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Do Kindles (and other e-readers) need better ways to annotate?

The holy grail for Kindles might not be better screens, but more organic interfaces.


An interesting report from Princeton University regarding its pilot program to test Kindle DX units in an academic environment has revealed something notable: namely, that Kindles still feel awkward to students currently in college. Feedback from some students complained about the Kindle's annotation system being "too slow" to keep up with the thinking of a reader who wants to effortlessly mark up text. Others called the entire Kindle device "a poor excuse for an academic tool."

This matches a fear I've had since using my iPhone as a makeshift mini-Kindle, replacing my own reading of paper books for recreation and research: while I enjoy the portability and capacity that e-readers provide, their lack of tangible material creates a helpless feeling for those who enjoy note-taking, highlighting, or otherwise interacting with their books. Unlike my iPhone, however, the Kindle DX was intended to be a savior for universities, an educational aid to rival the old textbook industry. According to this first wave of Princeton feedback, however, it still has a long way to go.

Rather than focus on size or screens, maybe the real holy grail for e-readers of the future lies in finding ways to make digital text as easy to interact with as possible. Apple, we hope you're listening, because if the doorway's open for you to take over the e-reader industry with your magazine-redefining tablet, this might be the best path to true success. One good place to start would be adopting a universal pagination system across all e-books, since, as one Princeton student points out, citing references from a digital document is nearly impossible--using page references from Kindle's numbering system is useless for anyone else. Maybe the problem is that e-readers are trying to simulate the book experience too much.

Another area for improvement could be in developing ways to inventively share and discuss references and pieces of content. For one, e-readers could effortlessly interact with e-mail, wireless communication, and other technology to enable sharing and even commenting to be more easily aggregated. E-readers could adopt the sorts of innovations that online document-collaboration software already provides. Imagine if professors and classes could discuss documents and have note-based discussions completely within the margins of a digital document, for instance, with live updating. Instead, Kindles and other e-readers are on islands, basically capable of being dumb terminals for data and little else.

The lacking "organic feeling" that some of the quoted students' sentiments echo is an area that a company with great experience in user interfaces--such as Apple--could address. Or, hopefully, Microsoft's Courier project will explore these ideas as well. For the iPhone, some programs such as Classics have experimented with adding book-like page-turning animations and other effects to make the digital experience seem less sterile, but we still need to find new ways to define what e-reading can be. Perhaps future e-readers could borrow annotation ideas from the success of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which have found unique solutions to how users discuss, annotate, and "clip" material. If devices like Kindles are really opening themselves up to developers, perhaps this is the direction they should pursue instead of crossword puzzle anthologies.

And, needless to say, there's still the lingering fear of Big Brother Amazon wiping all your carefully-made notes out, along with your entire book, too, all while you sleep.

Going back to my iPhone Kindle, I still love how portable it is on subways. But months after my summer elation, I've found myself sneaking paper books back into my bag--especially for volumes I use for research as opposed to recreation.

Should e-readers be more cloud-based and set up to share information between users? That's something I'd love to see. How about you? What would make you less apprehensive about adopting an e-reader into your life?