a blog about things that I've been thinking hard about

The (Hypothetical) Wifi Tablet that is Better Than a Book

16 August, 2007
wifi tablets versus books

In some ways, books are better than tablets.

In other ways, tablets are better than books.

Why isn't there a tablet yet (in 2007) that we all want to buy?

Why Haven't Computers Replaced Books Yet?

Books are one of those things long predicted to become obsolete, to be replaced by an electronic equivalent, but it hasn't happened yet.

We know it hasn't happened yet because everyone is still reading books.

However, computers have partially replaced printed materials, because for many people (including myself), a substantial amount of what they read is presented to them on a computer screen, and not on paper.

The Economics of Technology Replacement

In comparing an old technology A with a new technology B, we might consider the following:

  1. Capabilities of A that are better than B
  2. Capabilities of A that are worse than B
  3. Capabilities of B completely missing from A

In order for A to be replaced by B, we might suppose that A has to be better or as good as B in all respects, i.e.

  1. Some capabilities of A that are better than B
  2. No capabilities of A that are worse than B
  3. No capabilities of B completely missing from A

In practice, replacement happens when the following holds:

  1. Some capabilities of A are way better than B
  2. Some capabilities of A are worse than B, but they are good enough.
  3. Some capabilities of B completely missing from A, but it turns out they don't really matter that much.

For example, there are many things that a horse can do which a car will never do, such as:

A horse can do all these things, but none of those advantages were enough to prevent the almost complete replacement of the horse by the motor car as the preferred form of assisted personal transport. I can't claim to be an expert on the history of horse-car substitution, but I imagine that the following are the main reasons why we all use cars instead of horses:

Slightly closer to the main topic of this article are examples of replacement of analog technologies by digital equivalents. When the vinyl record was being replaced by the CD, there were claims that when listening to some part of some track on some album, the vinyl record had a sound quality supposedly lacking on the CD version. But even if this was true, the CD had overwhelming advantages of size, convenience and robustness. Similarly, when film cameras where being replaced by digital cameras, it would be claimed that digital cameras can't quite reproduce the high quality of film photos. But the digital camera has the overwhelming advantage that it costs nothing to take a photo and almost nothing to store, reproduce and view photos, and this is enough to render the film camera obsolete as a consumer technology.

Why Books are Better than Computers and Why Computers are Better than Books

Why Books are Better than Computers

All of these advantages of books present major technological challenges to the designer of any kind of computerised e-book. But my thesis is that the last item is the only one that really matters, and it is the only thing that stands between the whole book industry and the historical fate of the horse, vinyl record and film camera industries.

Why Computers are Better than Books

The first two items are very much a function of the Internet and the Web, and like the car example above, show the relevance of infrastructure (i.e., in the case of cars, suitable roads).

The last item is very abstractly described, so it's worth listing some of the specific forms of interactivity that we currently expect to have on our computers:

Computerised navigation can be compared to "book navigation", which has the following features:

The computerised navigation model seems to have the overwhelming advantage here, with perhaps a caveat in relation to "over-sensitivity" which needs to be considered by anyone designing the ultimate e-book machine.

Book Advantages: Solve Them or Ignore Them

I gave a list above of the advantages that books have over computerised alternatives, which I will summarise here briefly:

Some of these advantages are conditional on each other, and in particular on portability. For example:

But if we assume that the computerised must be portable and hand-held, then issues of robustness, size, sensitivity and power supply must be considered by the system designer.

Mandatory Features for the Hand-Held Electronic "Book" (aka Wifi Tablet)

Taking into account the above lists of advantages of computers versus books, the ideal electronic book needs to have the following features:

We can consider how this design deals with the list of book advantages given above. In some cases the book advantage can be mostly overcome, in other cases we can decide that it doesn't necessarily matter so much.

Text Entry

One additional consideration in the interaction/navigation model is that of text entry. Reading a book does not generally require any text entry at all, however to take advantage of free content on the Internet it is often necessary to enter at least a few words, including:

Entering text without a keyboard can be fiddly and frustrating. As with other aspects of interaction, the best solution will come naturally from allowing users to develop their own interaction software according to an open-source model. However I will make the following suggestions:

What is Out There Now

If the hypothetical wifi tablet that I have described is so good, why isn't someone already making it? Possibly they already are, but as far as I know there is nothing on the market that quite has all the right features.

The first problem to deal with when researching Internet-based "like-a-book" web-surfing devices is what to call them. I have come across the following terms at least:

The set of currently available devices can be divided mostly into three categories, which are:

The remaining and least populated category is the "almost good enough" category, and there are only two items I know of that are in it:

Both of these devices have similar prices (iRex US$699 from "iRex shop", PepperPad 3 currently US$645 from Amazon). The Iliad is based on "electronic paper" with 1024 by 768 at 160 DPI, the Pepperpad 3 has a 7 inch 800 by 480 pixel LCD screen.

As far as software goes, the PepperPad seems to be far superior, as it is a Linux system and you can install a wide range of software (and write your own if you want to).

The Iliad doesn't even come with a web browser (at least there is no mention of such a thing on the product home page), although it is possible to work around this somewhat bizarre omission (for example see here).

Unfortunately I live in New Zealand, and neither of these devices is available in any shops here, so I can only speculate as to how good they are. Most of the reviews for the Pepperpad, such as these and this seem quite enthusiastic.

The Ipad. Far better than anything discussed here. Ironically, I still like reading stuff that has been printed out on paper.
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