Thursday, November 1, 2012

So long to the skeuomorph? (Apple takes a bite)

The story in today’s New York Times (a front page story at that, in the Business section) that Apple may do away with skeuomorphs should prompt word lovers to take quick action.

Before skeuomorphs disappear, and with them the word, let’s have a last fond look at this linguistic concoction of the Greeks. This mouthful of a word is a combination of the Greek skeuos (vessel or implement) and morph (form). In essence, a skeuomorph uses visual or aural cues from an earlier object to help define a newer object.

An icon of an analog alarm clock signals to us that this is the clock or timer function on our digital appliance. The image of the alarm clock is the skeuomorph for the digital timer.

Skeuomorphs are not just pictures. They’re also sounds and movements. Click! goes the digital camera, brrringg goes the smartphone. The “page” turns in an electronic “book.”

Skeuomorphs have helped familiar objects of old make the new look familiar. Given a physical form, the virtual seem less virtual.

But such skeuomorphs may well vanish from Apple products—the legal pad icon for the iPad’s notes app; the wooden bookshelf on which e-books are displayed.

Which brings up this skeuomorphic question (I’m trying to get the most out of this word while I still know how to spell it): if the graphic trappings used to symbolize an e-book disappear, should an e-book even be called a “book” anymore?

Throughout bookdom’s history, certain words have signaled biblio events. Scroll. Tablet (of the kind that Julius Caesar popularized). Incunabula. Codex. Perhaps book should be reserved for those three-dimensional objects made of paper and, for a good part of their existence, pre-bound by the printer or publisher.

What we read electronically, then, is no longer an e-book. It’s an e-------[to be figured out].

One more thing: the very icon that symbolizes Apple is itself skeuomorphic. It’s that object we know to be a fruit and that makes a crunching sound when we take a bite out of it. Will the apple in Apple vanish as well?

Something to chew on—skeuomorphically, that is.