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The Column icon The Column: Issue 63

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

The Adolescent eBook
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

eBooks are still in their infancy as compared with the long history of their real-world relations. An eBook cannot replace a book, it is a different media, a close relation, yet distinctive. In considering their differences and common attributes it is clear the eBook has some way to go before maturation, but also that it is capable of making a significant contribution as a new creative medium.

Similarities and Differences

The word "eBook" implies a strong similarity with a real-world book. We know they have common elements like the presentation of text and images, but equally important are their differences. Books have an elegant form and simple interface that is pleasurable to the senses, highly portable, and with care, can outlast the longest human life span many times over.

The book's facing pages (left and right) encourage a different presentation of content as compared with the single page presentation an eBook often displays. The book page is finite according to its dimensions. The eBook page may extend to the equivalent of many pages of a book as the user can scroll the contents.

Some eBooks try to mimic their real-world namesake by displaying two facing pages, but these are pale-reflections of the physical experience of flipping through the crisp pages of a book which has a natural feel and fits in the hand neatly. The clumsy and often superficial digital relations of the book fail to acknowledge the distinct advantages eBooks can offer: their ability to jump from one page to another via links; their navigational aids and browser-like functions; their ease and sophistication in searching large amounts of content; and their ability to provide image hints and zoom functions that make the eBook more accessible for those with impaired vision.

If you have a book to hand, you can interact with it by underlining, highlighting, or writing marginal notes - the disadvantage is that these marks are permanent and cannot be easily amended. eBooks have the potential of also allowing the user to interact in a similar way, however it is rare to discover an eBook that fully exploits the potential of the digital medium, yet is also sympathetic to those qualities and attributes that define what a book is.

Live Content and eBooks

The eBook is a self contained publication with text, images and other media that is made available in multiple copies or at multiple locations to readers. URLs (the Universal Resource Locator - Internet World Wide Web Addresses) that point to web pages, files, and other resources like PDFs are dynamic in that they tend to be changed frequently and are often deleted within a relatively short time frame. While the content of a book may go out of date, the reader continues to have access to their original resource. In contrast, the web page or other online resource is delivered via an external server: the reader only has access to that information while it continues to be made available by the publisher via a browser, or if they choose to save that resource to disk (which they may only legally do if the content copyright allows them to do so).

Books are static resources, they do not change each time you open the page. The content is "reliable". There may be different imprints or editions, but the reader can quote the publication date of the book when referring to a particular section. This is one of the most significant attributes of a book which can be used as evidence to support an argument. An author may change their view or re-present their ideas, but the reader has the original copy of the book that can verify the author's original statement and intent.

URLs should not in my view be presented within an eBook as a distinct page, as this oversteps the boundary of referencing online resources (linking to them), and presents them as an integral part of the resource. There are for example programs that present web resources from within the content area where the text and images are shown. The user might think of the resource as if it was a page in a book, but in fact it is very different as the power to control the content of that resource remains with the publisher. Academics are careful when referencing web resources for this very reason as they cannot be verified by their academic colleagues because they may be changed at any time. There may be respected Journals and online publications that find their way into a University Course that may be referenced, however once again there is an inherent problem in relying on such resources as they are not in the possession of their readership.

The Future of the eBook

The eBook is in its adolescence as a creative medium. There have been attempts to produce hardware eBook readers like Amazon's Kindle, however they have failed to excite, not only because they are expensive, unattractive, and lock the user into using specific hardware, but because they limit what an eBook can become. eBooks inhabit the digital realm. The medium will only discover its potential when developers build technologies that fully realize this. Building eBooks is not about surface thinking, it's about understanding the purpose and nature of the creative medium. The book will continue to be a cherished and valuable resource long into the future. The physical experience and delivery of eBooks will mature with time as technologies develop, however their purpose and strengths are to a great extent already clear. The fun will come when a critical mass of the general public become eBook literate, and authors begin to fully exploit this distinctive medium.


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Authors background

Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also the Creative Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company.

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