Ebooks Versus Apps

If you have been following the media on the topic of ebooks, you have likely come across mentions of book as “apps” — especially with regard to the iPad and similar devices. I have some reservations about this trend.

What the media is describing, is a book turned into a software application. Perhaps the best example of this on the iPad is Theodore Gray’s The Elements, a profusely illustrated, color book of the Periodic Table. As a software application on the iPad, it takes on an interactive and somewhat immersive character — with finger-taps and -drags one can rotate high-resolution 3D images of elements like Barium and Carbon, read detailed descriptions, and pull up data from WolframAlpha’s incredible database.

Back when I was studying chemistry in school, I would have loved The Elements on the iPad and might even have done better at the subject!

But is The Elements application a book? Not really. It is the content of a book, placed into a software package, and enhanced with a lot of (attractive and interesting) software bells and whistles.

App Problems

I do not think the model represented by The Elements transfers well to other books. Yes, it may be applicable to a few books, but that is not the issue which worries me. As someone who has used software since the days when personal computers did not exist, I have learned that all software “purchases” are actually temporary borrowings. Changes to operating systems, computer hardware, and software company ownership all cause the software one uses today to be unusable in future.

In the software world, productivity applications like Microsoft Office get “upgraded” regularly to reflect changes in hardware and operating systems, and because Microsoft gets an opportunity to sell you an “upgrade” to the new version.

Will you and I be willing to purchase “upgrades” to book applications? In most instances, I think not. I think we are more likely to be annoyed at the idea that we bought something and it no longer works.

If I were a publisher of, say, cookbooks, I might look at supplying them as software applications and offering subscriptions which would provide my customers with regular updates/enhancements.

I do not see books as applications in Self-Counsel’s future, unless a lot changes in the world of computing devices and software. And on a personal basis, I am avoiding books sold as apps (although I did succumb to the lure of The Elements).

Divided Loyalties

I read a lot. I buy a lot of ebooks. The ebooks I buy fall into two categories: fiction I will read once, and nonfiction which I expect to read, learn from, and not need again.

I still buy printed books: the ones I buy are mostly works to which I expect I will go back on a fairly frequent basis. Recent examples include the latest version of the Chicago Manual of Style, and some technical works from O’Reilly on XML and SQL programming.

As Self-Counsel moves into the ebooks arena, we have plans to do some experimenting with different approaches. Apps are not on that list.


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