Monday, March 13, 2006

Bookmarks 2.0

At present, the common bookmark fulfills one purpose: marking a reader's current location in a book, by cutting the book into a "read" section and an "unread" section. Today's bookmarks do this quite well, with a few exceptions:
  • bookmarks fall out of books (Exception #1)
  • a bookmark's sides may be similar or identical, thereby marking pages n and n+1
  • bookmarks only mark a page number, with no further line-granularity
After re-reading this very short list, I realize that these points are quite lame, save the last, in which the key word is only.

There is much being done about replacing paper-based books with e-versions. While this may occur at some point in the far-flung future, it seems quite possible that the average consumer will continue buying the p-version, thereby maintaining a high p/e ratio. (...whatever that means.)

Perhaps an intermediate step before completely electronifying the book would be to add an electronic accessory to it - the electronic bookmark. This would be a very thin device, shaped like a typical bookmark, but perhaps a bit wider. The e-mark would allow for input (stylus or finger) and output (thin-display technology) through some form of mini-browser, and would be wirelessly connected to the web.

What would this then allow for?
  • searches
  • tagging
  • annotation
  • definitions
  • social reading
  • virtual book clubs
  • custom illustrations
  • immediate access to outside sources or references
  • bookmarking
Searching for character names, author biographies, location references and word definitions would be a snap, even more so with direct access to a book's skeleton file, a document containing relevant indexing information for all aspects of the book (content, index, publisher, bibliography, etc.)

Tagging of chapters, pages, paragraphs and sentences would allow content hunters to search for their results in a less algorithmic (ie. typical search-engine-like) manner.

Annotation lets you make virtual margin notes on any page, regardless of how small the actual margins are. Glance at other readers' annotations for tips, insights, and different points of view. (No more of this type of Fermatian excuse: "The proof is quite simple, but I don't have enough room in the margins to demonstrate it.")

Any number of social book applications could be built and accessed through the e-mark: virtual bookclubs, social reading, custom illustrations, errata lists, etc.

Assuming a project such as Google Books allows for snippets (or a bit more) to be pulled out, references and outside sources (primary, secondary, ...) could be fetched to elucidate and illuminate various passages.

And of course, bookmarking. A higher level of bookmark granularity could be achieved using a mechanical slider to indicate which line you're stopping at. This could be a backup to the digital version: a small pointer, enabled by a quick tap of a fingertip.

But, all of this neat functionality literally flies out the window if "Exception #1" occurs above. The bookmark may fall out of the book (and it might be an expensive bookmark). So, another non-digital technology, the elastic band, could be used to secure the e-mark to the p-book.

I think e-marks would be more quickly adopted by readers as an extension to books than would e-books themselves. Asking people to completely replace a proven "technology" (books) with a new one (however cool it may be) can be met with frustrating non-compliance (think Segway). However, boosting the typical reading experience with a new gadget may be a welcome stepping stone to Books 2.0.


Oshoma Momoh said...

Neat idea. I often find myself searching for references when reading a book. Do you think, though, that this device would deliver enough functionality, or would people instead keep falling back to a full PC?

You are right that it's often easier to grease the skids on something that already has momentum (physical books and bookmarks) than to introduce something entirely new (e-books).

The main barrier on these types of devices is always cost. Especially any sort of screen.

Maybe sell the concept to Google or Microsoft. File some patents first though. :)

Sean O'Hagan said...

Why not simply add some "reading" software to a standard wireless handheld? That could certainly be useful. But if the form-factor of the "e-mark" could be made to resemble that of a typical bookmark, it's possible that a much broader market could be reached. My parents will never own PDAs, but might be quite curious about an electronic bookmark.

If we think of the device as functionally homomorphic to a handheld, then its functionality is almost limitless. So I really shouldn't have to get up from the lounge chair or out bed when I'm reading, to check a reference.

I think screen costs are going to plummet once advertisers adopt thin-display technology. Products on grocery store shelves will have animation drawing in consumers; video game boxes will have mini demos running on them; DVD cases will run movie trailers, etc. Of course, this a few years off, but screens are going to become a commodity, soon. (I hope.)

I have mixed feelings about patents. On the one hand, I'd like to patent all of my ingenious (ha ha) ideas, but on the other, I don't really like the patent industry. If Joe Canadian has an incredible idea, he has to fork out an incredible amount of money to patent it. It seems as if it's all set up for large, profitable entities, who can afford to patent almost anything they can get by the beleaguered patent officers.

To Google or Microsoft: this concept is for sale. :)

Jonathan said...

Sean - thanks for adding a reference to this post from my paper on isomorphic bookmarks. It is remarkable to see how the isomorphic bookmark represents a general solution to the (n,n+1) problem and the line-granularity problem mentioned in your post.

In fact, we may conjecture the following. Consider a point ℙ in a book B. We say that ℙ is in an O'Hagan space ℧ if ℙ is a function of n, n+1, and line-granularity ℊ, where 0 < n ≤ ℕ and ℕ is the total number of pages in the book. Or expressed more succinctly, ℧: ℙ → ℙ(n, n+1, ℊ).