Electric Prayer

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and other things.

e-books: what is the missing ingredient?

Posted by universalis on 18 May 2009

There is a debate in the e-book world – well, not so much a debate as an extended rumination – about how to make e-books worth more to the people who buy them. We know the conveniences by now – easy portability – and the inconvenience – slowness for flicking through, and expense when you leave them on the train. New e-book readers are coming on the market every week or so, and people do buy them. But still the question remains: how do we make people want e-books, and how do we make them want them more than they want books? As Joe Wikert says, “Figure out how to add more value to the ebook“. But how?

This post will give a possible answer to that question, and also give an explanation to the people who email me every day to ask whether there’s going to be a version of Universalis for the Amazon Kindle (and if not, why not).

For those who don’t know about it: Universalis gives prayers, psalms, readings and other texts for each day according to the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. It’s absolutely and classically an e-book: each day there are seven “pages”, some of them several paper pages long. You pick your date, you read your page. That’s it. You can see a preview for yourself, free, at www.universalis.com.

If it were that easy, we’d have been on the Kindle long ago. But of course it isn’t that easy. Take today, for example. 18 May is the feast of Pope St John I, and the About Today page will tell you all about him – martyred as a result of going to Constantinople to ask the Emperor to be kinder to Arian heretics: it’s a long story. In 2009, 18 May is the 6th Monday in Eastertide: next year, the 7th Tuesday in Eastertide; in 2016, it won’t be in Eastertide at all. A lot of the psalms and readings depend on this, so 18 May one year is different from 18 May in another. 2009’s pattern won’t recur till 2020, then 2093, then 2099. The printed book handles this by making you flick to half a dozen different places in a 2000-page book, just to put together the content for a single day. That’s why people like Universalis. Out of the 34×365=12,000 possible days, Universalis picks the right one and synthesizes the pages for it, and that’s that.

Today’s e-books are a cold dead slab of text, plus decorations – tables of contents, indexes, perhaps even hyperlinks and some sort of search. But still, under it all, the same old cold dead slab. A dead-slab version of Universalis would have to list every possible page for every possible day: 90,000 pages or so. That would be huge. It would be mad. People wouldn’t download it. That’s why Universalis is done differently. It’s a 5MB download: a database plus a small program that creates the pages. The pages don’t exist till you ask for them: that’s why it’s so small, and fast, and easy.

For an e-book to be better than a book, it has to be alive. In other words, it has to be programmable.

The Amazon Kindle isn’t a programmable device. The Sony eReader isn’t a programmable device. Other e-book readers aren’t programmable devices. Until they are, Universalis won’t be readable on them. There will be many other projects that won’t happen on them either – until they are programmable.

It’s a big investment but it has to be made. The e-book won’t conquer the world until it’s more than just decorated slabtext. The trouble is that the investment needed to make a device programmable but still reliable is enormous. Only Apple has really succeeded so far, with the iPhone / iPod Touch. Will anyone else even try?

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9 Responses to “e-books: what is the missing ingredient?”

  1. bowerbird said

    > The trouble is that the investment needed
    > to make a device programmable but still reliable
    > is enormous.

    as a long-time programmer of various e-book apps,
    i can tell you with confidence that that’s not really true.

    -bowerbird

  2. Bowerbird, can you expand?

    I should say that a programmer of e-book apps is not the same as a designer of programmable e-book devices.

    A non-programmable e-book device such as the Kindle runs only one program: the one built in to the device by Amazon.

    A programmable e-book device has to accept programs written by absolutely anyone, even people who don’t know what they are doing.

    On the Kindle, there does not need to be any restriction as to what can be loaded or installed on it. On a programmable device, there does: the programs will have bugs that cause them to fail or even cause other programs to fail.

    This is acceptable in computers because we know that this is the way that computers behave, but it is not acceptable in appliances. My refrigerator should not suddenly fail to store fish simply because I have bought the wrong brand of milk.

    The best example of a device that attempts to be programmable without being like a computer is the mobile phone – and the investment that mobile phone manufacturers are putting into making their devices both programmable and reliable is immense. Whether it’s the iPhone, with a sandboxed environment and rigorous conformity testing, or the Blackberry, relying on Java for security, investments have to be made in both architecture and infrastructure.

    In a market where so many e-books can be passive documents, the benefits of programmability may not be enough to justify the additional investment.

  3. bowerbird said

    > I should say that a programmer of e-book apps is
    > not the same as a designer of programmable e-book devices.

    true. but once you’ve programmed enough e-book apps,
    you know what the parameters of variability need to be,
    so you’re much smarter when it comes to creating an app
    that’s flexible enough to be considered as “programmable”.

    > A non-programmable e-book device such as the Kindle
    > runs only one program: the one built in to the device by Amazon.
    > A programmable e-book device has to accept programs written by
    > absolutely anyone, even people who don’t know what they are doing.

    the “device” you’re talking about is a computer, obviously, so
    the ability to “accept programs written by absolutely anyone”
    isn’t all that big of a deal.

    but more to the point, above and beyond the programmability of
    the _device_, you can create an _app_ that gives a content-creator
    enough flexibility that they can create a book that is “programmed”.

    the degree to which this resembles a traditional “computer language”
    is up in the air, but given today’s scripting languages, it can be broad.

    there is also a large degree to which it can be _implicit_. for instance,
    the treatment of the items in a table of contents as _links_, or even as
    _buttons_ that act as links, is something that doesn’t need to be explicit.

    -bowerbird

  4. Can you create an app for the Kindle?

  5. bowerbird said

    > Can you create an app for the Kindle?

    not currently. and amazon might never turn on that capacity.
    (there’s a chip inside, of course, so the possibility of putting
    programs on the machine is always there, at least in theory.)

    and i agree completely with you that, without some kind of
    programmability, e-books will be unnecessarily hobbled…

    indeed, i believe that to be an astute observation.

    and that’s why i feel that these dumb dedicated devices
    will eventually be rejected by the public as too limited…
    why put a chip in people’s hands, then so and neuter it?
    (the only “good” reason to do that is to enable the d.r.m.,
    which is another reason the public will reject that model.)

    my only quibble with you is that — in my humble opinion —
    you overstated the difficulty and cost of creating that option.

    -bowerbird

  6. bowerbird said

    i said:
    > why put a chip in people’s hands, then so and neuter it?

    i meant:
    > why put a chip in people’s hands, then go and neuter it?

    -bowerbird

  7. Jason said

    I have been thinking about purchasing the kindle or other e reader for sometime. I thought that some of them come with the ability to subscribe to newspapers that get updated daily wirelessly. I understand this would be hugely impratical for an operation like Unversalis, but how about a monthly download. A few times I was to be away from a computer for awhile and copied and printed several days of Unversalis to a word file to print out, it came to under 6 pages a day. (No mass readings, Our Father and Glory Be first line only, no repeated antphons, small font) Even withoout these concessions the “book” for a month shouldn’t be much more that 400 pages.

    This is from amazon.com

    Top U.S. newspapers including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post; top magazines including TIME, Atlantic Monthly, and Forbes—all auto-delivered wirelessly.

    change daily to monthly and forget the auto delivery

    • We’ve just added a feature that lets anyone who has the Windows version of Universalis create their own e-book versions for the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. These can be for a single day, or a week, or a month at a time.

      This is much simpler for us than if we had to generate all those e-books ourselves, and it gives you a great deal more control over what you get. It’s also cheaper! This page has the details.

  8. Gaudeul said

    Would it be possible to choose the order in which the various hours are disposed ?
    For instance : 1. Invitatory ; 2. Lauds ; 3. Midday ; 4. Readings ; 5. Vespers ; 6. Complines ?

    Anyway, thank you very much for Universali which is a great help to me. Wonderful work.
    Happy New Year !

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