Sunday 4 August 2013

A Product Idea: e-Books Are More Like Paper Books Than You Think

I prefer e-books to paper books these days, particularly for technical or reference books. So do most people reading these words, I expect. Being able to carry around a shipping container full of books without carrying a shipping container as your briefcase has an undeniable appeal. But the form has not yet been perfected; especially if you're looking at reference or technical books, current e-books (whether in PDF or more proprietary e-reader format) has yet to conquer one of the true banes of paper books.

A relevant aside: This afternoon, I received a notice that the latest update to the new edition of the (excellent) Everyday Rails Testing with RSpec by Aaron Sumner was available, so I went and downloaded the update.

Then ensued an hour of activity that is familiar to any student or researcher since long before Gutenberg: opening both old and new editions (in a novel twist, opening these in my reader, Preview on OS X) and applying the highlights and notes to the new edition that I'd made to the old. What allowed me to complete the task, double-checked, in an hour rather than a week, was Previews "Highlights & Notes" view, which let me skip to the next scribble I'd made on the old copy, find the corresponding bit of the new, and adapt the highlighting or note as appropriate. Tedious enough to momentarily wish for an automated "copy my notes over" feature in Preview, which I quickly mentally filed in the "first world problems" circular file.

So why bother blogging about this? Two points, first: yes, of course we're far more efficient and effective in this use case with e-books than paper books. But, most importantly: yes, there really does need to be a better way to deal with matching changing versions of underlying documents to annotations. I've been developing professionally for the Web almost literally as long as there's been a "World Wide Web" for the general public to develop for and use, and I have yet to see any serious headway made. Does anybody know any different?

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