Friday, June 19, 2009

Science E-books Suck

Here's the much await next instalment of my comments on an article "6 Lessons One Campus Learned About E-Textbooks" by Jeff Young.

First off, let's briefly go over the 6 lessons again:

1. E-book readers suck.
2. E-book readers are hard to use.
3. Professors wanted to be "on the bandwagon".
4. Batteries die.
5. Some subjects' E-books are worse than others.
6. E-books save trees.

On to #5 "SOm subjects' E-books are worse than others". There are 3 big problems here:

  • E-books are not "rich" enough.

  • Number of pixels

  • E-book formats are (mostly) proprietary

E-book's are for reading, not drawing. So the data they contain is text and images. There are things you can do with text, but images are basically static. There's nothing you can do with them. Likewise, you can annotate (some) E-books with bookmarks and/or text, but you can't draw on them. This is not so much an issue with some subjects, like literature, but for something like biology or math the format and placement of information is part of the information, and not being able to draw arrows and circles and line, and put one thing over or inside another is a serious problem.

The small number of pixels available also means that either images are too low resolution to accurately display some information, or they are too big to fit on the screen of the reader. Of course, reading the E-book on a laptop with a large screen helps somewhat, but there's no getting around the fact that a textbook printed on paper has an effective resolution of (conservatively) 600 dpi, so if the book is 7x9" the number of "pixels" is 4200x5400, which is big. Things like anti aliasing and good font design fool us into thinking displays are better than they are.

We could conceivably get around some of these drawbacks if there were a standard format that was extensible enough to support the kinds of things (image manipulation, equation editing, drawing on the pages) that are needed by a textbook, but the market isn't big enough, and the vendors try to hold market share by using proprietary formats/technologies that none of them has the capital to build into what's needed.


Post a Comment