Saturday, March 6, 2010

iPad Textbooks

I have no immediate plans to buy an iPad, since it can’t replace either my iPhone or my laptop computer. But as a textbook author, I’m intrigued by the iPad’s possibilities as a book platform.

Following a link from the New York Times, I just read a thoughtful blog essay by Craig Mod on the future of printed and digital books. Mod wisely divides book content into two categories: “formless” (which is trivial to port from one delivery platform to another) and “definite” (which is created with a particular platform in mind, using that platform’s physical features in an essential way). Last year’s digital book platforms--Kindles and iPhones--were fine for formless content, and allow us to foresee a day when these kinds of platforms will be common enough to make most mass-market paperback books obsolete. The iPad, according to Mod, changes the picture by opening up new opportunities for digital definite content.

Mod doesn’t specifically mention textbooks, but they’re discussed in the comments below his essay. Electronic textbooks have some obvious advantages: they’re less bulky; their text can be cross-linked and searchable; they can incorporate multimedia content; and they can link to related content on the web. Also, textbooks are so expensive already that the additional cost of an electronic reading device shouldn’t be much of a barrier.

As an author, I’m attracted not only by these advantages but also by the prospect of no longer having to worry about page breaks. Both of my textbooks were created using TeX, a mathematical typesetting system that mostly frees the author from thinking about form. But inevitably, when a book is full of equations and illustrations, one of the last steps before going to press is to manually tweak the layout to minimize awkward page breaks. Even then, there will be many places where students end up flipping a page back and forth to see what’s on both sides. Electronic books on portable devices won’t show as much information at once, but at least they can (if done correctly) present an entire chapter on a single scrollable page, with no artificial discontinuities.

Unfortunately, the technology for good electronic physics textbooks isn’t yet where it needs to be. For one thing, there still doesn’t seem to be a good way to incorporate complex mathematical equations into electronic documents. In html pages, equations are usually rendered as ugly, low-resolution bitmap images. A pdf document can incorporate equations made of scalable fonts, but you can’t (as far as I know) create a pdf without breaking the document into pages.

Another limitation of electronic textbooks is that it’s hard to scribble notes in the margins. Reading a textbook should be an active experience, during which the student frequently jots down thoughts and questions. (When my thermal physics textbook was published, I made sure the publisher gave it wide margins for students to write in.) Perhaps, though, the iPad can help here. With the right software, a reader should be able to add text annotations to a document using the on-screen keyboard. And with the large touch-screen, it should even be possible to add graphical annotations that include math symbols and sketches.

So even though I don’t yet plan to buy an iPad, I’ll be eager to borrow one and check out the iPad book reading experience.

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