MONTREAL -- E-books are the talk of the publishing world, but they are drawing more interest among professional communicators and instructional designers, too, and EduCause and the New Media Consortium has named them as a trend likely to affect education in the next year.
Several pieces of evidence suggest that e-books are still in their infancy, however.
One is that hardware and software formats still proliferate. Two broad categories exist and, even within them, various standards compete for supremacy:
? Purpose-built e-book readers, such as the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Sony e-Reader. Each has its own market. Barnes & Noble's Nook has a strong appeal for women, for example, according to a recent New York Times story.
Although many believe that EPUB is the file format used on all e-reader devices, it is not. In fact, the Kindle does not support it.
? Tablets, such as the iPad and Playbook. The iPad has its own proprietary bookstore with iBooks, but the makers of other devices make compatible software for it. For example, Kindle has an app that works on the iPad, so people can read Kindle books on an iPad. Similar apps are available for tablets running under Android and Windows.
Another piece of evidence has to do with the definition of an e-book. Some people see the future of electronic books as interactive, multimedia experiences like the demonstration version of Sports Illustrated prepared by the Wonderfactory. Yet despite those images, and claims like the one by a tweeter at May's STC Technical Communication Summit that a PDF is not an e-book, many of the magazines for the Nook are PDF files. And readers do not appear to be complaining about them. Perhaps that gap between e-books' potential and what readers are willing to use can be explained by early adopters' enthusiasm for what is essentially a new medium.
Not everyone is so willing to accept e-books, though: several research studies suggest that, despite the acknowledged benefits of e-book readers -- including portability and the lower cost of books -- readers are still having difficulty giving up printed books. That includes young readers.
One study noted that students believe that tablets will transform college -- but most do not own one. And when they have used them, the study found that students had some practical problems, like writing notes in books.
Another important indicator that we are in the early stages of the digital transition is that business models for e-books are still being defined -- and publishers of books have different allegiances than those of magazines. Book publishers embraced the iPad and iBooks because Apple was going to charge more for e-books than Amazon, which had insisted on $9.99 for popular titles.
In contrast, magazine publishers are as frustrated with Apple as book publishers were with Amazon. Until earlier this year, Apple would not let publishers offer subscriptions. Even when they do, Apple won't provide magazines with information on subscribers, which is essential for advertiser-supported publications. In contrast, Barnes & Noble has partnered with magazines to offer subscriptions and provide the publications with data on their readers.
Here's one last bit of evidence that e-books remain in their infancy: despite the increasing popular interest, there is a noticeable lack of empirical research on them. Few studies exist and, of those that do, most merely explore attitudes towards e-books.
Saul Carliner is director of the Education Doctoral Program and associate professor of educational technology at Concordia University in Montreal. He has written seven books, including Training Design Basics.
This piece was originally posted on his blog, Critical Reflections by Saul Carliner, which you can find on the Web at saulcarliner.blogspot.com.