Monday, September 7, 2009

Small E-Readers and Media Hype

The New York Times
reports on the unsatisfactory experience of attempting to use the much-hyped "eTextbook" iPhone app for CourseSmart's 7,000+ textbooks.
    Click on the image at the left to get the larger image.

This is an update to earlier blog articles on CourseSmart and its e-textbooks:
  . How to Save on College Textbooks
  . CourseSmart offers 7,000 textbooks on iPhone/iPod
  . Textbooks, the iPhone, and the Kindle

The New York Times's Randall Stross does something highly irregular in this fast-paced gloss-over news-scanning Net world -- he actually tries using a product before drawing conclusions in 'killer' headlines based on little.  Too often the articles focus on "the look" of things, the 'sexiness' of a metallic or plastic form, the 'cool' factor -- if you can pocket it, it has to be better.

  As a user of nearly pocketable cameras I understand the feeling, but if the camera doesn't do the basic job for the cost, I'd not be proclaiming the smallness of it the best way to go for producing a good result or saying one doesn't need the larger cameras and they are therefore "killed" - a favorite concept for gadget hounds chasing the latest dragon slayer.

Stross points out that squeezing the contents of an enormous printed textbook -- normally using considerable space for hundreds of words, the occasional illustration and lots of "restful white space" -- into the credit-card sized space of smart-phone displays can cause a painful experience.

CourseSmart has tried, and my guess (since they did not reformat the books for the smaller display size) is that they hoped to get a more attractive deal from Amazon if the textbooks were already on the iPhone.  Otherwise, what sense does it make -- to have to buy the version for iPhone which requires a connection to the Net (even if alternately using a laptop for that e-version) and buy another version to be able to read offline in a more natural way?

Stross describes what it's like to actually use a CourseSmart textbook on the iPhone while connected online as required:
' [CourseSmart's iPhone app] uses a PDF image of each page, as does the browser-based version of its eTextbook. All of the charts, graphs and design elements are intact, but everything — including the text — is indecipherably small without zooming in.  Enlarging the text to legible size introduces the need to scroll left and right for each line, which quickly grows tedious.
  Even when used on a PC monitor or laptop, Stross says,
Generally ... just half or two-thirds of a single page is displayed at once.  Successive clicks take you to the bottom of that page, to the top of the adjacent page, and to the bottom of that page. After every page change, the screen goes blank momentarily before refreshing.

  Frank Lyman, executive vice president of CourseSmart explains that the use of the iPhone for the text can be helpful if
  " you’re standing outside of the classroom, the quiz is in 10 minutes, and you want to go back to that end-of-chapter summary that helped you understand the material.”"

  Stross continues:
' The iPhone doesn’t actually store the image files: a page must be downloaded on-the-fly when requested, which I found to take 9 to 13 seconds, using a Wi-Fi connection.  The downloaded page isn’t saved, so moving to another page, then returning, means downloading it anew.  Rummaging around for a particular passage in a chapter, easily done in a printed book, is an agonizingly long process on the iPhone. '

On August 12, when CourseSmart announced its iPhone launch, I asked this question:

"Does this mean that the students will also need to buy a hard copy text book for the "homework" portion as well as pay half the cost of another textbook in electronic format which they'd need to return to CourseSmart at the end of 180 days?"

 The New York Times reports that:
' At present, a student without a trust fund is probably not going to get both the printed textbook and a subscription that provides access to the eTextbook version; they are now sold separately.  When asked if publishers would be willing to offer both for the price of one, [Ed Stanford, president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education] said his company was considering offering the eTextbook for a “nominal” price to buyers of the print version.

Larger format e-readers, not mentioned above but available currently:
Kindle 2   Sony Readers   Kindle DX.

Also see:
  . Sony's Upcoming Models vs Amazon Kindle
  . Some points from reports on the new Sony readers Below are ways to Share this post if you'd like others to see it.
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  1. Amazing that anyone takes the CourseSmart's offering seriously. The Onion couldn't have come up with something funnier.

    Speaking of eTextbooks...whatever happened to the highly touted Amazon experiment that was supposed to make them available for the Kindle DX in a bunch of colleges this fall?


  2. True, I couldn't believe people were seriously feeling students would be reading their textbooks on an iPhone or iPod. Worse is they don't even reflow the text, so even CourseSmart was never really serious about it.

    That's why I wonder if they were trying to interest Amazon, in that there had never, CourseSmart said, been any conversations between the two companies.

    Those Fall studies have been expanded to a couple of more colleges. They're in the news a lot. But the CourseSmart texts were never mentioned for that.

    The course books are taken care of for those places. Some are scanning (to OCR) themselves.

    One university has a class that requires 17 books or sources, so the Kindle is being looked on a bit more positively there.

    One article I put up the other day mentioned notes being made on the Kindle, in a paragraph about PDFs, and I mentioned that part had to be wrong...


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