Are apps the evil twins of e-books?

1 minute read

I really like e-books quite a lot. It’s easy to take a device like the Kindle, load up books, and read them. It holds your place for you, and multiple devices can be synchronized so that you can pick up a different one and read from the same page you left. One of the things I like most is that the electronic files themselves are a very simple format. When devices change, these files are still going to work. They aren’t very different from the basic HTML that your browser can read, and in fact converting from web authoring to e-book authoring is very natural.

But there’s a limit to what you can do with a very simple format. You can’t present multimedia or interactive content without adding some complexity. Many people have started to incorporate book-like material with interactive content by packaging them as apps instead of e-books. The best-known example of this is an app called The Elements, half coffee-table book about the periodic table, half whiz-bang visualization of 3d objects.

John Dupuis is a librarian who has been thinking a lot about the impermanence of apps: “On the evilness of the emerging ebook app ecosystem”.

In the longer term, it's not clear how apps such as The Elements could follow their owners to new platforms or new devices. Certainly the content for something like The Elements could have a very long lifetime, say even fifteen or twenty years. If you bought it today what do you think the likelihood is you'll be able to access it in that time frame. It's like if book publishers could make you use their proprietary glasses to read their books.

I’m not sure how I feel about the issue but it’s worth thinking about. Apps can be done for free, but if they need to be constantly updated they will introduce costs that tend to make them costly relative to e-books. Some app-like content can be done in a cross-platform way, for example with Flash or HTML5. I’ve worked to some extent with Wolfram’s system for sharing interactive content, which they’re trying to make more widespread. Hopefully a more open, e-book-like system for sharing interactive and media content on readers will emerge.