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The awesome is in the details

October 28, 2009

I love books and reading is my passion. I seldom venture outside without a paperback in my pocket and i have scars in my face from walking into lamp posts while reading paperbacks. Reading is a big, big deal for me. However, since two years i have a new love in my life. My trusty sci-fi paperback has been gradually muscled out by the iPhone. Instead of reading Iain M Banks, I’ve been gorging myself on Battlestar Galactica and Dexter.

In a short while Apple will release the Apple Slate or iPad. I’m pretty sure it will be awesome. And I’m talking about the true meaning of Awesome here, not hotdog awesome (in the words of the divine Eddie Izzard) If i know Jonathan Ives, it will leave every other reading pad bereft of a will to live, sobbing quietly in a corner. The word on the street is that it will be focused on written content. Which brings us to ebook-reading on the iPhone.

The problems this new product will have is the same as the Kindle and every other ebook reader right now is facing: the great divide betweeen looking at a screen (e-paper or no) and touching the pages of a book. I’ve really tried, for a long time.

stanzaStanza, the iPhones foremost ebook reader, exemplifies the problem. What is great about Stanza is what is the great promise of digital books, an unlimited library of books at your fingertips. Stanza pulls this job off just fine. It offers a huge library of books, free or for sale, that you can browse through looking at their covers and picking them out for later reading. It is a giddying sensation, like walking around in a huge, deserted bookstore, picking out all the books that you’d like to read someday. It’s also insanely great that the latest bestsellers sit on the shelf alongside  the bestsellers of 1890, mingled with books that have never seen the inside of a bookstore.

But what comes next is where Stanza fails, and joins most of the other e-readers I’ve ever tried. When you start reading, you feel like you’re looking at a book until you start turning the pages. The reading process in Stanza is a cruel mockery of real reading. Turning the pages includes a crude animation that only emphasizes that you’re not really looking at a book. And every now and again Stanza drops the illusion altogether and pops a spinning loader in front of you as it loads new pages into memory.

Epic. Fail. The trick, you see, is maintaing that fragile illusion as you’re reading that you’re really looking at a book. Why is that important, you ask? Well, if you’ve done something all your life, it’s hardcoded into your brain. When something is slightly wrong, it stands out like a sore thumb. Take CGI special effects for instance. Have you noticed that even the most ambitious attempts of animating the human face almost always produces a eerie, creepy effect? That is because we know what a human face should look like. Any deviation, even a miniscule one, produces a huge mental stop sign: Something wrong here, pay attention.

eucalyptusEucalyptus is one of those applications that truly change the game in it’s niche. It is an ebook reader that accesses the Gutenberg projects 30000+ books, works that has become public domain after their copyright expired. Compared to Stanza, these 30000 volumes seems a rather pathetic offering. The browsing through the library suffers from the fact that Eucalyuptus doesn’t display images, and so every cover is a basic (if stylishly classic Penguin-books-looking) mock-up.

But the real magic in Eucalyptus comes when you start turning the pages. The Scottish firm that built Eucalyptus, Things Made Of Other Things, have three apps in the app store. Two of them are simple virtual flags, and turning the pages in Eucalyptus makes you realize where that flag-waving-technology went. Eucalyptus puts an enormous effort into the simulation of turning a page. Every page is fully 3-dimensional as soon as you start turning it, and behaves exactly as you would expect a real page in a book to behave.

IMG_0239What these genius Scots have realized is that the Awesome is in the details. By focusing on the very core action of reading – the magic turning of the page – they pull of what no other e-book reader has managed yet: to make a real book worm be able to read off a screen. This summer, I thought i wouldn’t have time to read on my vacation. Instead, i’ve devoured classics like The Three Musketeers, The last of the Mohicans, Robinson Crusoe and The count of Monte Christo. Right now I’ve discovered Alan Quatermain books, starting with The mines of king Solomon.

Eucalyptus simulates a book so well it makes me forget that it’s not. And if Apple really are going to try do with the written word what they’ve already done with software and music, then they need to take a good long look at the bonnie hills o’ Scotland. If they do, they will be Godzilla and Amazon will be Japan. If they don’t, i think e-readers will eventually fail.


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