Monday, 23 August 2010

The future of electonic textbooks (?)

In my previous post I talked about creating an e-book in EPUB format. Although it is nice to have this flexible format, this flexibily requires sacrificing some layout options. Especially for electronic textbooks, which usually use a lot of heavy graphics and tables, EPUB is simply not an option.

A couple of days ago, Inkling released it's iPad app. Inkling was, I think, the first company to announce (a couple of days after the iPad launch) a new style of publishing, specifically for electronic textbooks. What they delivered is a big improvement over both .epub and PDF.

The app includes a store where you can purchase a (still very small) selection of books. Although it seems quite USA-minded, I had no trouble setting up an account and downloading a chapter on evolution from a biology textbook. The neat thing here is that one can actually download a single chapter for a couple of bucks, no need to buy the whole book. The free demo chapter in the biology book, 'The Chemical Building Blocks of Life', shows how books can be improved by for example including interactive 3D-molecules. Another nice feature is the addition of informational popups for difficult concepts, removing the need for the more traditional (and annoying) searching in the index. There is of course also highlighting, note-taking, and bookmarking. The note-taking is especially interesting, since it introduces a social element, allowing to share notes with other students in real time.

Related to this, I want to mention a local effort to revolutionize electronic reading and studying. An Amsterdam based start-up is busy setting up a platform called widescript. The beta is still to be released, but they promise some interesting note-taking features similar, if not better, compared to Inkling. Also, a big advantage is the online cross-platform set-up, which will not constrict anyone to using the iPad (as Inkling does). It will be interesting to see how this particular setup works out!

In the end, the success of these examples will rely on content. Obviously we can't wait for this content to become available for these new ways of reading and engaging in electronic textbooks. At least the first steps seem to move in the right direction!

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