of UIs and books and stuff…

so, i’m not a huge techie. i mean, i’m more tech-oriented than the average bear, but isn’t everybody? i mean, bears don’t really do much with technology, do they?

for example, i’ve learned (or been supposedly taught, at least) six high-level programming languages over the years. i’m not bad at programming, but i’m no code weenie. there are an innumerable number of things i’d rather do than write code.

but anyway, i do have a certain interest in technology. and because of this, i listen to the TWiT podcast every week. a lot of the topics don’t interest me much, but the various panel members are almost always a hoot – host Leo Laporte, chronic naysayer John C. Dvorak, and author Jerry Pournelle are constant favourites of mine.

recently on TWiT, there’s been a lot of discussion of two electronic book readers: the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle.

i’m not a newcomer to the electronic book concept – the first electronic book i ever read was on a Newton MessagePad 100, which both of these devices remind me of somewhat.

and it was o.k.

but as i’ve gotten older (not that i’m old! far from it!), the current concept for a digital book reader has come to bother me. that’s not to say i don’t read books in digital format – i do. in fact, i’ve begun purchasing more and more of them, rather than just reading free texts from the public domain.

but i read them on my laptop – not some specialized reader.

the complaints about the new crop of readers seems to fall into two categories: price and UI.

the price does bother me a bit. for the $400 the Kindle costs, i could get an OLPC XO – which i think would be a far better investment, really. from a less socially responsible standpoint, Dell has notebooks starting at around $500. and there were sub-$400 notebooks available on Black Friday from a multitude of vendors. the Sony’s a bit better at “only” $300 – but that still seems a bit steep.

i can’t see paying that amount of money for something which only does one thing (i know the Kindle has some other features, but it’s still no laptop in functionality terms), and that one thing being something i can do with another piece of technology i already have. i certainly don’t see hordes of people buying ebook readers who aren’t at least somewhat technologically savvy. members of the target market for these things already have laptops and iPhones and such – which perhaps is why the manufacturers believe they can sell them. but the relative premium over other digital devices with the same functionality seems like a product-killer.

but the UI issues actually bother me more.

not having used either device, i obviously cannot comment on their UIs from personal experience. but i have found myself pondering UIs in a more general sense lately, so i think i can speak from there.

books have a pretty good interface as-is, i think. which is why it’s no surprise that these devices attempt to mimic the book-type interface. but attempt is really all they do; it doesn’t appear to be any better, with a usability cost in that they’re not the easiest things to handle. a telling complaint about the Kindle seems to be that if you attempt to hold it naturally, you have to grasp the controls – which results in unwanted “page” turning.

really, for devices like this to become popular, i think that designers need to look beyond the traditional book-type interface. come up with something better, or at least better for the medium. considering the Romans probably invented the codex in the first century AD, near two thousand years of refinement is hard to beat without some revolutionary change.

what i think would be interesting (and it’s probably just my sci-fi geekiness coming out) would be an interface similar to one described by David Drake in his RCN series of novels. one of his characters is a research librarian by training, and the interface she uses to manipulate data is fascinating: rather than a keyboard/mouse setup like most of us are familiar with, or the limited range of a set of locked functionality buttons, she uses a pair of “control wands” to manipulate virtual displays of information.

with devices like Nintendo’s Wii becoming widespread, i wonder if a more active interface would be acceptable to users: instead of pressing a button, “touch” a virtual page with a pointer or stylus and “lift” it to turn to the next. the ability to take notes with this type of interface would be nice; perhaps harking back to the Newton with some type of handwriting recognition, perhaps? i’ve plenty of books with filled margins – it’d be nice to have the same option to annotate with digital formats.

there would be display issues here, of course. we don’t yet have any sort of useful personal virtual displays, with the glasses or goggles for such devices being rather bulky and crude. but early versions of a lot of this technology do exist; it’d just be nice if someone would assemble them.

a UI of this sort would lend itself to more than digital books, too. i can only imagine flying through the web with a flick of a wrist.

for now, however, i think i’ll keep my old-style paper books.

quote of the day:

“Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.” – Albert Einstein

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