calculator Marco Arment, developer of the Instapaper offline webpage reading iPhone app, has posted a blog entry about his decision to implement page-turning in addition to scrolling in the latest version of Instapaper.

He uses two Macintosh calculator programs—the traditional one (left) and a different one called Soulver—as an example to explain why it is a bad idea to try to make computer interfaces resemble the physical item they are impersonating.

The traditional app is essentially a virtual pocket calculator, complete with rows and rows of clickable little buttons—which are entirely redundant given that you have a full physical keyboard in front of you—and only a single line on which to display numbers. Soulver, on the other hand, is just a display window with room for multiple lines of equations—and as a result can be much more useful for extended operations.

Arment explains that Instapaper’s paging is not a slide-animation but a simple crossfade, because the crossfade is faster and less distracting—and because the point was to improve the reading experience, not to imitate an arbitrary physical object.

DVD players don’t make fake whirring noises for five minutes before letting you eject a disc to simulate rewinding. Similarly, nobody should need to perform a full-width swipe gesture and wait two seconds for their fake page to turn in their fake book, and nobody should need to click the fake Clear button and start their calculation over because their fake calculator only has a one-line, non-editable fake LCD.

This is a lesson that it would be nice if more e-book app programmers would remember. We don’t need fancy imitation pages, ribbon bookmarks, and page-flipping animations with sound effects that look and sound just like you’re turning a page in a “real” book. Just give us the text in a readable font. We don’t need a wooden shelf with book icons displayed in rows. Just give us lists of titles and authors.

It’s sort of an “uncanny valley” effect: the more you make an e-book “look like” a paper book, the less it seems like one—and the harder it is to read without distraction.

Of course, judging from the screenshots so far, iBooks is probably going to be a disappointment in that regard.


  1. While we don’t need “cute” graphics that look like a bookshelf to manage books on our e-readers, just sorted lists, presentation is important,and should not be dismissed simply because a bare bones approach will work.

  2. I’m an avid reader of ebooks and have been for many years. Today I read most of my ebooks on Stanza, on an iPod Touch. Stanza does page turn animations which through the 15 to 20 books I’ve read over the past six months hasn’t really presented any distraction from my enjoyment of the books.

    While I do not see a need displaying a background bookcase in iBooks, all of the rest of the presentation, down to the opening books and page turning look like a well designed and implemented application, regardless of it looking like a paper book.

  3. You could use the same reasoning that all anyone needed in an Operating System was a command line. You could argue, and people actually did, that Graphic User Interfaces simply over complicated computers obscuring simple tasks making the operating system less usable.

    Yeah, DOS was all you really needed so don’t worry your little brain about that Windows stuff.

  4. The first TV programs were essentially visual versions of radio shows… and it showed. However, eventually creators found new ways of telling stories that took full advantage of the visual medium. Many of history’s most inventive TV shows (think The Prisoner, The Twilight Zone) could never have been presented on radio to the same effect.

    Physical and digital printing are in this state today. Eventually, innovators will create elements and interfaces that take full advantage of the digital medium, and stop imitating the old print medium. Hopefully it will happen sooner than later.

  5. We have to remember that most readers don’t like computers, and they don’t like ebooks. This has been suggested in poll after poll where the vast majority of readers complain that they could ‘never curl up with an ebook’ and would miss the smell of paper, turning the pages, the tactile feel.

    The iPad is aiming at them, and giving them something they can (almost?) relate to.

    And it looks like it would be fun to turn the pages, faster-slower, with your finger. I can see little kids enchanted with the effect, endlessly turning the ‘page’ back and forth. Who knows, they might even transfer some of that wondrous enjoyment to the act of reading itself.

    Where digital ‘pages’ become less than useful is in the PDF model, where the pages are fixed in size, the text is not reflowable if you zoom in or out, and the model of the paper folio is rigidly adhered to. It’s a good design for a program aimed at printing; it’s a disaster for reading on different devices with different screen sizes and resolutions.

    I think the iBook ‘shelves’ (copied shamelessly from the delicious library program) are cheesy, but these are cut from the same cloth: an attempt to make this cold, digital glass screen simulate warm wooden bookshelves that Dickens would have enjoyed.

    We are indeed in a transitional phase, even as 500 years ago books were set in type to mimic scribes and their quill pens.

    — asotir

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