Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Success is just by being there ...

I was reading today's Guardian article on the iSlate hype and one of the links took me to an informal experiment where someone compared reading a dickens novel on an iPhone, in a paperback book and an e-reader.

The interesting thing is that the iPhone triumphed - clear bright screen and most importantly the phone is always with you. This is actually an important point - you're already carrying around the phone for lots of reasons, and it fits in your pocket. If you take a book or an e-reader with you you need to carry a (larger) bag with you to carry it - as an extreme example Judi read a new translation of War and Peace over Xmas - at 10cm thick and the best part of kilogram it took some lugging, and didn't fit easily into a standard bag.

Also most books and e-readers have a common flaw - they use ambient light to enable you to read the pages - if you use Stanza on the iPhone the screen is sharp and backlit, and the text is indeed readable in poor light, and while I havn't tried this, it's probably a whole lot easier to read on public transport - and of course if you get bored you can always listen to a podcast or music stored on the phone.

So the iPhone wins because it has a good screen and you're carrying it anyway.

Or does it?

For the use case of travelling on public transport, waiting in airports and the rest it probably does. For sitting reading something complicated I have my doubts. I've completely unrigorously compared reading the History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, reading the same text on my iMac and iPhone with Stanza, and on my Cool-er e-reader, and the Penguin edition in paperback.

And this is what I found:

  • reading on the iMac screen is clumsy feeling - no matural or simple page turning and the three column display requires some complex eye/head movements. (incidentally using Adobe's e-reader application is no better)
  • reading on the iphone or the Cool-er is a more natural experience - you can relax, make notes etc, etc
  • The Cool-er was better than the iPhone as the display was larger and the page size felt more natural (and also being shortsighted I found the smaller text required me to hold the phone at a more precise distance)
  • reading the paperback is better, more because we it's easier to flick back and forth, check the notes etc, but this could be in part because the penguin translation is a more recent and better translation, and after 40 odd years of reading I'm a power user of dead tree media.

So what does this mean?
  • Ergonomics (text size, display size, ease of use) are important
  • Prior experience of dead tree material sets our expectations of what the reading experience should be
  • We need to learn to be screen reading people, just as you need to learn different rules to learn to read Hebrew, Chinese, or whatever

And for the iSlate?
  • Being pervasive is good. A lightweight tablet or netbook with a good display, good reading software, good music player, and something equivalent to the iTunes/iPod/iPhone ecology, and a softphone means you carry one device, you can use it to make notes, do other work etc, and while you might need a little bluetooth headset for the best phone experience, you would have a device you could carry everywhere, and what's more only one device you need carry everywhere
  • To be usable as a general purpose computer, or even just a note taker you need a decent input solution - either handwriting recognition - been around since the Newton and the original Palm Pilot and never really popular - or a projection keyboard - like the iTech unit. Adding a classic qwerty as in the kindle increases the form factor making the device less likely to turn into a Martini (anyplace, anytime) device.
  • Battery life could make or break any device - pervasive is good, being out of battery is not. Books don't run out of battery, and most e-readers have very good battery life. Specialist devices like the Midori aquapad are probably a better inspiration than existing windows tablet pc's

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