by Maxwell Hoffmann, Desktop Publishing, Localization, Globalization and Sales Training Veteran

Really, how long can anyone really read long chapters on that tiny screen? The answer is “for hours, and hours and hours”

A few weeks ago I got a Tweet that sent me straight to downloads-ville. A “free” Kindle Reader app for my Blackberry! As a used-book store addicted Baby Boomer who color codes all of his hard copy books with highlighter pens, might I be the perfect guinea pig for this latest content delivery platform? Could an old school guy like me get used to reading literature or technical manuals in chunks smaller than 3×5 cards?

The answer surprised even me.

So I downloaded Kindle reader for both Windows laptop and Blackberry. I was skeptical at first. Really, how long can anyone really read long chapters on that tiny screen? The answer is “for hours, and hours and hours”. Why? Kindle on Blackberry has crisp, readable screen display (with adjustable fonts), bookmarks are created with ease, navigation is fast, and everything from eBook downloads to synching with other platforms is quick and pain-free. As spell out below, I could consume a lot of virtual pages, swiftly. By the end of my first day of I thought the only limitation to this form of digital content consumption was battery power on my Blackberry. Thank heavens for those laptop draining USB cables.

And guess what kids, Amazon’s Kindle Store starts you out in thriftsville with tons of books for FREE, ranging from The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf to Miss Mapp by E.F. Benson (later serialized on PBS as “Mapp and Lucia”).

On Blackberry’s tiny screen I read the first 5 chapters in less than 90 minutes. I found myself hitting “P” a lot to reread the previous page again.

On my second day I bit the bullet and actually shelled out more than $9 for a “real” book, The Museum of Innocence by my favorite living author, Orhan Pamuk. If you’ve never been lucky enough to visit Istanbul, reading Pamuk’s sensual text is as close as you’ll ever get. On Blackberry’s tiny screen I read the first 5 chapters in less than 90 minutes. It could have been faster if it were a guide to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture. (Hey, where’s Ann Rockley’s DITA 101 on my Kindle list? Stay tuned.) Some or Pamuk’s passages were so beautiful that I found myself hitting “P” a lot to reread the previous page again.

[FYI – Istanbul by Pamuk will give you great insights into Turkish national character, a good thing to have as Turkey emerges as a global and economic power throughout the rest of this century. Read The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman, which I read in the paperback version purchased at my favorite brick and mortar bookstore. I work in the translation industry, and Turkish is quickly becoming the most popular “new” language for many of our clients, especially in Life Sciences.]

But, I digress. Soon, I hungered for more, and found myself frustrated with the current limitations of most eBooks. Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook and YouTube have put most of us in the habit of sharing “samples” of content with others. And PDF files reviewed in Acrobat have put us in the habit of making marginal comments in digital ways. Kindle (and most other eBooks) don’t have copy/paste functionality, there is no highlighter pen, and no way to make a simple annotation. And, if there is, it’s not easy to find and use this functionality, which is a problem. All I wanted to do was extract legally correct, small samples to upload somewhere (isn’t there a “YouRead” community yet?) … and I wanted to mark content in multiple ways. Shucks, I just wanted to “color code” text to find favorite passages based on different needs.

To gain wide acceptance, eBooks and eBook Readers will need to allow us to do things we’re accustomed to doing with traditional books, but in more meaningful, interactive and community-based ways.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting eBook Readers to double as a word processor, (or to become the next copy/paste Wikipedia to let college students whip out quickee term papers). I suspect that most users will also miss the ability to put their fingerprints on content like we do nearly everywhere else.

Ironically, the ability to “personalize” content is one of the things that I love the most about real, physical books. We can dog ear (upper or lower corner to code importance); we can underline, circle, or highlight sections of text we want to reference later. (In college I was nicknamed “nerdanada” for the 4 colors of highlighter pens constantly sprouting from my polyester shirt pockets). And of course, real books allow us to make marginal notes. I consider these physical highlights and doodles our “finger prints” on physical content.

My Kindle Read / eBooks Wish List

Digital versions of these old paper-based mark up methods (based on XML, or more specifically, DITA attributes, or course) should create persistent and personal “finger prints” on our personal Kindle or eBook copies that could make the world a better place in several ways:

  • We could quickly locate content that mattered to us personally, based on different criteria.
  • Amazon (or other providers: think Apple) could track our individual buying habits on an even more granular level. Instead of recommending books based on previously purchased titles, the vendor can use community driven social networks to recommend further eBooks for purchased based on the sections of the book that we related to the most.
  • For the first time in history, publishers and authors would know exactly what portions of content turned readers on (or off) the most. (Today the most we can do is post a comment on Amazon, or elsewhere, and rarely do we cite individual pages, paragraphs or passages).
  • Imagine the power of having a constant consumer survey occurring, page by digital page, all driven with uploadable “highlighter pen” passages! And imagine the apps that could interpret smart content and metadata embedded by our highlight selections, to graphically display consumer response to specific portions of content! I visualize a sort of daily Dow Jones line chart mapped to the book which has longer lines for chapters or DITA topics that got the most “hits” or reader embedded fingerprints.
    • FYI – although Kindle reader offers a “book mark” feature, it is really only useful for general navigation.
  • The ability to track the changing hot spots of readers via “fingerprints” over time would also give sociologists and historians the ability to impact a book’s changing impact over several generations. Would it be great to see how graphical representation of reader response to The Next Hundred Years by Friedman had changed 20, 40 or 60 years from now, as we approach the end of the time that he documents?
  • And if there is ever a way to “will” your Amazon/whomever library to someone else, your heirs could not only thumb through static pages, they would see your fingerprints, sense your personality, and know what mattered to you at the time of your reading.
  • Consumers commenting and sharing digital eBooks would leave an incredible legacy.

the locked, protected content of eBooks precludes us from sharing with others.

This last point has been one my biggest misgivings about the “one-way” aspect of current digital media: the locked, protected content of eBooks precludes any way for us to share our content-specific comments, annotations, whatever, with others. If I “will” my Kindle library to some designated heir, he/she has no way of knowing what turned me on. On the other hand, I have a shelf full of carefully selected books from my grandmother’s estate that achieve that goal beautifully.

Grammie was a red pencil/underline addict (highlighter pens didn’t exist yet) and her personality is evident on every page of what mattered to her. From marginal “stars”, single/double/triple underlines, little balloons around key words, and, best of all, marginal notes like “you’ve got to be kidding!”, I can literally hear her voice as I read what mattered to her.

After death, eBooks could allow your heirs to not only thumb through static pages, but they could also learn more about you by reading your digital fingerprints, helping them to sense your personality, and know what mattered to you at the time of your reading. Artwork: Secret Diary 18: “Up to speed” (2005) by Angela Moll

She was the woman who more responsible than anyone on the planet for who I am today. (OK! So now you know who to blame!) Incidentally, you can get a glimpse into this remarkable woman through a blog I wrote about the discovery of her 100 year old journals, written last year. I have Linked In contacts from Germany who connected with me after reading about what Grammie wrote in 1912. Now that’s what I call persistent fingerprinted content! These remote Linked In contacts are really connecting with her, through me.

Will my Kindle-driven wish list ever come true?

So, is there any hope that the publishing industry (and copyright lawyers) will smell the coffee and make my wish list of interactive features come true? I attended the Intelligent Content 2010 Conference in Palm Springs, CA where a roster of the “smartest guys/gals” on the subject gave us all a realistic whiff of the future of content. (Hint: DITA DITA DITA).

Dev Ganesan of Aptara (a digital publishing and XML content conversion services firm) gave a highly dynamic presentation on “Reimagining the Book: How Intelligent Technology is Changing the Publishing World”. His depiction of the future of the book far exceeded my Kindle-driven hunger for new features. Dev is actively involved in shaping the evolving EPUB standard, a free and open eBook standard designed for reflowable content, meaning that the text display can be optimized for the particular display device. Dev demonstrated “beyond engaging” DITA-driven intelligent and interactive content that runs on anything from a laptop to a Blackberry, iPhone, or most effectively, on the iPad.

The Q&A session was lively, with much discussion about Kindle being the lone wolf on sticking to its proprietary format, which Tim O’Reilly thinks this is a bad idea. The recently launched iPad is “intelligence” ready for what’s coming down the pike. Many of the questions opened up the whole can of worms regarding how do authors, artists and publishers flexibly copyright their assets without creating an impenetrable “glass box” that drives consumers away. (Follow Scott Abel’s tweets on this issue, he is more on top of this than anyone I know and will soon be presenting to a select group of Alpha Dog investors to clue them in).

What will it take to get the ePubs world to “wake up” and create the fingerprint and sharing tools we all crave?

If a dead chocolate icon can make individual “topic level” content available for a modest purchase price, why can’t newspapers, eBooks and other media creators who are quaking over broken copyright laws?

Scott Abel (The Content Wrangler) had the answer during the Q&A session for his closing presentation Intelligent Content 2010. “When the lawyers finally realize that publishers can parse book content down to the chapter, or DITA topic level, and sell that content for pennies, and as with iTunes, do this millions and millions of times, then it will happen.” In other words, Amazon and other eBook publishers are sitting on a content gold mine. But they are trying to sell you the entire glass display of See’s Candies when you only want to buy a Marzipan Honey almond paste, a Light Chocolate Truffle and a Dark Bordeaux. (If your itchy fingers clicked on the link in the previous sentence, you will see that even old lady See has wised up and lets you do exactly that!) If a dead chocolate icon can make individual “topic level” content available for a modest purchase price, why can’t newspapers, eBooks and other media creators who are quaking over broken copyright laws?

In the closing conference session, Scott also revealed a future Trival Pursuit question. Name the most popular app on the iPhone right now? Kindle reader and other eBook readers. The future is here. All we need is the intelligently structured content to go with it. And I will think of my grandmother’s red underlines every time I highlight eBook sections and upload it to some future eBook community site. Grammie would have loved this stuff.

‘And this affects me how?’, you ask

So how does any of this affect you? If you are creating content that must be published in multiple formats (including formats that don’t exist yet), get on the DITA wagon and start structuring your content now. Find out what intelligent content is and how to embed it usefully in what you produce. Closely follow webinars, tweets and especially blogs from Ann Rockley, Scott Abel, Joe Gollner and the crew of visionaries that presented at the Intelligent Content conference.

Why? Because the projected pixels displayed at the posh Parker Meridian resort in Palm Springs this week portend the world that we will all soon be living in. The old adage for college professors used to be “publish or perish”. Perhaps the new adage should be “embed intelligence in your structured content, or watch it evaporate.”

*** About the Author

Maxwell Hoffmann started his career as a graphic artist and typesetter before working for a variety of publishing software vendors. He has over 20 years of scalable desktop publishing and 15 years of localization experience. His specialties include content analysis, consulting and sales training. He currently serves as Director of Documentation Globalization for Globalization Partners International.