Reading electronically

Slowly, but surely e-books are becoming viable. We are still working out the kinks of the electronic reading experience. This blog post examines how our current reading habits developed during the course of history and where they are heading.

How we got here

The printed book still is the reigning champion when it comes to a pleasant reading experience. The following bullet points sketch its history.
  • It all started with single slabs of clay or wood. For example, clay tokens have been used in Mesopotamia as early as 8000 B.C. and later evolved into cuneiform script (around 3400 B.C.).
  • Next were papyrus scrolls as used by the Egyptians (3000 B.C.).
  • The following achievement was to use pages instead of scrolls. This had the advantages of much quicker access (skimming a book is much simpler than skimming a scroll) and of indexability (table of contents, keyword index, etc.). Both are crucial for efficiently managing knowledge. Intriguingly, the western recipe for scientific success, reductionism has been applied here, too: You split a big problem into small pieces that can be handled more easily.
  • Finally, paper was an important step, because it could be mass-produced (in contrast with the alternatives papyrus and, later, parchment). It was common in Europe by the 15th century and invented in China much earlier, around the 2nd century A.D.
  • The Gutenberg bible (1455) began the establishment of movable type printing. It improved on woodblock printing by having more durable materials and more uniform lettering.

Where we are going

Electronic books and the devices for reading them are the next evolutionary step in reading. We can now have the best of both worlds: The fluid reading experience of scrolls and the efficient access of books. Current e-book readers still have mostly paged content, but I expect that to change over time. As an inspiring vision for how we might read magazines in the future, take a look at a study done by Bonnier (article includes a movie—watch it). It presents some nice ideas for how to translate the design language of the printed page to electronic reading devices.

Further reading


Disney’s KeyChest: Making DRM bearable

What is one of the biggest advantages of digital video? Distributing it is cheap and simple, it is always just an internet download away. Well, from the standpoint of the video industry, that is also its biggest disadvantage. Because pirating content is simpler, getting paid for it is also becoming more difficult. Thus, while it can be considered an impediment to technical progress, video DRM won’t go away as long as the industry considers it vital for its survival. The main hassle for consumers is that there are many competing DRM standards: Flash video DRM, Windows Media DRM, iTunes video DRM, etc. Thus, if you have rented a video on one device, say, your desktop computer, then that does not mean you’ll be able to play it on another device, say, you mobile phone. Disney’s KeyChest is a proposal that might make DRM more bearable for consumers: A central agency registers the digital videos one owns or has rented. Ownership and/or rental rights are then enabled for all participating DRM systems. This is a conceptual shift from ownership to access rights and opens up all kinds of possibilities: Buy a Blu-ray Disc, then download a file for your mobile video player; have all your videos stored on the Internet and stream them to your computer to watch them; etc. Short-term, KeyChest is a good idea. Long-term, we hopefully won’t need it. Whether or not DRM goes away also depends on how the audio industry fares with its decision to make all audio content DRM-free. In a perfect future, we will all be able to freely share content while the people who created it get compensated adequately.