Well, Apple’s much anticipated tablet is here: the iPad. Without the benefit of testing it yet, I did a quick tour of the features demonstrated on the Apple website. It looks like a grown-up iPod or iPhone…larger screen and more functions. In fact, maybe it’s the future of laptops — touch screen keyboard, slim design, everything in one place.
I’m most interested in iBooks. I was wondering if vendors would sell a chapter at a time, or the entire book. As Brad Stone pointed out in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times, there is concern that Apple will deteriorate profits and presentation of books the way they have music by allowing users to purchase single songs, rather than entire albums. Already, Google and Acrobat make it possible to keyword search books and articles, so in theory, someone can read a section completely de-contextualized from the larger document. However, a spectre of the larger document is still present, whereas with iTunes, users can download a single song without any experience of the larger context. From the brief description on their website, Apple seems to be selling the book as a single unit, but we’ll see.
Of course, to access these fun features, iPad users must have an account with AT&T. So, our reading will be mediated by both Apple and AT&T. If we don’t wish to have an account with AT&T, we won’t get an iPad. More discomfiting, is if a book isn’t in Apple’s catalog, it won’t be available for reading on their tablet. True, this problem exists with Kindle, but Amazon has such a large catalog, it hasn’t seemed problematic.
Before these technologies, our reading was mediated by what was on our shelves, our libraries’ shelves, and the shelves of our local bookstores. Now, in theory, the world is at our fingertips. I have to wonder what we’re losing, though. I remember as a kid finding old books like Hitchcock’s The Three Investigators series serendipitously at my local library.
No one would have recommended it to me and I don’t think it will be a candidate for iPad, but Hitchcock told good stories and I much preferred his series to the more popular Nancy Drew because they were less predictable. What serendipity are we losing by relying on e-catalogs instead of local bookshelves? Definitely, a counter-argument can and is being made for increased accessibility, but I wonder if, the goal is ease of access rather than breadth and relevance of material. Taken a step further, are these new devices selecting popularity over quality, and if so what will we miss?