After the book

Read this from Bob Stein, of the Institute for the Future of the Book:

the future of the appPost date 08.02.2010, 10:37 AM

posted by bob stein

Assuming that whatever replaces the book in the futurist landscape to come will not be called “a book,” people often ask me why I named our group The Institute for the Future of the Book. My answer has consistently been a variant of the following: while it’s true that whatever replaces the book as a crucial mechanism for moving ideas around time and space is not likely to be called “a book,” since we don’t have that word yet, “book” works better than “institute for the future of discourse” or “institute for thinking about what comes after the book.” I end my answer by suggesting that one day we’ll realize that a word describing a new-fangled object, or perhaps a word referring to a range of behaviors has come to signify the dominant media form which has in fact supplanted the book.

I’ve always assumed that day would be years or even decades off. But recently, while listening to the Flux Quartet play Morton Feldman’s First Quartet on a gently swaying barge in the east river, i suddenly recognized our first candidate — “app.” It’s not the pretty or expressive word I was hoping for, but it feels right.

The aha moment went like this . . . . while zoning in and out of the Feldman piece I started to think about the iPad that I’d been using for the past six weeks — not only for most of my reading, but for playing expressive games like my current favorite, SoundDrop, answering email, surfing the web, watching videos, and listening to music. The iPad has become the center of my media universe, much more than my computer, iPod, or iPhone have ever been. My text used to come in an object we called a book; movies came on tapes, laserdisc, and DVDs, music on records and CDs and games on cartridges and CDs. Now they are all appearing as apps of one sort or another on my iPad.

The distinction between media types was a lot more important during the analog era of the mid-twentieth cenury. In 1950 no one would confuse a novel with a movie or a song with a TV show. But today we have e-books with video sequences, and movies published with extensive text-based supplements. Is Lady Gaga a music star or video star? More

What do you think? And if you’re in the neighborhood on September 13, come to my Meetup here in Mountain View, CA, to discuss it.

A “magic pocket”

The tools of the author’s trade used to be simple and few–something to write with, something to write on. Today we have a lot more help–or distraction, depending on your proclivities.

The computer, with its keyboard, spell-checker, dictation software, gorgeous printing, great organizing abilities, has become indispensable for me. I love to type, and have always hated to write. Typing is liberating for me.

I don’t use spelling and grammar checking features, usually–although I am grateful for it catching my rare spelling mistakes. But I love being able to move things around, to search-and-replace, to change typefaces–like a carpenter who loves her hammer and saw, I love the computer-based tools of my trade.

And then there’s the Internet. Wikipedia. Google. I have to force myself to get up and move around, to focus my eyes on objects at different distances, because I get so engrossed with the almost-infinite wealth of information at my fingertips.

So when I come across a truly useful innovation, I get excited. is one such.

At first it seems like another “hard drive in the cloud”–a site that lets you store your stuff and access it at your convenience.  They’ve been around for years.

What makes Dropbox special? Like so many other amazingly popular developments–think iPod, Facebook, iPad–it’s not the originality of the functionality that makes the wonderfulness. It’s the overall feeling that gears, buttons, levers, and waiting time are out of the way. It bring me back to something Nicholas Negroponte said years ago, when asked what’s the next step beyond personal computing: “Intimacy” was his response.

I think a lot of Apple’s magic, a lot of why the simple Google search screen instantly became more popular than AltaVista, Yahoo!, and others, can be explained by that word, “intimacy.” These engaging experiences feel disintermediated. We feel as if we are in direct contact with what we’re trying to do, with nothing in the way.

That’s how Dropbox feels. You download a program to your Mac, PC, or Linux box. It sets up a special folder on your computer. Anything you put in that folder is automatically, invisibly synced with a secure storage location in the cloud. Any other computer from which you access your Dropbox account–and even your iPhone, with some limitations–can then access the same information. Dropbox makes sure everything is all in sync, all the time.

It’s free for up to 2 gigs. (You can get additional increments of 250 megs for each person you refer, up to 8 gigs; that’s why the link above is my affiliate link.) For 50 gigs, it’s $9.99/month or $99.99/year.

What would you use it for? Well, backups, for one–painless, unattended backups. Sharing large files, for another.

Dropbox says it’s like a magic pocket–put stuff in it from any computer, retrieve it from any other. I like that image.

iPad, take 2 (or 3; they’re small…)

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Actually, it’s the headlines that are most entertaining–at least here in Silicon Valley. First there was the Steve Jobs performance at the announcement–speculations about his health; comments on his presentation style; and ultimately, admission by Valley and industry insiders of their own iPad lust.

Act 2: Between the announcement and the delivery, all the comments on what’s missing from the device–multitasking; built-in camera; Flash…

Act 3: Press and commentators love the iPad, gushing over it. But yesterday’s San Jose Mercury-News: “Not clear if consumers will like it.” Oh, yeah? Just let them at it, and we’ll see…

I think it’s a milestone. Yeah, it is a bigger iPhone, without a 2-year contract. But it’s more than that: It’s a gorgeous, light, sexy, powerful thingy that does video and audio, has a decent typing solution, and just makes you want to touch it. It is the Kindle you fantasized about (and the Kindle app is one of the first on the device).

What does it mean to the world of books? It adds acceleration to the ebook phenomenon. It opens up the market for multimedia books, with movies, sound, and links built-in. Personally, that excites me; much as I love print books, and love to write them, being able to include sound, movies, and links in my creations really gets my creative juices flowing.

So, yeah, it’s expensive, and the early adopters will be the gadget-lovers. But if it really can bring the sensuous iPhone experience to more-efficient typing and browsing than you can do on the small iPhone screen, and it sure looks like it can, I think it will quickly capture many hearts and minds and credit cards. Amazon has sold over 1.5 million Kindles at $300-$400, with no color and much less functionality. I don’t think the current exuberant estimate of 6 million iPads by the end of 2010 is unbelievable. (Actually, I just checked–Morgan Stanley is projecting over 10 million!)

And yes, I want one.

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