPad tablet computer. The application, iBooks seems nicely made, it gives you a virtual bookshelf that resembles the wooden one you might have in your library. Buying books is easy with the iTunes like interface, and the usability of the reading app is quite good – flipping through the pages feels nice and Apple is providing the responsive kind of touch interface we've learned to appreciate with the iPhone. Images and text are colorful and sharp on the backlit LCD display, giving publishers a lot of freedom when it comes to designing new formats of books. Videos and images can be embedded, whereas dedicated eInk ebook readers can only show black and white pictures.

Whence, then, the headline of this article, you might ask?

Because reading is about text, not pictures. Reading is about creating a world in your head that can be so much more detailed, so much more realistic and authentic than what any movie could show you. You don't need videos and colorful pictures to make reading enjoyable. And yet the iPad encourages new book formats that mix text with videos and colorful pictures. While these absolutely make sense for academic texts and the like, where you might show videos to better illustrate a point, I do not believe there's any use for them in novels. If you want to watch a movie, then that's what you should do. Watching movies is a passive activity, and there's nothing wrong with that. Reading, however, is a very different kind of animal. Your brain interprets the text to form a mental image. Every reader will create a slightly different world when reading the same text – it is a challenge, and it makes it such a rewarding activity: You're not an outsider, you become part of the world you're creating. When watching a movie, you're looking into a world created by someone else. The two concepts don't combine well, and there is no space for videos in novels.

What you do need, to enjoy a book, however, is a screen that will not hurt or damage your eyes after staring at it for hours. Sure, many of us are looking at LCD screens all day long at work anyway, you might argue. But we don't focus our eyes for hours to read a 500 page novel on screen. We scan web pages, move our eyes a lot and switch back and forth between looking at the screen, looking at the phone, the calendar and a notepad. After a working day, it is quite pleasant to be looking at something that does not shine light into your face. Studies have been conducted, showing that the light shining into your face from a computer screen will prevent your brain activity from shutting down for the night, so don't count on falling asleep after some cosy reading in bed on the iPad – you'll be counting sheep until the morning.

Technical advances should be about improving the status quo. It is quite difficult to see what the advantage of a device is that you have to recharge after 10 hours. When you're on holidays, that might be after just two days (and in the middle of the most exciting chapter), while you could keep reading a paper book for 2 weeks (if it is thick enough). Most eInk readers give you one to two weeks of battery life. Not as good as printed books, but a lot better than the iPad. You might be holding a paperback in front of your body for hours with one hand. You can do the same with many eInk readers. I would like to see you do that with the 1.5 pounds iPad. Your hands will get tired before you've read 10 pages.

Finally, the books you buy on iBooks come with DRM. This means that Apple decide what you can do with them. If Android tablets start to get popular and you want to replace your iPad, you'll lose your books. If Apple goes out of business you'll lose your books. If Apple make a mistake when selling you a book and decide that they didn't have the right to do so, they might just take the book from you (like Amazon did a while ago).

The iPad is a fascinating device for many purposes – it's just not great for reading long texts, and it can't beat printed books. It is also no competition for eInk devices which do not attempt to be good at many things, but do one thing well: Displaying text.



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