by John Timmer
It's easy to forget that it's only been five years since Sony and Amazon first started targeting consumers with dedicated eReading hardware. Over the past few years, the painfully slow eInk screens have gotten much faster, while the hardware itself received a touch interface, active color screens, and is now facing tough competition from tablets that let users do a whole lot more than read. The rapid pace of change has pushed authors, publishers, and content distributors into a period of experimentation, compelling many to try new means of displaying and distributing their works.
Before we started looking at the results of some of that experimentation, we thought we'd step back and look at where things stand right now. What follows is a rough breakdown of the different forms book content is taking as tablets take off, and what those forms mean for authors and publishers.
Basic eBooks: These are the equivalents of regular books in electronic form, typically the ePub, PDF, and Kindle formats. These allow some basic control over formatting and chapters, but the format really doesn't add much over traditional forms of publication. The biggest advantage of these books is that they can run on the widest range of devices, from the eInk screens of low-end Kindles to the active screen of the iPads. That said, the experiences on these different devices aren't identical. Complex diagrams, color images, and most photos don't display very well on the eInk screen, so the experience will be decidedly worse for anything that relies on those to get its message across.
Supported devices: Just about everything. Desktops and laptops running the Mac OS and Windows. All the existing tablets running Android and the iOS. Dedicated eReader hardware from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony, and others.
Opportunity for innovation: Limited. Mostly, by limiting the costs (in time and money) involved in putting a book together, the basic eBooks make it much easier to publish shorter works and collections. They also make self-publishing a viable option.
Staying power: These formats are not going away. They're perfectly fine for many purposes, and the device manufacturers that opted for eInk screens have a large base of book buyers to cater to.
Enhanced eBooks: Think of these as an entire website in eBook form. Navigation can be non-linear, and it's easy to include video and audio content, zoomable images and diagrams, and other interactive media. Detailed color photos and diagrams can be displayed and zoomed. These are not only a big step up from basic eBooks, but they're a big step up from books in general, providing a degree of interactivity that just isn't possible otherwise. All this makes things like science textbooks and children's literature a viable option.
Like basic eBooks, however, the enhanced versions require stand-alone software for managing and displaying content—examples include The Atavist and Apple's updated iBooks. It looks like Amazon and Barnes & Noble may have enhanced book viewing software on their tablets as well. Most of this software, however, is not cross-platform, so choosing one locks you in to a subset of the tablet market.
Supported devices: Tablets running Android and the iOS. eInk screens simply can't handle multimedia, complex images, or interactivity.
Opportunity for innovation: Pretty high, since you can do so much more. But enhanced eBooks still need to be viewed on dedicated software, so they'll necessarily be limited to the features that software supports.
Staying power: Each one of the software platforms mentioned above will have its own dedicated authoring system and display software. Most of these are tied to specific hardware. It's not likely that all of them will remain viable indefinitely.
Stand alone applications: At the high end, the boundaries between a book and an application is getting very blurry. It's possible to make a bundle that contains both the book content and the enhanced eBook viewing software, which can then be distributed as an application. But, for some content, the text is only part of a larger experience, which may involve detailed 3D renderings, user input, and other features that can only be provided by a bespoke application.
Opportunity for innovation: Enormous. Anything that can be done on the tablet is an option.
Staying power: Although a couple of the tablet platforms are on life support—WebOS and Blackberry—Android and the iOS look like they'll be here for a while. Both platforms, however, are adding features at a high rate, so it's possible that some standalone apps will eventually become outdated.
Supported devices: Tablets again, with apps being platform specific. For the Fire, iPad, and Nook, the manufacturer's approval is required to get your app on the platform.
Our reviews will cover material from all of these categories, although we'll shy away from content that's a straight translation of a print book to eBook form. For basic eBooks, we'll focus on the new formats and collections that electronic publishing has made viable. For everything else, we'll try to evaluate how the rich multimdia capabilities of tablets enhance (or, if it's the case, detract from) the reading experience. And we'll try to make sure that we look at the most innovative approaches to handling content we can find.
And that's where you can help us out. If you're aware of any science-focused eBooks that seem worth paying attention to, please let us know about them.
John Timmer spent 15 years doing scientific research before deciding he'd rather write about it. He's now the science editor of the technology news site Ars Technica. He received a Kindle on the day Amazon first introduced them, and has been following eBook and eReader technology ever since.