Books, Business Models, Reading, Research, Social Role, Technology, Tools, Usability, World of Tomorrow

Clouds, Gestures, and Incumbents — Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

motion study experiment
Image by monkeyc.net via Flickr

The iPad caused a lot of hubbub, but I’ve already turned mine over to a colleague and returned to my Kindle. The iPad was too heavy, too fussy, and just didn’t have a compelling use-case for me. The Kindle does its job, and doesn’t distract me.

But, you might say, the Kindle is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

The iPad may also be evolutionary, I’d counter, at least as far as an information consumption device.

Yet it represents a trend we’ve become increasingly familiar with. As publishers and information specialists, we’ve not had to respond to this trend before.

And that trend is “human-integrated interface designs.”

Designs that recognize voice, gestures, and even body motions are coming out from labs and, in the case of the iPhone and iPad, are going mainstream. Automobiles have them, as well, and newer cars will allow themselves to be controlled by phones. Microsoft and others are pursuing dreams of this variety, and the Wii has already begun realizing it in gaming.

The fact that publishers are excited because the iPad creates a new way for humans to passively eyeball text and consume information in the same way as they did off paper shows how stilted our thinking is. As Andrew Savikas from O’Reilly wrote about the iPad:

. . . if a large number of people from incumbent companies (especially big ones) are excited about it, then it’s not actually interesting or innovative enough to matter much, because that means it’s too similar to the current way of doing things.

Twitter still baffles more people than the iPad ever will, and publishers are really just getting on top of blogs. And that’s just more about how the real revolutions at the heart of the iPad have yet to be fully realized by publishers.

Wired recently had an interesting article analyzing Apple’s multitouch displays and increasingly human-integrated interface designs, tying these into cloud computing as represented by Google’s Chome OS. In Wired’s article, you get the feeling that Apple and Google are battling for the heart of computing’s next age. Yet human-integrated interfaces and cloud computing are not mutually exclusive.

For Google, moving applications and an entire OS to the Web has the potential to shift the framework of personal software so profoundly that we’ll never install another application again. Add gestural or voice interfaces, and you might be able to summon up any file you have anywhere, even in your car or through your phone just by asking for it.

But while all these amazing shifts are occurring, incumbent publishers are clinging to the familiar elements the iPad offers in its user interface — namely, those found in iBooks, digital magazines, and the like.

Publishers are tied to the tyranny of words for information exchange.

In one of the first examples of how much incumbent publishers continue to miss the boat, a new company called Mag+ has offered an iPad version of Popular Science. And despite some traditionalists gushing over its features and capabilities, the fact remains that the app is lacking in basic linking functionality and other typical usability traits for networked information. As Rex Hammock puts it when talking about the limitations created by the Mag+ designers:

Unfortunately, in their re-imagination, they forgot to consider that readers have been using interactive tools for accessing news, information, features and advertising, for almost 20 years. Users have re-imagined magazines themselves, and the conventions, expectations and intuition they bring to any new type of media should not require a user manual to understand.

So, while the iPad hints at what’s possible and cloud computing hints at new information storage techniques, the hints are gentle, and publishers may need a kick in the shins under the table to catch on here.

This is a problem.

Will your app include voice command capabilities, linking to cloud-hosted resources, integration of vast public datasets, and ways to swipe data displays to peel back layers? Will your app provide ways to point to research institutions and see papers affiliated with them, or to with one gesture link two institutions and see what they have in common (again, using external data sets, cloud-hosted information, and your own proprietary information)?

Fundamental user interface and technology architecture changes are taking place, and publishers are fixated on slapping reading apps on iPads.

Those who cross the chasm from today to tomorrow will realize that cloud computing, gestural interfaces, and consumer expectations are coalescing elsewhere, and build accordingly. And these apps will be fundamentally different in design and capabilities.

Otherwise, the iPad will remain for publishers a fancy, heavy, bloated, colorful Kindle, and the exciting future of digital communication could remain tied to movable type and two-column layouts for yet another decade or two.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., the home of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, JBJS Case Connector, JBJS Reviews, JBJS Essential Surgical Techniques, the JBJS Recertification Course, PRE-score, and SocialCite. Prior to this, I was an executive at the New England Journal of Medicine. I also was Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

27 thoughts on “Clouds, Gestures, and Incumbents — Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

  1. At this point, oughtn’t we all to come to some level of acceptance that we’re in a hefty state of transition and that every device is largely evolutionary? Be prepared to pour your content into every kind of vessel imaginable; there really are no shortcuts to the future.

    (Which is not to suggest, of course, that this isn’t an excellent piece! Congrats on the Webby award nomination.)

    Posted by Jill O'Neill | Apr 14, 2010, 8:58 am
    • Thanks, Jill. Right after I scheduled this post, I saw an email noting that the Zinio magazine app was the most downloaded for the iPad. Everything is evolutionary, you’re right, and evolution is happening at a Cambrian pace right now. I just don’t want to be the platypus!

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 9:32 am
  2. Wow, the iPad has been out a whole 13 days and because it has failed to completely transform the publishing industry in that short time you’re declaring it (and the industry) a failure? Couldn’t you have been more fair and given everyone the full two weeks?

    So much to address here, I’m going to split this into several focused comments. First up is text:

    It’s not clear to me exactly what you’re asking for here. You deride the iPad because all you really want to do is read plain text, so the Kindle suffices and weighs less. Yet you then rail against publishers who are providing you with the text that you want.

    What’s wrong with text? Text is an incredibly efficient means of transmitting information. The novel is an extremely well-evolved form of expression. Yes, the iPad does offer us the chance to add in other technologies, much like the CD-ROM did back in the 1990′s. But these sorts of “enhancements” are often inappropriate and detract from the actual text. Yes, there are places where they are wholly appropriate and awesome (take a look at the new Alice app for the iPad, I’d like to see your Kindle do that!). But those are often special cases.

    I run a biology methods journal. We’ve done our best to avoid the long-form methods videos triumphed by others like JOVE. I do think short, demonstrative videos can be incredibly valuable, but who wants to sit through a lengthy, boring explanation of the whole technique (“…add NaCl to water. Stir. Wait. Stir some more…..”)? Scientists responding here seem to agree. I can read a protocol in a fraction of the time it takes to watch a video demonstration, and I can easily refer to individual steps without fast forwarding and rewinding. Sometimes low tech is better than high tech. Is it really going to improve my experience reading “The Sun Also Rises” if I get regularly interrupted by bullfighting videos or offers of cheap flights to Spain? Does a videogame of aristocrats dodging a guillotine add anything to “A Tale of Two Cities”? A book is a book, and it should retain that form if that’s the best way of presenting that information. How will voice command improve “Slaughterhouse Five”? Is saying “turn page” more efficient than just turning a page? How annoying is your next airplane trip going to be when every passenger is giving voice commands to his computer the whole flight?

    Motion pictures didn’t destroy the stage play as a form of expression, music videos didn’t stop people from writing songs. Books comprised solely of text will continue to exist and will continue to be produced. That said, new technologies do open up new possibilities of new forms of expression. It’s unclear where these should arise, and yes, you’re right in that the publishing industry should be experimenting. But there are problems once one moves outside of an industry’s core competency. At what point does your product become a movie or a videogame instead of being a book? Turning a book publishing company into a movie studio or a videogame developer is not an overnight process, nor an easy one. Must these new experiments be done at the expense of creating new text-based books? Why can’t both happen?

    To further make the point that text is crucial to all these newfangled web technologies, I’m going to quote one of the expert articles linked to your Wired article:
    Steven Johnson

    The personal computer proved to be more than just a fancy calculator. It turned out to be a device for doing things with words. Each milestone in computation and connectivity unleashed a new wave of textual breakthroughs: Early networks gave rise to email and Usenet; the Mac UI made reading text on the screen tolerable; the Internet platform (and the NeXT development environment) made it possible for one man to invent a universal hypertext system; Google harnessed distributed computing to make the entire Web searchable in microseconds; and thanks to Wi-Fi and cellular networks, along with hardware miniaturization, we can now download a novel to an ebook in 10 seconds….

    Advances in technology will give us plenty of headroom with other kinds of data: streaming real-time video, conjuring virtual spaces, exploring real-world environments with geocoded data, modeling complex systems like weather. But in the tablet world, textual innovation will not come from faster chips or wireless networks. Incremental improvements will continue, to be sure, but there will be a steady decrease in radical new ways we interact with text.

    If you time-traveled back to the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975, it would take you days to explain all the new possibilities for creating and sharing text. (Imagine explaining Wikipedia to someone who hasn’t heard of the word processor.) But I suspect that the text-based interactions that coalesce around the tablet will still seem familiar to my grandchildren in 2030.

    Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 1:47 pm
    • Well, there’s text and then there’s hypertext. One of the complaints of the Mag+ app is that they didn’t even link the text when users would expect it to be linked, so it was just about reading the text, not using text in the ways you are arguing for — as modern, new ways of linking text, in our case, hypertext. That’s one of the complaints of these early apps I agree with. Publishers so far are showcasing things in the rush to the iPad that don’t even have the courtesy to hyperlink well. That’s just “eyeballing text” as an app. And just backlighting text isn’t much of a value proposition for publishers. Portability has already been conquered, and the relatively heavy iPad isn’t much of an improvement in that regard.

      I agree that text is efficient, but is it sufficient? Is the only UI conceit going to be turning pages on the iPad, mimicking a container of old? Sure, it’s familiar and can be cool-looking for a few seconds, but is it necessary or helpful? On the Kindle, I lose track of how many “pages” I’m reading, and I’ve found (and others have, too) that this can be more immersive than books since you’re hardly aware of any physical journey or percent of consumption. So, yes, the novel is highly evolved as a narrative structure, but that doesn’t mean it has to look or feel or behave like a book. Novelists have been struggling for decades to break the constraints of expression words impose — by using italic for inner dialog, by messing with margins, by using different typefaces, by experimenting. When real artists get ahold of the iPad’s broader constraints, we may have more, and I doubt that an incumbent publisher will lead the way here. Oddly, relative to the traditional reading experience, the Kindle might be more radical right now than the iPad.

      I agree, I’m being quick in my judgment of the iPad, but I think I know a platypus when I see one. That’s not a condemnation, just an observation that I think it’s a mixed bag that doesn’t do anything really well. If it survives, I think it will be an oddity left along the way toward the truer species of gestural inputs, rich cloud-computing linkages, and new forms of expression that build upon what we have, as you suggest.

      And I agree that new media doesn’t destroy old media, but it definitely situates it differently — usually somewhat out of the mainstream to some extent, and freezes them somewhat. Old media are forced off the dance floor.

      Where this is going isn’t clear, but I wanted to point out that unless publishers and others do something more, there is an approaching gap (I think) that will put them either in the realm of the Kindle, or let them leap into what will follow the iPad. But if we ignore the hints, we will be stuck in the realm of unevolved text, stagnant formats, and traditional business constraints.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 2:05 pm
      • As noted below, I think the lack of hypertext is a deliberate design decision in the magazine app (though not necessarily the right one).

        I expect the iPad to get smaller and lighter as battery technology continues to improve (that’s basically what the iPad is, a big battery with a screen and some small circuitry attached). I don’t think I can call the iPad a platypus, or anything at this point because it’s a version 1.0 product, one that will change and improve over time. I see it as a blank slate. The iPad is whatever app you happen to be running at that moment. The rest of the device disappears. Create a new type of app and you’ve got a completely new device.

        You’re right that new media pushes old media off to the sides. But hasn’t this already happened for print? Isn’t bookreading already a marginalized activity? Are we arguing about whether we should accept new forms of Opera?

        And your Kindle immersion comment is an interesting one in that I’ve often seen one of the major complaints against eBooks being the lack of navigation/context. When I’m coming to the end of a novel, I can feel how many pages I have left, and that affects my reading.

        Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 2:46 pm
        • Well, my iPhone lasts as long as an iPad, but does more. The screen is a major energy hog, so shrinking the screen would improve battery life. It may get lighter, but Apple does love its aspect ratios. They might stick with the w x h while decreasing the d.

          Different people react differently to e-reading devices. All I can say is that having my Kindle back is making me happy. I missed it, and the iPad didn’t substitute.

          Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 2:54 pm
  3. Next up, cloud computing

    First, it should be noted that Google’s planned iPad competitor is going to be Android based, not Chrome based. That means they’ll work the same way the iPad works, with downloadable apps. The closest thing right now to a cloud-based device is probably the Joo-Joo, which is surprising in that they actually managed to build it at all, but not surprising in that the reviews say that it’s awful.

    The cloud is problematic for many reasons. First, much of what’s called “cloud computing” is just an attempt to shift users from a purchase-based business model to a rental one. It’s more about larger revenue streams coming out of your pocket than anything. Will you be happy paying every time you open a Word document or type an e-mail? Second, reliability has so far been dreadful. Are you okay with not being able to access your data for a few days? To be cut off from all your apps for that time? What about having all of your data permanently deleted? Then there are the privacy concerns. Are you okay with everything on your computer being publicly available, or at least being mined by your cloud provider? Your provider may offer good terms now, but should they hit financial hard times, remember there’s always a clause in there that they can change those terms whenever they want.

    Storage space, meanwhile, gets cheaper every day. I’d be much happier with a home computer with an enormous amount of redundant storage (I just bought a 2TB hard drive the other day for $100), and a way to access that data from my mobile device, rather than having to store my data in someone else’s cloud. The iPad is severely lacking at this point as far as its sync capabilities go. But I think this will be fixed over time, just like the iPhone added copy and paste, and now multi-tasking. As Steve Jobs put it, “We weren’t the first to this party, but we’re going to be the best. Like cut and paste — it’s better than any other implementation.” Combine that with small, efficient and inexpensive apps that I own and control, and I’ll take that over the pay-as-you-go cloud any day of the week.

    Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 1:58 pm
    • I don’t think cloud computing is going to stop improving or precludes local storage. However, it also enables many things. Using meeting wikis and cloud spreadsheets is infinitely cooler than emailing Excel files or Word documents. It has been said that computers are for storage and paper for collaboration, but I think cloud computing challenges this notion. And just because something is “terrible” at first doesn’t mean it will always be so, and the concerns you point to will probably define its improvement trajectory to some extent.

      Do you own your own water? Or do you trust the tap? You couldn’t always, but my guess is that you use a combination of tap water (cloud water) for certain tasks and bottled water (local files) for others. And you probably have a 20-pack in the basement in case there’s an emergency.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 2:20 pm
      • The cloud has its uses, but I can’t accept it as the paradigm around which everything is built. It’s in the best interests of those trying to sell me things, not in my best interests. It’s worth using where warranted, but I want to control my own activities and my own data.

        Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 2:49 pm
  4. And finally, Scientific American’s app:

    There’s an interesting debate to be had here: what is the difference between an electronic version of a magazine and a website?

    One can certainly argue that what makes a magazine a magazine is the finite nature of its content. If you buy a print magazine, you are strictly limited to what fits between the covers. In some ways, this is appealing, a tidy package that can be finished as opposed to an open-ended journey that never ends, that leads you to other places and often makes it difficult to get back to where you started. There’s something pleasing about picking up a magazine, reading it from cover to cover, then throwing it away. This self-contained finite nature is inherent in its “magazine-ness”. The Sci Am app is apparently an attempt to recreate this nature in an electronic arena. It’s understandable why one would do so, but it’s probably not the right path.

    I think a lot of the reasoning behind trying to replicate the print magazine experience on the iPad is based on economic realities–people will pay for a copy of a magazine on a newsstand, but they won’t pay for access to that magazine’s website. The more magazine-y and the less website-y you make the product, the more likely it is that you will have paying customers. Or so the thinking probably went.

    The problem is that websites already exist, and users are used to the value that they add, the extra power added by linking outside of a self-contained package. That’s why the app seems so disappointing and limiting in this context.

    It’s something of a conundrum. Really, the best way to present a magazine in an electronic form is a method that everyone expects to be free. Not much of a business model there.

    Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 2:06 pm
    • I was talking about Popular Science’s app, but that’s OK.

      Magazine publishers need to push expectations, not bow to them, in order to help define the digital age. It is a conundrum, but sheepish acceptance is, as you note, kind of doomed.

      When I compare a magazine app to the NPR app, for example, it’s clear which is superior, more interesting, and more viable. And I’ll bet NPR is making some decent money selling their content again via apps.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 2:24 pm
      • D’oh! Sorry, mixed up my popular science magazines, my bad.

        And I agree that (particularly for industries where the business model is fading) new forms are worth trying. The problem for magazines is that the obvious new form, an app that works like a webpage, is already known and has already trained readers to expect it to be free. And it’s tough to invent a completely new interface and form for presentation in a few short weeks.

        Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 2:37 pm
        • Which is part of the reason I think the iPad is a platypus. Why buy an app when I can get a web site just as easily? If the apps are just familiar representations of print, there’s even less of a case. At least web sites are more likely to be current, free, and deep.

          Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 2:41 pm
          • Are you saying the iPad is bad for web browsing? I thought that was one of its major strengths.

            And I note you expect the websites to be free. How are you going to pay all those professional writers creating content for your current, deep and free websites?

            Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 2:48 pm
            • Not at all. In fact, I thought I was saying it’s so good at it that information apps have a hard time competing. And free is the current paradigm. I think that needs to change.

              Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 2:50 pm
              • So then the App Store/iBookstore is the platypus, not the device itself?

                Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 2:54 pm
              • No, the device is the platypus, both because of how it’s designed natively and what that means for the ecosystem. The stores are part of the ecosystem.

                Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 3:02 pm
              • Think back though–the entire App Store is an add-on to the original concept of the iPhone. There was no SDK, and developers were just supposed to make web apps. The ecosystem was hastily grafted on later in the process. If it’s really vestigial, it will disappear and Apple’s original vision will be vindicated.

                Conveniently, in Mobile Safari, Apple just happens to have the best-of-breed web browser for mobile devices as well and as you note, it provides an extremely good web experience.

                Remember that Apple is and has always been a hardware company. They make their money by selling you devices. The rest is small change. It doesn’t matter to them whether you’re buying their device to use online or buying it to use with apps.

                That’s why the blank slate nature makes it so adaptable. Wherever the developers go, whatever the best source for information and programs, the iPad can work with it. That, to me, makes it more like a small mammal among dinosaurs rather than an evolutionary dead end.

                Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 4:36 pm
              • The platypus probably looked like a great leap forward, as well.

                I certainly could be wrong, but after trying to integrate the iPad into my life, and being somewhat a gadget guy, I found I wanted to get rid of it. It was clutter in my life.

                Words I may well eat.

                Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 4:49 pm
              • We’ll have to revisit this discussion later on down the line. I’m willing to bet the device (and Apple) is flexible enough to shift to different priorities should they arise. Note that Apple already has a foot in the cloud with MobileMe and has apparently invested $1B in building their own giant server farm. The new iAd functionality may give them the ability to (like Google) make all these sorts of things free and supported by ads.

                Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 4:59 pm
  5. Two other quick thoughts–this article makes the point that CD sales still outnumber music download sales, that there’s still some life left in print books, and that the future of the book may be more nuanced than an immediate switch from print to eBooks. Certainly food for thought, given the overall small total numbers of Kindles (estimates range as high as 3M total) and iPads (450K in week one) out in the wild so far.

    And this lovely infographic points out how hard it is for a creator to actually make money from their work in the cloud (4.5M Spotify streams of a song are needed per month to pay the artist minimum wage).

    Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 5:14 pm
    • There’s a major caveat to that report if you read the Economist piece skeptically — namely, CD album sales outnumbered digital album sales. But on a revenue basis, digital sales should eclipse CD sales in the US this year, and might already in the UK. The CD forces people to buy the entire album, but digital sales don’t, so this isn’t surprising.

      As to the infographic, yep, lower the price, and you have to make up for it with volume. Nothing surprising there, but it is a nice purply graphic.

      Shouldn’t you be writing a post instead of all these comments? ;-)

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 5:22 pm
      • It’s still a 60:40 ratio of total physical sales versus digital (at least it was last year).

        That increased volume is something that needs to be taken into consideration. For a scholarly publisher, with a limited audience size that is interested in/can understand highly advanced/specialized material, those levels of scale may not exist. It’s one thing to suggest dropping the price of your new lab manual and making up sales via volume. It’s quite another to explain how the additional 4.5 million microRNA specialists are suddenly going to appear out of nowhere.

        And if you like that infographic, you’re going to love this one.

        Also, post, schmost. So much easier to respond to an idea than to come up with one on your own.

        Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 5:29 pm
        • But it’s albums. That’s the key distinction. It obscures single song sales, which is one of the main virtues of disaggregated digital sales. Revenues are a better measure of the real balance.

          I agree with the volume problem for us. That’s why I think we need to value digital as much as we do anything else. Right now, we’re not doing a great job at that.

          And I do like that infographic. Perfect!

          Posted by Kent Anderson | Apr 14, 2010, 5:38 pm
          • The link I posted gives overall figures, not just albums:
            “Digital downloads now account for 40% of music purchases.”

            Posted by David Crotty | Apr 14, 2010, 8:18 pm
  6. Still think reliance on the cloud is a good idea? Read this: When Google Owns You.

    Posted by David Crotty | Apr 22, 2010, 4:55 pm

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