The problems with digital text – Sophie

I was logged into MSN when one of friends nudged me, wanting to show me something important. The conversation we had went something like this:

Friend: Have you heard of Sophie?

Me: No.

Friend: No? You write a blook and you don’t know what Sophie is?

Me: …

She led me to a few pages, and I downloaded the introduction to Sophie, wondering what in the world it was. Apparently Sophie is a reading software touted as the next format for eBooks, all eBooks. The Institute for the Future of The Book (what a mouthful) is behind this effort, and it’s got some interesting points at the current limitations of digital text. Let’s take a look at the various forms of digital media and what they say are the drawbacks of each platform:

  1. PDFs – According to their introduction, PDFs – being the accepted format for eBooks at the moment – have severe limitations that hinder its acceptance as a replacement for proper (real) books. What exactly? Well, PDFs aren’t easily editable, has no dedicated content creation system to allow users, any users, to insert forms, buttons, audio and video into the content, and merely ‘represents paper in a digital environment’. A passage describes PDFs in such a manner:

    Creating a PDF remains very similar to printing a document: the printout is static compared to the living document, a snapshot of one instance in a document’s life. If you want to make changes to the text, you’re generally out of luck: instead, you’re going to have to remake the document in the program that created it, which you, the reader, might not have.

  2. Online text – Millions of readers read written text on the net everyday – a look at Technorati charting the ups and downs of the blogosphere is enough confirmation of this. And the web is flexible – with xml a book can both appear on the web and in PDF format. Blooks are proabably at the forefront of this phenomenon – since blogging platforms bring disparate technologies on a single platform – RSS feeds, links, ease of use – you name it, blogs probably have it. But the creators of Sophie point out to certain things they want to see on digital books – like comments on a specific paragraph, or illustrations (say, hosted on Flickr) for specific pages or chapters. And then there’s the issue of the way electronic screens tire the eyes. Big chunks of text aren’t very eye friendly (like this one, for example). They’ve been experimenting with presenting books online – check an example of this here – the format is pretty cool.
  3. Time – Digital media can’t last. This is very true – while print books can last milleniums, the problem with digital text is that it is rendered useless everytime a major operating system is changed. HTML may be fine and dandy now, but who can tell how the digital landscape would look like a couple of years from now (even as I type this there’s controversy about Microsoft’s Vista launch and a language called XAML, touted to replace HTML … but that’s another story altogether). To overcome this, the creators wrote Sophie in a platform-independent environment – to put it in layman’s terms – Sophie should be able to run on any operating sytem as long as there’s a sizeable need.

A lot of their points are logical and well thought out, and it really seems as if Sophie can help bring digital text to a whole new level. I’ve a few questions about it, however – if users are allowed to edit books and add in notes in the margins, how are these ‘notes’ to be governed? What is to stop a few users from grabbing hold of, say, a copy of a book about Gaming Theory, stuff it full of advertisements and videos and pictures, and then re-release the book? The Institute should have some way of limiting the spread of books of questionable quality, and in the digital world making millions of copies of an ad filled book is very easy.

Whatever the kinks, I’m looking forward to Sophie. A lot of the points in the introduction (download it here) are genuinely groundbreaking – you can’t add ‘scribbles in the margins’ in blooks, for example, nor can you create sideshows of videos, images, music and words (which actually almost sounds like Flash, and gives new definition to the word ‘eBook’). Here’s to hoping this great-sounding technology finds its place in the world of the written word as soon as possible.

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