iPhone Cramps Digital Textbooks

For over a decade we’ve longed to hear that the day of the digital textbook had arrived, and last month we announced, “That day appears to have come.” (Pub Industry Braces for Schwarzeneggrification of Textbooks)

Did we put an asterisk next to that announcement? If not, we should have. Randall Stross, in the New York Times, reminds us that not every screen is suitable for textbook reading, especially for math and science texts, the very kind that California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been pressing his state’s school system to adopt.

Other states, and just about everyone in the $5.5 billion textbook publishing industry, are watching the experiment to see if it’s going to fly. There’s no doubt that it is. It just may not fly on the iPhone, writes Stross in the Times‘s Digital Domain column. “The iPhone has a grand total of six square inches of display. In my opinion, no amount of ingenuity will enable textbooks to squeeze into a credit-card-size space.” Stross contrasts iPhone’s screen to the 155 square inches of the two-page spread in a typical textbook, then details some of the problems with a San Mateo software company called CourseSmart:

The iPhone app from CourseSmart does not reformat the print textbook’s contents for display on a small screen. Instead, it uses a PDF image of each page, as does the browser-based version of its eTextbook. All of the charts, graphs and design elements are intact, but everything — including the text — is indecipherably small without zooming in. Enlarging the text to legible size introduces the need to scroll left and right for each line, which quickly grows tedious.

PDFs on a tiny screen are not what the e-book industry’s founding mothers and fathers had in mind when they envisioned a reading device in the backpack of every student. The essence of e-text is reflow-ability. Graphs, charts, formulas and other fundamental textbook features must literally be able to go with the flow. If you can’t read all of a formula on the screen, or if a graph is on one page and you can’t match it instantly to the text, or if back-and-forthing between pages means a wait of ten or fifteen seconds, a textbook is close to useless, maybe worse than useless.

Whenever we referred to educational applications we always had in mind a dedicated reading device of laptop or tablet size and functionality. See for instance our analysis of developments in this area, Kindle Sequel on the Way, But Will It Play on Campus? Stross’s article only reinforces our rock-solid certainty that the key to e-textbooks is the tablet, and you’ll never see an asterisk next to that declaration.

Here’s Stross’s article in full: Texting? No, Just Trying to Read Chapter 6

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.

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