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A tribute to the humble page number

I’ve been doing a lot more reading on eBooks since I got the iPad. For the most part, I really like it.
I’ve been using three different eReader programs: Apple’s iBooks, the Amazon Kindle, and the Barnes & Noble Nook. You’d think that an eReader would be basically similar between apps, but there are definitely differences in how the apps feel.

Here’s one little example: how does each reader app marks your progress in the book? Physical books have this nice technology called the “page number”, which, when coupled with “seeing how thick the book is on both the left and right side” gives you a good sense of how much you have to go before you have to find another book to read.

EBooks of course, don’t have pages or thickness (though, for some reason, when I hold my iPad as a reader, I put my finger between the iPad and the Apple case flap, as though I was folding over a paperback book.) Each eReader that I use has a different metaphor for progress. And I’m not sure which I like best. It fascinates me that three different teams looked at this issue, which would not seem from the outside to be that complicated, and came up with three different answers.

The Kindle uses what they call “locations”, which are basically virtual page numbers placed at (I assume) regular intervals in the text. The Kindle tells you what location you are at (well, it tells you what locations are currently displayed on the screen, there is usually more than one at a time), and it tells you what percentage of the book you have completed.


There are a couple of advantages to this setup. The biggest is that the locations are stable if you change the font size, so location “2345” always refers to the same place in the book. Because of that, I assume you could actually use a Kindle location in a citation, if you were so inclined. (Okay, you probably don’t care. But if you were a student, being able to cite based on an eBook seems increasingly important…) The percentage progress through the book is a reasonably user-friendly way to go. The downside, obviously, is nobody knows what the hell a location is, so saying that you are on “location 2345” has relatively little actual meaning.

Apple’s iBooks app went a different way. iBooks takes the nuts-and-bolts approach that a screen’s worth of text is a page and will tell you that you are on “page 45 of 456”, along with a set of dots that shows progress through the book.


The nice part about this approach is that it is concrete and directly related to the device you are using. You know exactly how many screen taps there are — iBooks also tells you how many pages are left in the current chapter, which is a genuinely useful piece of information. The problem is the flipside of the Kindle setup — the page numbers are dependent on font size and device screen. If you change the font, then iBooks recalculates the page you are on. (It also takes a noticeable amount of time to calculate when you open a new book.) You can’t use the page number to reference a permanent part of the book. Still, for casual reading, it’s hard to deny that the page number that iBooks presents is the most relevant and useful information. Although, strictly aesthetically, I don’t love the row of dots, it doesn’t read as a progress indicator quite as easily as the other two apps.

The Barnes & Noble Nook app does something different still. It presents page numbers based, I think, on the pagination of the print book. In other words — and I realize it’s slightly insane to define a page number based on something else — it’s essentially the Kindle location, but with location markers placed at the start of each print page.


I can’t decide whether I think that’s the best of both worlds or the worst — I like the look of it best, though. Like the Kindle, the Nook’s locations are permanent, and therefore citable. There’s a certain kind of familiarity in keeping page numbers in a familiar range. That said, it’s genuinely a little weird to turn the virtual Nook page and not see the number changed — the first time I noticed it, I thought it was a bug.

So that’s one tiny little usability decision that turns out to be complicated enough to have three separate answers, and even having used all three I’m not sure which one I like best. Superficially, I like the iBooks approach, I think, but I also think that a permanent location marker is needed. As usual, it leaves me with respect for how complicated even easy decisions get once users are involved.


One response to “A tribute to the humble page number

  1. Mike Woodhouse January 18, 2011 at 8:40 am

    If I only have the physical book and you want to point me to a location within it then the B&N method looks awfully attractive. The iBooks one makes the least sense to me – even to another user you’d have to cite font size as well as page number. Kindle’s seems to fall somewhere between: consistent with all copies of the Kindle book but not usefully linked with any other form.

    I suppose it’s something that will get addressed by some open standard that will be ignored for a decade or so by all the vested interests… [sigh]

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