A recent Wired article (Why E-Books Are Stuck in a Black-and-White World) has a good chart comparing four leading E-reader displays (E-Ink, Kent Displays, Pixel Qi, and Qualcomm). The chart appears far down in the article, though, and I suspect it was missed by many readers, so to make it more visible I’m republishing a slightly massaged, smaller version below.

Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

[eink, ereaders, eBooks]

Clive Thompson, in his recent comments on how crowdsourcing has the potential to transform eBooks, refers to a a rudimentary form of crowdsourcing that’s already being studied in print textbooks. The work he’s referring to is by Cathy Marshall, who finds that used-book-buyers place value in the annotations (highlighting and notes) left in the books by previous owners.

Thompson had no link to Marshall’s work, so I got in touch with her, to get more details. As she describes in her papers (listed below), the motivation for her work is to discover effective methods of utilizing readers’ annotations of eBooks. In her early research, done mostly in the 1990′s, she observed students, and interviewed them, as they looked for used textbooks, to see if they favored books because of the nature of the annotations in them.

After confirming that students do, in fact, value annotations, Marshall went on to study the nature of the annotations to find patterns that could be used as models for eBook annotating. In the example below, on the left are four copies of the same page from different reader’s books with their annotations. On the right is the middle paragraph from the page, which all four readers annotated, to determine more precisely what was marked by each reader — which turns out to be the first sentence in all four cases. (The graphics are from the Marshall 2008 paper)

Kudos to Marshall for this ingenious, basic, application of crowdsourcing to books! It’s great that her little-noticed work, started way back in the mid-1990′s, is finally gaining recognition, as eBooks come closer to reality, and producers look for ways to make them more usable.

As Mitch Ratcliffe said in April, creating marginalia (an old name for the annotations of Marshall) is “an art made for the era of crowdsourcing.”

Selected papers of Cathy Marshall on annotations:

Complete list of Marshall’s publications

Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

A few excerpts from Clive Thompson’s interesting thoughts on digitization last week:

Books are the last bastion of the old business model—the only major medium that still hasn’t embraced the digital age. … Literary pundits are fretting: Can books survive in this Facebooked, ADD, multichannel universe? … To which I reply: Sure they can. But only if publishers … stop thinking about the future of publishing and think instead about the future of reading. … Every other form of media that’s gone digital has been transformed by its audience. … The only reason the same thing doesn’t happen to books is that they’re locked into ink on paper. … Release them, and you release the crowd.

Thompson says that “the crowd” of readers is already at work transforming even print books. He reports on research done by e-Book researcher Cathy Marshall on students buying used textbooks — She has found that they examine books in the bookstore to find ones that have notes by previous readers — high-lighting and handwritten notes on the pages — and they prefer the ones that they judge to have the “smartest” notes. This rudimentary utilization of “the crowd,” says Thompson, is really nothing new: “Books have a centuries-old tradition of annotation and commentary, ranging from the Talmud and scholarly criticism to book clubs and marginalia.” Thompson cites current digital examples of the transformative use of the crowd:

BookGlutton, a site that launched last year, has put 1,660 books online and created tools that let readers form groups to discuss their favorite titles. Meanwhile, Bob Stein, an e-publishing veteran from the CD-ROM days, put the Doris Lessing book The Golden Notebook online with an elegant commenting system and hired seven writers to collaboratively read it.

Thompson closes with this: “Books have been held hostage offline for far too long. Taking them digital will unlock their real hidden value: the readers.”

Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

When I first read the passage below in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories three years ago, it struck me as a remarkable word picture of my experience of the Web. So of course I went right to Google to see if anyone else had made this connection — My searching, surprisingly, has found little since then, so I’ve thought about writing it up, but it didn’t get done. In the last week, I’ve gotten nudges (discussed below) that tell me this is the time. Here’s Rushdie:

Haroun looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and [the Water Genie] explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.

Pow! Isn’t this a strikingly clear metaphorical description of the Web Stream that we all swim in every day? My first idea of a title for this article was “Did Salman Rushdie predict the Web?” I decided that was a bit too presumptuous  — But not by much — The passage does indeed verge on prediction. It was written in 1990 — Interestingly, the same year that Tim Berners-Lee “invented” the World Wide Web. It’s tempting to imagine the left-brained engineer (Berners-Lee) and the right-brained artist-seer (Rushdie) both envisioning the future Web in their own ways — Berners-Lee in outlining his Web ideas at CERN, and Rushdie in writing Haroun.

How has this passage and its Webishness gone unnoticed for so many years? Haroun is a story on many levels — Rushdie wrote it for his young son, and it’s often put in the category of “childrens’ literature.” I suspect this is the main reason it hasn’t been read often enough by grown-up Web users for someone to have seen Rushdie’s Stream of the Web metaphor. (Note that Haroun is on a prominent list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time)

How about the library connections in the passage? As a librarian, it certainly occurs to me that it could be viewed as being especially about libraries, maybe even seen as a threat to the traditional print library (“storeroom of yarns”). But I think, to the contrary, that Rushdie’s passage does the library world a great service, ushering us into the “liquid tapestry” of the digital Ocean, in which the Stream of “the library” will be able to “weave in and out” with the “thousand thousand and one different currents” outside of the traditional library world. Recent discussions of Google Book Search and orphan books show that the world is eagerly anticipating the stories in libraries being put into “fluid form.” And, in fact, library leader Peter Brantley, in commentary on GBS written in January 2009, talking about the coming age of digital books, uses language reminiscent of Rushdie: “We stride into a world where books are narratives in long winding rivers … and seas from which all rivers and rain coalesce.”

Speaking of the library world — As mentioned, there has been a notable lack of anyone else seeing a connection between the Rushdie passage and the Web. But the closest I’ve seen is in a paper co-authored by an engineer (JH Lienhard) and two librarians (JE Myers, TC Wilson), that was written in 1992, Surfing the Sea of Stories: Riding the Information Revolution (Mechanical Engineering 1992 Oct; 114(10): 60-65). This does an excellent job of connecting the Rushdie passage to the coming digital revolution, as it was seen in 1992, and contains the perceptively-done graphic in this article (above). But of course the full-blown Web was not born until 1995, so this view is limited. (The paper is summarized in the transcript of a radio program about it.)

Nudges for writing about this in the last week: First, In his blog article, Is The Stream What Comes After the Web?, Nova Spivack suggests that the metaphor of The Stream may soon replace The Web. The article doesn’t mention Rushdie, but it has elicited much discussion on Twitter, and someone would surely make the connection soon. Spivack does mention Twitter, saying that it and other microblogging systems are “the best example of the Stream,” which is related to the other nudge I’ve gotten, a blog article by Joff Redfern, Twitter is becoming the Ocean of the Stream of Stories. This is short , consisting mainly of the Rushdie quote above, but with its title it would likely be connected to Spivack’s Stream and Rushdie’s Streams of Stories sooner or later. Taken together, I think the articles by Spivack and Redfern indicate that Twitter is bringing to peoples’ minds the “stream-like” nature of the Web — The way big streams (e.g. swine flu 2 weeks ago) weave in and out with the day-to-day small streams of peoples’ lives on the Twitter ocean, with the stories constantly rewriting themselves.

Related articles:

Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

Poking around in Google Similar Images, I’ve found examples that give indications of how the system works. I’ve put several of these together in a Flickr set, from which the example below is taken.

The top image in each of the pairs below (“Full size image”) is a choice from the initial search in GSI (“blackbird” in the example below). Clicking “Similar images” for this choice goes to a set of refined images, represented by the bottom row of images in the pair. The blackbird example here shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of GSI. It often seems to do best with color photographs, but not so well with monocolor pictures. In the first instance, the red spot on the wing and the greenish background likely are clues used by GSI, to good effect. The lack of color clues in the second case is likely a problem for GSI. It also shows pretty clearly that GSI is getting clues from words associated with images, in this case causing it to confuse the blackbird with the US Air Force plane that has the same name.

The importance of color clues for GSI that’s shown in the example above occurs in several additional examples in the Flickr set — B/W line drawings especially cause problems for GSI. Here are some other observations from the Flickr examples:

  • One notable example shows how GSI has a tendency to give too much weight to a word associated with a picture, as in the blackbird example — In a search for “george“, the “similar images” for a non-famous person named George are dominated by pictures of the recently prominent George Bush!
  • GSI does best when the image is focused clearly on one subject; it doesn’t do well when there are multiple subjects, especially when they are unusual subject combinations, that don’t typically occur together.
  • It does poorly with abstract or stylized, non-realistic images.
  • Strongly featured text sometimes “pulls the attention” of GSI away from the “picture content” of the image.

Despite the problems described here, I think GSI is a true advance in the technology of image search. In general, it does a surprisingly good job of detecting similarity. So, kudos to Google engineers!

Interesting thought by Mike Shatzkin on the unlikeliness of pictures in eBooks anytime soon (bold added):

The proliferation of formats, devices, screen sizes, and delivery channels means that the idea of “output one epub file and let the intermediaries take it from there” is an unworkable strategy. [Here's one reason why:] … Epub can “reflow” text, making adjustments for screen size. But there is no way to do for that for illustrations or many charts or graphs without human intervention (for a long while, at least.) Even if you could program so that art would automatically resize for the screen size, you wouldn’t know whether the art would look any good or be legible in the different size. A human would have to look and be sure.

Mike is talking here about the issue I wrote about in the foundational article for Seeing the Picture — Pictures are in many ways an intractable problem for automation — In many situations, the best use of pictures requires intelligent human input.

Ben Lorica’s excellent post at O’Reilly Radar (Waiting for the Billionth Download) is full of details about iPhone apps. A bit overshadowed is the growth in the Books category. I’ve done some clipping and rearranging on one of Lorica’s charts to bring this out — Note that the Rate-of-Change for books in the last 3 months is at least double the rate for all other categories except Travel.

Another notable growth category shown here is Medical — Though its share of all apps is still small, it’s the third fastest-growing app, behind books and travel.

Here’s Lorica’s text on books:

Measured in terms of number of unique apps Books remains the fastest-growing category: during the week ending 4/12/2009, 11% of the apps in the U.S. store were in the Books category. Books has surpassed the Utilities category and may soon overtake the Entertainment category. Over the past week, Kindle for iPhone was the top app in the Books category.

Here’s the whole chart from Lorica’s article, with all 20 categories of apps:

Thanks to Twitter stars @adamhodgkin and @mtamblyn for highlighting Lorica’s article.

Since the announcement by Apple last week of new iPhone OS software that will become available in June, publishers Adam Hodgkin and Mike Shatzkin have been having an interesting dialog about the future of the eBook market, and how iPhone 3.0 will affect the competition between Amazon, Apple, and Google. Most of my posting here will be a presentation of the views of Hodgkin and Shatzkin on the eBook market, but I think an article by Ben Parr, at mashable.com, on more general effects of iPhone 3.0, does a good job of setting the stage for the discussion of eBooks. In his discussion of the new ability to purchase items within an application, Parr seems to be talking about the same thing that Hodgkin sees as being so revolutionary about the new iPhone OS (Correct me if I’m wrong on this, Adam). So, first — an excerpt from Parr’s posting:

The new iPhone 3.0 software includes the ability to copy-and-paste, a landscape keyboard, and push notifications. However, none of these updates are as revolutionary as the new features Apple offers to iPhone application developers. The one to watch [especially] is the ability to purchase items within an application. This is a feature that matters because of the vast opportunities that it presents to both developers and users. … If the iPhone application store revolutionized the mobile as a platform, then the iPhone 3.0 OS may very well be the spark that revolutionizes the mobile as its own economy. [boldface here & below added]

With the new iPhone OS, Hodgkin thinks that Apple has put themselves into a leading position in their competition with Amazon and Google for the eBook market:

The announcement earlier this week about Apple’s iPhone OS 3.0 made it at last pretty clear how Apple is going to become a player and the strategy is so simple and solid that I am surprised that more of us did not see it coming. Apple has taken the very sensible position that it doesn’t need to be a big player in the digital books or the ebooks market to win the game hands down. Apple is going to let authors, publishers and developers get on with their business and work out how the digital books market is going to work and Apple is just going to collect the market-maker’s fee for letting it happen, on and in the iPhone arena. … The position that Apple have announced for themselves is stylish, decisive and agnostic. Apple doesn’t mind whether books are based in the cloud as web resources, or shipped around the internet as book-specific file formats. Web-based books, digital editions and ebook file formats can all run easily on the iPhone if that is what is needed: “Open house, come over here and play”. That is the message from Cupertino.

Shatzkin, however, thinks that Hodgkin has jumped too quickly for Apple, and he says that the competition is still wide open:

Hodgkin sees brilliance in Apple’s move not to enter the proprietary ebook wars, but simply to be a facilitator of sales to iPhone users … [But his article] took no note of Sony, Stanza, or the potential impact of broadly-distributed epub files. … It also took no note of Barnes & Noble’s recent purchase of Fictionwise or the fact that Waterstone’s has teamed with Sony Reader for distribution in the UK. … I think, most of all, this analysis omits full consideration of the discrete functions served by the retailer in the supply chain. … Apple is not providing the full suite of retail services. … It isn’t just too early to predict a winner; it is too early to declare the finalists.

Hodgkin posts a reply on his blog to Shatzkin:

Shatzkin has not understood what Apple are doing with the strategy announced for the iPhone 3.0 SDK. They are tackling the retail environment head on and building the retail functions. Shatzkin thinks that Apple will fail the retail test. Did Mike view the video presentation with which Apple gave a preview of 3.0 SDK? Consider that the very first item that Scott Forstall discusses (before even ‘cut and paste’!) is the way that they have enhanced the App Store. Note that its a store. A place where consumers shop. It is a retail store which enables developer creativity and it will support discovery of books, magazines, games etc, browsing and sampling, search, metadata, price choice and traditional bookstore price anarchy, and after sales support (though some fulfillment and much support will fall to developers and publishers). Most striking is the near total freedom that publishers are given on pricing (99c — $999). … It is surprising that anyone would think that Apple who have made such a considerable success of Apple stores and online retail selling will find themselves out of their depth with digital books. Nobody would say that building a retail system for digital books is going to be easy, but Apple clearly are a good candidate to do it. Especially now that they have announced this co-optive strategy.

A couple of recent commentaries, excerpted below, suggest that the best sort of books for eBooks are ones that are intended to be read linearly, navigating through pages consecutively (i.e. most notably fiction). Both observers say that books whose usability is increased by flipping back and forth from one section to another do not make good eBooks.

Writing about the Kindle, Jakob Nielsen notes the problem with non-linear content:

The usability problem with non-linear content is crucial because it indicates a deeper issue: Kindle’s user experience is dominated by the book metaphor. The idea that you’d want to start on a section’s first page makes sense for a book because most are based on linear exposition. Unfortunately, this is untrue for many other content collections, including newspapers, magazines, and even some non-fiction books such as travel guides, encyclopedias, and cookbooks … The design decisions that make Kindle good for reading novels (and linear non-fiction) make it a bad device for reading non-linear content.

Later in the review, Nielsen broadens his comments to eBooks more generally. In addition to the issue of linearity, he also mentions that books that depend on pictures are problematic:

11 years ago, I wrote that electronic books were a bad idea. Has Kindle 2 changed my mind?– Yes — I now think there’s some benefit to having an information appliance that’s specialized for reading fiction and linear non-fiction books that don’t depend on illustrations and don’t require readers to refer back and forth between sections.

Paul Biba, in comments on using a cookbook on the Kindle, says:

The concept doesn’t work. This is not the Kindle’s fault, but the fact that some things are just not meant for an ebook format. When using a cookbook one likes to flip through it browsing for recipes. You look at one, go back and compare it to another … see if you can’t combine the ingredients of [recipes] … You simply can’t do this flipping back and forth with an ebook … Going back and forth from the table of contents to the index is a time-consuming process. The ergonomics of the whole thing is just not set up for cooking and recipe browsing.

This is really the first time I have come across a complete failure of the ebook medium. I can’t see how it is possible to make any change in the hardware that would alleviate the problem. There is simply no substitute for flipping pages and marking them with bookmarks … The ebook format is, by its nature, linear and this linearity is not adaptable to serious cooking.