I remember stating once that everything could be innovated, and that if you weren’t able to innovate, you probably weren’t trying hard enough. Generally, that mentality holds up, even when it’s a situation that the innovation doesn’t really make a significant difference (such as copyright protection systems, where radical vs linear innovation is needed)
Sometimes, though innovation can be productive but still totally off track for users, and today I have a solid example for you.
Books. We all know them, we all read them (or have done), and they haven’t substantially changed in structure for hundreds of years: it’s still a collection of thin paper sheets with letters inked on them, collated together and bound.
The last thirty years or so has seen a shift away from the centuries-old method of communication, however, even if they are in “pages”. We’ve seen BBSes, televisions with ‘Teletext’, hyper-text documents and particularly the Internet being the greatest example of that, and more recently devices such as the Kindle or the iPad (while having other uses, certainly usage as a book reading device is high)
Each of these innovates on the concept of the book; they all contain pages of information – some contain the ability to display colours, moving on to graphics both coarse (Teletext) and fine (the Internet and its plethora of display devices), and all contain the ability to jump between pages, almost at will – this is the spirit of hyper-text, and probably one of the most significant changes.
In a hyper-text document, be it a PDF or a web page or anything else, you can jump between parts that are related, so instead of reading “turn to page x” or “see chapter y for more”, the text can be a conduit to that information rather than merely a passive pointer, something a conventional book could not do.
It is also possible to send these hyper-text documents through different mediums, over the Internet in many cases, or store them locally for later, meaning that it is possible to distribute the information far faster than conventional books could ever be transported; a single electronic document can reach thousands and thousands of people every second if you so wished.
Additionally with the aforementioned devices such as the Kindle or iPad, it is possible to not only carry around hundreds of volumes in a single conveniently-sized package, but that they also contain powered lighting so that it is possible to lay in bed with the light off and read comfortably, or indeed anywhere similar with low-light conditions.
In those cases, why then do books still sell so well? It is, mostly, in spite of these innovations – the innovations themselves seem to bring the features of books, plus new features, to the mass markets, but as we shall soon see, that is not entirely the case.
Books, as odd as it may seem, have features that cannot be replicated by any multiform or multi-function device. They have a weight related to their content, there is something reassuring about a large book, having a solid, real mass to them; for a textbook on a subject it actually helps encourage the feeling of authority.
There is the physical presence itself, not just its mass – with any of the e-book solutions, there is always the feeling of not really *owning* something, but more that it is licensed for use, while having a physical book demonstrates that ownership.
You can also annotate books; in my youth I studied English Literature, and our reference text was The Lord of the Flies. The only item we were allowed to take into the exam hall aside from stationery was the book itself, and to aid finding relevant passages or quotes, all the copies were annotated by us to help us identify the parts we needed for later. Such a thing is not possible in a digital version, at least not as efficiently or freely as with a book.
There is of course one further practicality; many people I know read in the bath as a way of relaxing – this is possible with the Kindle or iPad but in the event of accidentally dropping the book in the bath, the worst that happens with a book is the need to purchase a new one – often a much lower cost than repurchasing a Kindle or an iPad.
The end result is that we have innovations on the concept of a book, such as the Kindle, that remove some of the weaknesses of books (namely the requirement of light, and the convenience factor of having many ‘books’ in one place) but without carrying all the strengths of books as cited above. It’s not a bad innovation at all, but in some cases perhaps the wrong direction.