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What Do Ereaders Need To Improve?

Feb 4, 2011   [permalink]

I think most ereaders are at a barely acceptable level of functionality — they let you read a book sequentially fairly well, but are often clunky beyond that. So this blog post is about things I'd like to see improved, and an open invitation, asking what you'd like to see improved.

Had a funny experience at a board meeting the other day for a non-profit board I'm president of. To save paper we'd agreed that we'd try going digital for our meeting packet, a 100+ page PDF. Five of the eight of us brought an ereader to read our It went pretty well, all in all. Indeed, strangely the meeting finished faster than any has in years! I don't know if the digital packet had anything to do with it.

But there was one funny comment that sort of stuck in my mind, more of an indictment of the flaws of ereaders than anything else: Late in the meeting, when we were around, say, page 80 in the packet, I said let's talk about topic XYZ next. A Board member who was using an iPad to view his packet said, um, what page is that on? I said it didn't have any material just for it, that I was looking at the agenda on page 2. His reply was what got me: "Whoa, page 2! Nevermind then, that's way too far back for me to swipe to a page at a time." We all laughed at the foibles of ereaders and went on.

So, a fail for his iPad PDF reading app, and a small fail for using ereaders for meeting packets.

I'd gone through the same process that morning, looking at my various ereaders, trying out different apps, and found that none really sufficed for quickly navigating a 100 page PDF.

Speed is important. Really important. It's not enough that a reader device can replicate the theoretical action of what you can do on paper, it has to do so roughly as quickly. I can flip from page 100 to page 2 of a sheaf of papers in, what, a second. If I'm not sure if it's page 2, I can flip among the early pages rapidly, on paper. With an ereader, the navigation time plus the page display time get quite cumbersome. In my friend's case, his app didn't have any navigation except page forward/backward (as did many of my own apps that I bypassed several devices because of). A hundred swipes to get back to the beginning is absurdly slow.

Complex navigation is thus one thing many (if not nearly all) ereaders need to work on. Every ereader should offer a way to quickly flip through pages, jump to beginning, end, or specific "page" number.

Also: Quick bookmarking and returning. I don't want to fumble with a lot of menus and clicking/tapping/etc. to put in a brief bookmark so I can thumb through for something and return. With paper I can stick in a finger, riffle the pages, and return to my finger. Very quick. Speed matters. I can even stick in several fingers — used to do that a lot with textbooks. Flipping quickly between several bookmarked points is sometimes necessary, yet cumbersome with most ereaders.

That brings up: "Page" numbers. With a paper book, you get roughly 330 words on a page (give or take; I've counted a number of times over the years and that's a really common number I've hit on). Say, 1,000 words in three pages. It would be nice for ereaders to settle on some common numbering scheme that would allow for "page" number-like references. By "common" I mean, works across formats (mobi, epub, etc.), isn't changed by altering the font size, doesn't depend on how many words are displayed on the screen, etc. So a screen count doesn't do it. Paragraph numbers can get pretty large.

Perhaps "page" numbers defined as three pages per 1,000 words, and allowing decimals? Page "80.5" would take you to what would roughly be found in the middle of a printed page 80? That is, if it takes three screenfuls of 100 words each to view that section of words, 80.5 is going to be the middle of them. It would correspond to about the 26800th word in the text, but it's a lot easier to deal with "80" or even "80.5" than 26800..

Also: Identify my position in (a) the whole book and (b) the current chapter/section/story (if an anthology), using that same numbering scheme and visually. I know some readers display a bar showing a percent and/or shaded graphic of how far along you. Some show both chapter and whole book. That's good. But I still find page numbers useful. Call me old fashioned. I have an internal idea of what it means to be 80 pages into a 300 page book, or 5 pages into a 15 page short story or chapter.

Knowing my position in absolute terms (not a relative percent) is useful information to me about the flow of the piece. I know if I'm on page 200 of 300 that I'm likely nearing the climax of a novel, and I have a sense of what 100 pages left means. Telling me I'm 66% or 32864 screens into it just doesn't have the same meaning.

Non-text: Illustrations for kids books, or any nicely illustrated book, graphs/tables/etc. for nonfiction, etc., are often clumsily handled in readers. Generally need that to improve, across the board (all readers).

Ok, I'll stop and ask: What are your wish lists for what ereaders should do better?

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