Apparently Apple is about to announce some kind of new gadget in the next week or so, and it’s going to revolutionise everything all over again. Although nobody thinks that the new device is going to be a mere e-book reader, it looks like it’s going to be at least an e-book reader, with Apple rumoured to be in talks with Hachette, HarperCollins and others to secure electronic distribution of their titles. The idea would be a sort of iTunes store for books as well as journals and the existing music, movies and TV shows.
I never thought I would have considered a tablet computer or e-book reader, but now I think there’s a good chance I’ll buy the Apple one. What happened to me? Honestly: it was the iPhone. Another rumour has it that the iPhone was born out of something called the “Safari Pad”, a touchscreen tablet-style device intended for web browsing that Steve Jobs finessed into the smartphone we all know and mostly love. That decision now seems to have been an inspired one, about developing the market as much as the technology.
I bought an iPhone because I already had an iPod, I listened to a lot of music and podcasts and could never get them to work seamlessly enough with whatever smartphone I hoped would solve it all for me. I just wanted to carry fewer gadgets and have more free pockets, and the iPhone fit the bill. I hadn’t ever thought of reading books on it, because that wasn’t remotely possible on either previous phones or iPods. The closest thing I’d done on either kind of device was listening to audiobooks, which I do like a lot, though I’ve always found there’s something unwieldy about them: you can’t read at your own pace, it’s hard to flip back and forward to find things you may have missed or misunderstood, you can’t copy out bits that you like.
But I got a couple of free books for the iPhone and started reading them, just because they were there and I didn’t have anything else to read on the bus or waiting in the pub. I downloaded the Shakespeare application, like most people do. I got the Kindle application and bought a book or two. I was sent a first draft of a new novel by e-mail and instead of printing it out I read it on the iPhone. It wasn’t ideal, the screen was too small, it wasn’t particularly comfortable to hold, but instead of thinking it was all rubbish and I’d go back to paperbacks, I started thinking: what if the screen were bigger? If the contrast were better? And then: what if I could easily search through the book, make notes to myself, copy and paste passages? What if, any time I didn’t know a word or a historical reference, I could just tap on it for its definition or Wikipedia entry? By being almost good enough, the iPhone suggested what would come after it, and began to persuade me that I needed something I’d never thought about before.
And then I started thinking: what if, having bought a paperback for reading around the house and making the bookshelves look good, I could pay an extra buck or two to download the electronic version? And what if the audiobook were just a couple of bucks more? (The Kindle has a text-to-speech function available for some titles, but it’s no substitute for a proper reader, who does need to be paid: I don’t know how much of the price of an audiobook goes towards its production, how much is for the underlying work.) What if I could switch between the text version and the spoken version when I had to walk somewhere, and switch back when I sat down again, or when I wanted to make a note or a quote or look something up—and it always knew where I was up to? I still think I’d favour the paper version, and use the others when circumstances demanded, but I’m not sure about that. I can imagine the convenience and versatility of the electronic versions might trump even the pleasure of paper.
At the moment I’m reading my wife’s paperback copy of Cormac McCarthy’s brutal Blood Meridian together with the audiobook version narrated by Richard Poe that I bought a while ago, and looking up many of McCarthy’s old-west names and places from my iPhone. I feel like there may be a reading experience even richer than the one we’re used to around the corner. As always, the challenge will be to make sure all the rights are dealt with effectively and realistically, to make sure creators are rewarded without stifling innovation or alienating readers. If we don’t get in our own way too much we could offer a new generation of readers something that we’ve never had before. And to have the latest McCarthy bloodfest up there on the same page, in the same search results as the latest Dexter episode or High School Musical instalment or Jay-Z protégé, just as accessible and nearly as flashy and cool—that’s got to be a good thing for the written word.
Paddy Power now has a market on what Apple will call the new product, with “iPad” almost unbackable at 1:5. I always thought it would be cute to call it the iSaac, a synthesis of the overused i-prefix with the original and much-loved Newton MessagePad that let Dolph down so badly in the picture above. But I acknowledge that that would be an extremely nerdy and unlikely name, and Paddy Power prefers even the “EtchaSketch” (at 500:1).