Good writing relevant to a broad topic is often buried in a discussion of a more narrow topic — By its title, Zoe Rose’s recent article is about the Monocle eReader, which works in the Safari browser. But in fact much of the article is a good narrative about why networked eBooks are better than downloaded, device-tethered eBooks.

Rose’s article caught my attention for several reasons — It resonates with Hugh McGuire’s recent article about the future of connected books on the Internet and my commentary suggesting that Google Books gives a hint of this. As with McGuire, Rose’s writing on Internet-connected eBooks suggests what I’ve written before about Google Books as the new eBooks. Also, recent discussions of the Safari browser on the iPad outshining Apps for reading are much in tune with Rose’s emphasis on the appeal of browser-based eBooks. Here are her words:

Monocle is a new development in eBookery. It could be revolutionary, for one reason: it works in browsers. Which is to say, you access your eBook content through the Internet.

Fundamentally, there are two ways to access content using machines:
1. Content lives on the user’s own device. This is a download-based model. Example: iTunes.
2. Content lives on external servers which are accessed by the user’s device. This is a web-based model. Example: Spotfiy.

There’s a user-facing difference between the two, and I think the no-download model will eventually have the upper hand. For content users, the download model is the more annoying option, because it’s tethered to a device. To  use my husband as an example: At work and at home, he uses different machines. They’re powerful desktops, so physically lugging them about is not a good option. Because of this, a device-tethered eBook is no use to him. But he always has an Internet connection. He can always log on to a website.

There’s a developing trend of people using multiple machines to access their content, instead of the trusty old family PC. My household isn’t unusual – it has two people, a desktop, two laptops, an ipad, and an iphone. Matching that trend on the other side, we can also see Internet access growing exponentially – it’s quite likely (if not inevitable) that ubiquity is just around the corner.

Which is more likely? A future where people use the same device all the time, or a future where people have Internet access all the time? In choosing between browser-based and download-based content models, these trends point to an access-it-through-the-Internet model as being where the smart money is.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

When I wrote on the WebKit Revolution in August, I didn’t find the good graphic below, I think because of the way it was titled and placed in excellent articles by Jason Grigsby (@grigs). So, thanks, Jason, and I hope you don’t mind that I’ve tweeked the text accompanying the pie graph, to show more clearly the platforms involved.

The graphic is a bit dated, since it doesn’t include the iPad, and no doubt a more current version would show a larger share for iPhone and Android. Also, the recent introductions of a WebKit browser on the Kindle 3 would make the WebKit dominance even more noteworthy. But the graphic still does a good job of showing the strength of WebKit browsers on mobile devices. Note >> All the pieces of the pie in shades of BLUE (all but Windows/Others) are based on WebKit.

[Text: 2009 Smartphone Market Share (Gartner). Phones currently shipping or projected to ship using WebKit ... Symbian (Nokia) 47%, Blackberry 20%, iPhone (Safari) 14%, Android 4%, WebOS (Palm) 1%, Windows/Others 14%]

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

A big part of Steve Jobs magical mobile revolution has been the advent of the App, which greatly simplifies using a small mobile-device screen. As popular as iPhone Apps have been, though, iPhone’s Safari browser has also been a great success, showing the practicality of using a Web browser on a small screen.

Safari has shined even more on the larger-screened iPad. With its interface being so similar to the iPhone, it seemed when it first came out that Apps would play the same role on the iPad as on the iPhone. But with its larger screen, people quickly realized that the Safari browser does a fine job in presenting information, and that separate Apps are not nearly as important as on the iPhone. And of course the Safari browser has the great advantage that it lives on The Web.

So the trend, going from iPhone to iPad, is the growing importance of Safari on Apple devices. But this goes well beyond Apple, because Safari is just one of the large class of “WebKit” browsers. I became aware of the importance of this with news in the last month that the Kindle and the Blackberry are both getting WebKit browsers (Thanks to Mike Cane for giving a shout about the significance of this).

So, what’s a WebKit browser? WebKit is the “layout engine” for Safari, Google Chrome, and almost all mobile browsers (Android, Blackberry, Kindle et al). It’s especially good for mobile browsers because of its nimble code and advanced HTML capabilities. And WebKit is open-source, which is why it’s being used on such a wide range of platforms, beyond Apple.

Learning about WebKit has given me a whole new way of seeing the mobile Web world — The varied and interesting implications are many …

  • The iPad’s big splash – Desktop computing is fading fast, and mobile is booming. Until the iPad came out in April, “mobile” meant cellphones and other hand-held devices. Now with the iPad, the definition becomes fuzzy, and will get fuzzier, with smaller versions of the iPad rumored to be in the offing, and Android tablets with a variety of screen sizes certain to come out soon. The whole mobile tribe, from cellphones on up, are certain to have WebKit browsers.
  • Apple’s influence spreads – The first implementation of WebKit on a widely-used browser was when Apple developed Safari and made WebKit as a “fork,” or variation, of the existing Unix rendering engine KHTML. Although Apple made WebKit open-source, and usable by anyone, it’s come to be strongly identified with Apple. So isn’t it interesting that now WebKit, which is widely thought of as an Apple standard, is being used in the browsers of Google and Amazon — Is there any precedent for that? For anything that’s Apple-flavored being adopted by Google and Amazon, which may be Apple’s two biggest competitors in the near future?
  • Apple’s Unix roots are deep, going back to Unix based Mac OS X. WebKit deepens these roots, having been developed by Apple from the Unix KHTML layout engine.
  • WebKit & eBooksWebKit is used for many eReaders, because they have so much in common with web browser technologies, so it will become increasingly important for libraries as the use of eBooks grows.
  • Firefox is fading – Instead of WebKit, Firefox is built on the Gecko layout engine, which was designed for the bulky Windows environment, and it shows its age on mobile systems with more compact code.
  • The growing irrelevance of Microsoft – With very little mobile or tablet presence, their claims to be embracing cloud computing (which is closely connected to mobile computing) seem doubtful — Especially since none of their current or planned browsers are WebKit-based.

I’m often surprised in reading commentaries about the iPad and its competitors that WebKit isn’t mentioned — John Martellaro touched upon the sense I have of “seeing the leaves but missing the branches” in a recent such commentary — He talks about “the advanced technologies that Apple has been nursing along for a decade (unnoticed)” [boldface added] — YES! Exactly! — People see the effects of Apple magic but don’t notice the things that create the magic (Martellaro himself doesn’t mention WebKit!).

So for me, seeing things through the lens of WebKit has been like “pulling back the curtain” on current developments and power struggles in the Web world — In reading anything about competition among Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and various eBook competitors, it’s invaluable to think about how WebKit affects things. I think it’s likely that as things progress (and especially when Android tablets start coming out in the next few months), WebKit awareness will certainly grow fast.

I use a Windows desktop at work and a Mac desktop at home. I’ve been a confirmed FireFox user on both of them for several years. But in doing research for this article, I’ve switched to WebKit browsers — Safari on the Mac and Google Chrome on Windows. I like both of them a lot, especially Chrome — I’ll certainly be staying with it.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

In a previous article, I cited librarian Michelle Kraft’s article, Stop the App Madness, in which she cautioned librarians against the temptation to create mobile-device apps for library sources — As she said, libraries just don’t have the staff or resources to go down that road. I thought about Michelle’s good advice as I wrote in the just-published article iPad App Fatigue & “The Boring Old Web”. As I write there, people are finding that the Safari browser is so good on the iPad that it’s not necessary to create separate apps. And that’s good news for libraries. It means we can focus attention on our websites instead of diverting attention to make separate apps for the iPhone, Android, and other mobile devices.

Because the iPad may not need separate apps for optimal use doesn’t mean that we can go on making web pages just like always — In the long term, I think the significance of the iPad will be that it has broadened the use of the multitouch interface, that first came into common usage on the iPhone and iPod Touch. With the iPad, it comes closer to being used on laptops and desktops. Dan Frakes has a good description of importance of multitouch:

As those who’ve used Safari on an iPhone or iPod touch can attest, there’s something deeply intuitive about touchscreen browsing: tapping links and buttons with your fingertip, sliding your finger up and down the screen to scroll, pinching or tapping to zoom…it just feels so much more natural than using a mouse or a trackpad to interact indirectly with a Web page

For us in libraries, then, I think we need to be learning to use the multitouch interface, so that we can optimize our websites to make them touch-friendly. And, of course, we’re not alone in this — Everyone else is recognizing that we’re on the verge of the touch revolution, so we’ll have plenty of help.

I’m not suggesting that librarians go out and buy an iPad right now. But I would suggest, as I have before, that librarians consider getting an iPod Touch — It’s a good, economical, way to learn to use a mobile interface, and it’s also a good introduction to the multitouch interface. And with the lavish media attention that the iPad has gotten, I suspect that the demand for iTouch may weaken, and it might be just the time to find a bargain!

Related articles:

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Scott Stein at CNET wrote yesterday about what he calls iPad App fatigue — the growing realization, after the first flush of  iPad interest, that there aren’t many good iPad apps. This fits nicely with articles I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks suggesting that the primacy of Apps-Thinking is a holdover from the iPhone, where it IS valuable to have a separate app to tailor information for a small screen. But people are realizing that the iPad screen is big enough that it’s not necessary to have a separate app, that most web sites do just fine with the iPad’s Safari browser.

On this theme, Newsweek’s Daniel Lyons says that although many publishers have succumbed to Steve Jobs’s App fever, some more cautious ones are unconvinced. He reports his conversation with Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker Media: “Every single time something new comes out and people wonder what’s the killer app, the answer is the same. It’s the Web every time.The boring old Web.” The Web has grown into its own organic “ecosytem” — What advantage is there, Lyons and Denton suggest, in trying to create a separate ecosytem-app for each media source, a separate app that doesn’t talk to the ecosystem of the Web?:

Denton has looked at some of the news-media apps and says he’s unimpressed. … “I loved the look of the Time app, but then I tried to select and copy a paragraph to send to a friend. I did the action automatically, without even thinking.” And guess what? You can’t do that. “You can’t e-mail. You can’t bookmark. It made me realize how much the experience of reading has changed. Nobody really just reads anymore. They copy text, send links, tweet,” Denton says.

Dan Frommer, in a follow-up article, captures Lyons & Denton’s thoughts with his snappy title: Hey, Media Companies, The ‘Boring Old Web’ Is Way More Important Than Your Crappy iPad App.

Jacob Weisberg, over at Slate, writes on the same motif. He says traditional publishers’ idea that they’re going to make big bucks selling iPad apps for their magazines is off-target because the Web version of magazines is at least as good as the app versions:

The first problem with the publishers’ fantasy … is that you don’t need those cute little apps to read newspapers and magazines. On the iPhone, apps bring real advantages—it’s no fun navigating a complex Web page through that 3.5-inch window. The iPad, by contrast, has a 9.7-inch display that is big, bright, and beautiful. The Safari browser is a great way to read any publication on the device, so long as you have a good WiFi connection.

And finally, new media journalist Jason Fry weighs in — He says news sites are finding that their iPad apps are superfluous because the web version is just as good or better:

What surprises me most after a few weeks playing with the iPad is that the browser is so good. So good, in fact, that I don’t bother with apps from news organizations, or most anybody else. The iPhone taught us that the browser was only to be used in extremis and apps were king, but the iPad reverses that.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey