Mac Lab Report

After Music, Photos, and Video, How About Ebook Support on the iPod?

- 2006.06.15

Isn't it about time Apple added ebook support to the iPod?

Ebooks, as nearly everyone knows, are books published in some electronic format and available for sale at places like Fictionwise and ebooks.com. The issues relating to ebooks are nearly identical to those facing online music sales - a variety of mostly incompatible formats, securing files so they can only be read by the authorized user, readers exist for some devices (for example, Palm) and not others (for example, Pocket PC).

Ebook sales are growing slowly but are not large compared to traditional paper books.

This sounds a lot like what the downloadable music business was like before Apple introduced the iPod.

The mainstream press delights in pointing out that Apple didn't invent the MP3 player. Speaking of which, since Apple's AAC format files can be converted to MP3 (even if it does take the inconvenient step of burning a CD first when using purchased tracks) and played on almost anything short of a rock and a stick, I don't understand all these lawsuits about "opening" Apple's format to other players. But that's an article for another day after I develop much more sensitivity to music quality than I have now. Since the music is all digital, I doubt whether there would be a difference between burning and ripping and just converting directly from AAC to MP3 in the first place. Apple probably does this only because it's part of the licensing agreement with the record companies to make it inconvenient for users to convert Fairplay-protected AAC files to MP3.

The iPod's current ebook reader format - converting pure ASCII text into "microchapters" for use in the Notes section, each microchapter not more than 4K long - is easily the most primitive, least convenient format for portable ebooks on the market today. It's not securable, doesn't display pictures, can't be annotated or even bookmarked, and the last time I tried using it I couldn't figure out how to go back where I left off short of memorizing the microchapter.

We know the iPod can display pictures and even video. Surely displaying an ebook is much less of a technical challenge than a TV show. This is a space that Apple can dominate if it chooses to. (I think a lot more people own iPods than Palm devices.)

In fact, similar to the iPod revolution, Apple can reinvent the entire genre. The scroll wheel is perfect for moving through text at variable speeds. A simple auto-stop at a graphic icon could allow the select button to activate a graphic. Handy access to other forms of media, such as music and video, could enhance the experience.

Imagine reading "Lord of the Rings" while the soundtrack to the movie plays in the background. Or reading a technical manual on how to install a video card and having a video of the installation pop up when you get to the appropriate page. Sort of like a Web page, except the content is proprietary and protected.

There are lots of possibilities, but will Apple bite?

Right now the market is so small compared to music that it might not be considered worth the development effort. But that's a shortsighted view; many of us didn't really "get" the iPod when it first came out. Apple could invent the market that drives sales in the space if the interface is right.

The following features, at a minimum, would be required:

  • Secure sales: Ebooks should be readable only on the machine for which they were purchased. Perhaps for a small fee you could share it with up to 5 other people tagged by MAC address or something similar.
  • Font size control: So older readers could still use the iPod's small screen, or users reading the screen on a TV with an iPod video could adjust the picture until it is readable.
  • Embedded bookmarks, so you can go back to where you left off (like most ebook readers do now).
  • Embedded graphics with an easy to select option to view them.

One more idea: As a premium to hardcover owners, why not include an ebook on a chip or CD with the hardcover book? That way, if the DRM ever expires, you still have the ebook, and you can keep the book on a shelf. That might even invigorate hardcover sales. I recently bought Baen Books' hardcover War of Honor just because it included all the previous novels in the series on a CD. It's the first hardcover I'd bought in years.

One more thought: With a reliable ebook reader in place, suddenly there's a real reason to sell iPods to schools and universities. What if your textbook was on your iPod? Less paper, less expense, and professors might even assign more books per course. (I wouldn't recommend it for courses like physics, but English Lit. might be okay.)

If you work for Apple, print this out and drop it in someone's mailbox for me, will ya? I relinquish all rights and make no claims on the concept, as I'm pretty sure I didn't come up with it, and Apple doesn't use unsolicited ideas. Just do that make-it-a-little-different-so-you-can-claim-you-invented-it thing you do and go for it. Ebook readers (the people who read ebooks, that is) are waiting.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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