Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make


HP debuted a new prototype e-book. The interesting thing about e-books is that they employ cutting-edge technology in an effort to reproduce an ancient experience.

The BBC has a piece on a new prototype e-book developed by researchers at HP. It’s about a centimeter thick, and has a series of touch strips that you use to control the device.

What’s really fascinating about this and other e-books is how hard designers work to replicate certain affordances that we’re familiar with through long years of reading books: the feel of turning the page, of reading dark letters on a bright surface (paper really is pretty bright), and being able to bookmark or annotate what we read. Giving an e-book a faster processor, or a brighter screen, or more memory, is obviously good; and to some degree, a book that can hold a million pages isn’t a “book,” but in a way that most readers will like. But an e-book that is three feet wide, or which weights 50 pounds, isn’t an e-book. It seems that they have to really be about the same size as books (hardbacks, anyway), and as much as possible, feel like books– not just in terms of form factor, but in terms of technique– i.e. the way they’re controlled. Partly this reflects a belief that a lot of buyers will be bibliophiles; but it also draws on a recognition that readers have developed a lot of strategies for reading books that are worth close attention and reproduction. To quote the BBC article, “‘We’ve been looking at the power of the book as a way of consuming information,’ said Hewlett Packard’s Huw Robson. ‘We’ve been using them for so long that we’re very comfortable with the idea of paging through something’.”

In other words, advancing technology is employed to more faithfully reproduce an ancient, familiar experience.

I spent some time a few years ago with Jim Sachs, the CEO of Softbook Press, talking about the evolution of e-books. (He had been part of the team that designed Apple’s mouse, and Softbook was developing an e-book that he had designed– in his garage, in classic Silicon Valley style.) He spent a lot of time thinking about what parts of the reading experience they could replicate, and which parts it was really important to reproduce to make the device acceptable to bibliophiles. They spent a lot of time on the sound that the Softbook made when you “turned” the page; the feel of the bar that you used to scroll through your book. One side of the book had a curl to it, which was supposed to remind users of the tube that you create when you fold the pages of a paperback over– and, incidentally, help solve the “problem” that the book had a one-page display. They even designed a leather cover that was like a really good hardback book cover– or more likely, our sense of what such a cover would be, since very few of us ever encounter leather-bound books these days. (I think the only ones I have are a 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was about over a century ago.)

Jim’s sense was that Moore’s Law would make e-books into handheld libraries after a few years, and that we’d be able to carry thousands of volumes with us without a problem. The real challenge was going to be in designing the physical and tactile interface, and figuring out what parts of the (paper) book-reading experience could profitably be copied into an electronic product. Creating something that would work wasn’t hard; creating something that people would like, to which readers could fruitfully apply decades of prior experience, was the real challenge.

Jim died almost exactly a year ago. I still miss him. He was a really, really great guy.

[thanks, Nancy]

1 Comment

  1. He *did*? OMG. I didn’t know. I don’t know why I didn’t know.

    But, yeah, SoftBook got a lot of stuff right, even after they got bought up and it became a lot harder to get stuff right.

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