Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mobile e-Books ! > Try Reading Chapter ... ?

New York Times / September 6, 2009 / Digital Domain

Texting? No, Just Trying to Read Chapter 6



Yes, the textbook can be digitized and displayed on gadgets that students can carry everywhere. But the iPhone version is painfully limited in its usefulness.


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. CourseSmart, a software company in San Mateo, Calif., is nonetheless trying.

Last month, it released an iPhone app called eTextbooks, which lets students read their textbooks on the phone. The app itself is free; students buy access rights for a particular textbook title, which is priced at about half the cost of the printed version. The price includes eTextbook access, which the company has offered since 2007 via a Web browser.

CourseSmart was founded by five major textbook publishers — Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, John Wiley & Sons and the Bedford, Freeman, Worth Publishing Group — and now has a catalog of more than 7,000 eTextbook titles.

It’s easy to see why students would want to lug around fewer textbooks — and read them instead on their laptops. It’s also easy to see why they might not want to sign up a second time. Generally, when viewed on a laptop or a PC monitor, just half or two-thirds of a single page is displayed at once. Successive clicks take you to the bottom of that page, to the top of the adjacent page, and to the bottom of that page. After every page change, the screen goes blank momentarily before refreshing.

Frank Lyman, executive vice president of CourseSmart, said that “hundreds of thousands of students across 6,134 institutions” had bought Web subscriptions for their laptops and PCs. But he declined to say what percentage of those students had bought eTextbooks for more than one term since 2007.

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.


TEXTBOOKS are technically better suited to dedicated reading devices, like Amazon’s Kindle or Sony’s Reader; the Kindle DX, Amazon’s largest model, is being used to replace a handful of textbooks in small experiments under way this fall at five colleges and universities, according to Amazon. [snip]

At present, a student without a trust fund is probably not going to get both the printed textbook and a subscription that provides access to the eTextbook version; they are now sold separately. When asked if publishers would be willing to offer both for the price of one, Mr. Stanford said his company was considering offering the eTexbook for a “nominal” price to buyers of the print version. [snip]

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: stross@nytimes.com.



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