A Task Force of One

This morning my computer asked if I wanted to continue reading my book on the last page I read on the computer or on the last page I read on the phone. I picked the phone because I had read from it more recently. The computer sent me to the right page. I read for a while. I did something else. I picked up the phone again and opened my book. It sent me to the last page I had read on the computer. I love device syncing.

This changes the experience of reading in so many ways. If I find myself waiting around somewhere, I have access to dozens of potential books to read (or thousands if I factor in the Amazon store) from my phone, a device I probably already had on me whether I knew I was going to be waiting around or not.

We’ve had storms and threats of storms yesterday and today. I found myself thinking, “I better make sure my phone is fully charged so I can finish my book.” Then I thought, “Or I could just read a book that doesn’t have to be charged.”

Likewise, if I’d just been reading a book, I wouldn’t worry about how the computer knew where I stopped before. I’d pick it up and start back where I left off without thinking about it. I’ll probably miss the simple tactile nature of reading when I’ve fully transitioned into buying all of my books electronically. I’m already halfway there. I don’t own a Kindle or an iPad yet, but I have the Kindle application on my phone and on my laptop. I download books straight from Amazon.

I’m also a big fan of audio books, and I’d say I download an average of four books a month from Audible.com. I carry them around on an iPod that remembers for me where I’ve stopped.

I read a lot. I’ve always read a lot. But I don’t have a lot of time for reading, so this is how I have shuffled books into my day. I listen in the car. I read from my phone while I’m waiting to see people. I read a chapter here and there on my computer while I’m taking a break from other jobs. Five minutes stolen at multiple points throughout the day using devices that are with me anyway. This is how reading happens in a digitized life.

I’ve been thinking about my own reading habits as I think about my new job of co-chairing a task force on the iPad. For all I know I could be the only person on this task force. We haven’t met. I wasn’t at the meeting where the issue came up. I only heard about it inadvertently. I take comfort in the term co-chair, though, implying that there are at least two of us. Possibly more.

Nonetheless, I’m on the job. I’ve been reading my Kindle books on my phone and wondering how my campus might manage to go to all ebooks within two years, as I have heard the president of my school said we would do at the meeting I did not attend.

At first I thought of iPads as a literal goal. iPad for all textbooks by 2012. That I found shocking. The cheapest version costs nearly as much as tuition at my school. If the cost of textbooks comes down enough, that could justify purchasing the device for full-time students. But what about students taking only one class at a time? What about students registered from online classes through other schools? What about dual enrollment students? The what abouts are staggering.

Then it hit me.

If I had an iPad, it would be my first choice of all the devices I own for an ebook reader. I’d pick it up first at home. I’d take it with me on trips. But then I would still read a book partially from my phone and partially from my laptop because those happened to be the most convenient devices at the time. My Kindle books are housed in an online library at Amazon. They sync across multiple devices. I don’t have to purchase them multiple times to access them from three or four different gadgets.

The iPad is just a metaphor here. The goal is the book itself.

We can expect even poor rural students to own some sort of Internet device. Their courses all use Blackboard. They have to have some form of Internet access to even be in school.

A netbook computer might cost half the price of an iPad, and it can run a Kindle app. If the question is whether we can expect our students to all be able to download an e-reader application to a device of their own choosing within two years, the answer is yes. That isn’t a shocking expectation at all.

I’m left with two real questions then:

(1) Will the textbook companies be ready with ebooks that our faculty find satisfactory in every discipline by that time?
(2) Will the textbook companies adopt an industry standard for ebook file formats so that one application would suffice for all of the textbooks a student needs to purchase?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, and I figure the iPad task force has devoted enough attention to this for one rainy Saturday.