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Thursday, July 1, 2010

When We Say "Book" ...

I have now read some books on a Kindle, some on an iPad, some on the Kindle for PC application and one Adobe Digital Edition. And I'm currently reading a beautiful hard cover edition of Updike. The hardcover is a book; the other technologies are book storage sytems. But our language is begining to change as our attitudes change.

Back in the 1970's, when we said we were watching television, we meant three things: we were looking at a television set, we were tuned to a broadcast network -- a "TV station," and we were enjoying the content -- also called "television" -- produced by that network. But now we can watch "TV" on a phone, or on hulu.com, or on an iPad; and we can watch YouTube or streaming video on our "TV."

The term, "book", will soon evolve to include long prose content and the new technologies that store the content. So, when someone has to wait in the doctor's office, you will tell them, "bring a book" and point to an e-reader. But you will also describe as a book, the scanned, out-of-print 1888 edition of The Tuberous Begonia: it's History and Cultivation that you find on google books. And the hard cover Updike.

The evolution of television is a more appropriate analog to e-book evolution than what happened in the music industry, which was dramatic, out of control and disastrous for many players. The television industry tolerates a certain amount of pirating and occasionally prosecutes egregious content thieves. So it will be with publishers, and especially educational publishers, who have already established an uneasy truce with course packs and electronic reserves.

(For those who don't know, a "course pack" is an improvised anthology of readings for a particular course, put together by a professor from various sources. Chapters and articles are copied and bound in cheap, soft cover, plastic binders and sold in the college book store. The publishers get a pro-rated royalty for the amount copied. E-reserves are simply a free, electronic verion of course packs: sources are scanned and posted on Blackboard or a similar course management system under the -- legaly unstable -- limitations of the fair use clause of the copyright act.)

Have you noticed that you absolutely cannot select and copy to the clipboard any text from a book that you have bought from Amazon? Even on Kindle-for-the-PC, you cannot. The content is locked, even though the product is flexible enough to appear on an iPhone, Android, PC, Kindle or iPad. No doubt, someone will find a way to hack Amazon's security and post copies of books on pirate sites. But it's looking pretty secure for now.

Have you also noticed that there is no way to read content supplied by Apple on any other device? This is a huge flaw. But here's the down-low: no matter what Apple does, several million people will camp out overnight outside the Apple store to give them money because of the magical industrial design of Apple products.

What I've realized about my personal reading is that I want the content above all else. Amazon let's me have my content synchronized on multiple devices. If I read a little farther on my iPad, I'll sync to the same place on my laptop, and so forth. Letting content flow across multiple platforms may be the killer app. Google, which is working on exactly this approach, may show us the way later in the summer.

I may be willing to call that a book.

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