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An eReader Overview

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For those of us who love to curl up with a good book, there’s nothing quite like the experience of immersing yourself in the written word. Okay, you know where this is headed so I won’t go all nostalgic on you. Suffice it to say that the look and feel, smell and heft of a pile of paper, bound up in leather or cloth, can be a thing of beauty. So, if a “real” book is so great, what does that make a tarted up handheld computer? Just a pile of plastic and bits of silicon? Not quite.

You see, your average MID (mobile Internet device), netbook or iPhone may be portable but they aren’t designed to do one thing well. They’re general purpose, all singing, all dancing designs able to handle smooth video playback, read your email, and throw up 17 suggestions for restaurants within two blocks of your location, all in glorious color. Can most traditional books do that? No but, what a book can provide is a highly legible, usually black and white "display" that requires no power to maintain.

Enter E Ink’s EPD, the key to practical electronic book readers, eReaders for short. An EPD or electronic paper display, is a novel electrostatic display technology that produces a high contrast, high resolution, reflective display, just like old fashioned ink on paper. The brighter the ambient lighting, the easier it is to read. On the other hand, more common LCDs or liquid crystal displays and OLEDs, or organic LEDs, are both emissive tech. Unlike paper and an EPD, which reflect or bounce the ambient light present in your environment, LEDs, LCDs and OLEDs literally squirt photons at your eyes. To do that, those three classes of device require a non–trivial amount of electricity. HanWang, jetBook, Toshiba, and maybe Audiovox and ASUSTeK have gone the LCD route for their eReaders so, to me, they seem like malformed netbooks. LCD displays are also particularly difficult to read in bright light, as you would find in the outdoors on a sunny day. Of course, PDAs, smart phones, netbooks and other mobile portables are also able to parse many eBook file types but they suffer from the same problems of limited battery life and less than ideal legibility.

An electronic paper display, on the other hand, requires power only to "paint" or alter a page of text. Once the display has been updated, no additional power is required. But wait, there’s more! Since you don't have to constantly power a backlight or light up a thousand LEDs, you can use a smaller battery, which reduces weight and slims down the overall design. That’s why the list of current and near–future EDP–equipped eReader vendors is as long as my arm: Aluratek, Amazon, Astak, Barnes & Noble, Bookeen, Ditto Book, Elonex, Endless Ideas, enTourage Systems, Interead, IREX Technologies, iRiver, Lbook, Neo Luxe, Onyx International, Sony, Spring Design, Tianjin Jinke Electronics, and txtr. This holiday season is the first where consumers have even a limited choice of eReader makes, models, features, and price, though the choices have been very slim this time around. Amazon and Sony have been at it for a while but Sony’s offerings have not sold well. Barnes and Noble have limited distribution of their Nook, and are offering consolation kickbacks for those who ordered but did not receive their gadget in time for the holidays. Easy access to a wide variety of "content," in this case eBooks, has been a particular sticking point for all vendors.

Some models won’t show up in stores here in the US at all while others will widen their distribution after testing the home turf. txtr’s Dominik Welland, when asked about promotion at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show next month, said, “Generally speaking, we are focusing on the German market to begin with. Maybe next year…” The NUUT2 and Lbook eReader are two other products that are available only in their home markets of Korea, in the case of the NUUT2, and Russia and the Ukraine in the case of the Lbook eReaders. It’s more difficult for product developers to support multiple languages while the home advantage generally provides a bit of PR slack during a product’s final development and rollout.

If a company wants to successfully enter the eReader market at this stage, they’ll have to compete either with a really nice price or a substantive feature set. ASUSTeK, better know for their netbooks, will reportedly soon release the first e-book reader with triple threat wireless: 3G, Wi-Fi, and WiMAX transceivers. As I see it, pan-connectivity isn’t the Great Differentiator, though it helps. Most of the eBook models out there will have something lacking, either in their user interface, connectivity options, choice of content providers, build quality, or the file formats they support.

Ah, file formats; not something you need to worry about with an old school book. We are talking electronic books after all so, what file types an eReader can handle is arguably the single most important feature. Amazon, the market leader, recently released Kindle for PC, with a Mac OS version to follow. In an attempt to address their in house, proprietary AZW file format, Kindle for PC/Mac is a free application that lets owners read Kindle eBooks on their home computers. There are well over a dozen different major eBook formats competing for your dollars, and many are lacking in one aspect or another. Take, for example, the ability to properly handle diacritical marks, the Arabic alphabet or logographic writing. All three are important to many non–English languages.

"Real" material books are often valued as much for their illustrations, typesetting, layout, and binding as they are for the words they contain. While binding is difficult to virtualize well, there are a few eBook file formats that make a valiant effort. The PDF and EPUB formats are two examples, providing a very close facsimile of a bound edition, and both include DRM if the author so desires. Considering that PDF was built from the ground up to be a virtual substitute for the printed page, the current version supports all the eBook bells and whistles, including annotation, bookmarking, and text reflow to accommodate portrait or landscape display orientation.

A subtlety of some formats — EPUB is a good example — is their support for the aforementioned DRM. DRM, or digital rights management, is an electronic lock on someone's digital property that, in theory, prevents theft or duplication. As many online music consumers have found, DRM can be a real pain. I know of no DRM scheme that, once it reaches critical mass in the consumer marketplace, has not been either broken or circumvented within a relatively short timeframe. Heck, Barnes & Noble’s brand new Nook has already been hacked, its Android operating system co-opted into becoming a general purpose computer. That’s not a DRM hack per se but, it does illustrate how vulnerable digital consumer products can be.

Some eReader appliances support DRM and some do not, so caveat emptor. You have to know the limitations of each device and mesh that with your favorite content providers’ offerings. I, for one, have given up reading eBook content available through my public library because of the inconvenience and draconian rights management imposed on eBook borrowers. I tried reading Neil Stephenson’s Anathem, a DRM’d PDF version, while on a trip and threw up my hands in disgust when I found I couldn’t renew the title. Not only that, but there was a waiting list… for a file! At just over 1000 pages, I simply could not read that tome within the handful of days I was allotted so, I checked out the hardbound version instead and was glad I did. It’s a big, fat, fun book and can also be used as part of a well-balanced exercise regime. Anyway, I asked Trent Garcia, Electronic Resources Librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, about my consternation and he told me the problem "…goes back to the publishers. They think someone will steal [the eBook] and read it over and over again." He then offered that "…perhaps the larger issue is publishers feel they need to control access to the library content because it competes somewhat with other wholesale and retail business. If library users could easily download Anathem, for example, from the library web site with no limit on downloads, it might deter many from spending 12 bucks to purchase it from a retail site."

His statement gets to the heart of the problem in that publishers, in their papery heart of hearts, still think of eBooks as books, not as some new product category. The SF Public Library pays pretty much the same for that electronic title as they do for a paper and glue version, yet the virtual version costs less to manufacture, inventory, and ship. Those cost savings should be passed on down the distribution chain but I think the gleam of lucre is dazzling someone’s eyes. The reason for the hold I experienced is that, with limited financial resources, my library usually purchases only one copy, really a license, and that virtual book is also treated as if it were a corporeal one. Garcia confided that both the public and library staff are still getting used to the whole eMedia landscape and, in time, many of the kinks will be worked out of the system.

Cost in general is also something to consider for the consumer. eReaders range in price to well under $200 to just shy of $500. That doesn't include the expense of a personal computer, which lower priced eReaders require to load in new content. Generally, more features, better grayscale resolution, and/or larger screen size equates to higher cost.

I mentioned build quality earlier. I have yet to find an eReader that has a warranty, limited or otherwise, that exceeds one year. Unless a product is sealed, particulates and pollutants will eventually find their way inside, mucking up the works and, in the case of dust and dirt, adhering to the display. Also, when you drop a paperback on the floor, it usually doesn't break. I wouldn't want to try a drop test with any eReader.

Many of the companies mentioned have several models at different sizes, prices, and amounts of memory. When a manufacturer lists the memory size, they seldom tell you how much of that is used by the device itself and how much is left to store your content. Most manufacturers include a memory card slot for additional, low cost memory expansion. Many units also have motion sensing, which allows you to easily switch from from vertically oriented portrait to horizontally oriented landscape mode. Some models can record and/or play back audio, so you can take notes verbally and listen back as well as enjoy music and talking books, all on the same widget. Some eReaders even have touchscreens which, depending on the user interface design, may make them more "intuitive." The touchscreen-equipped eDGe is unique in that it combines an eReader with a complete netbook running Android on Linux. eReaders really are purpose-built portable computers, and most run the free and open source Linux operating system.

With all this talk of technology and eReaders, I was curious what writers think about this business. One perspective came from Michael Rubin, a Bay Area resident and author of Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution. When asked about electronic versions of his writing, he mentioned that "…so many people have asked about an eReader version of the book, and until technology changes" he’s sticking with bound paper. For him, it’s all about presentation. On his blog, he clearly states his preference for visual richness over content stripped of context. "I worked very hard to interweave the body of the book with carefully placed sidenotes. Photos — very rare photos at that — are embedded in the text where they are important context. I had considered having a folio at the end of the book that was full of photos. But I rejected it. I made dozens of difficult decisions — the form factor of the book, the weight and color of paper, the layout — that would maximize the clarity and entertainment value of the story. So, when it comes to the Kindle, the only way to get the text in is to utterly deconstruct the format; it kills the sidebars, the call-outs, the photo positions, and I don't want to do that."

For a different take, I asked Ann Hood, East Coast author of over a dozen books, including The Knitting Circle: A Novel and Properties of Water. Hood recently received a Kindle as a gift and has, "…fallen desperately in love with it! And every writer I know loves theirs. Why? It does not replace books, but makes it easy to travel and not pay extra baggage fees." Another big plus for her is convenient and timely access to content. "I am able to read Salon and Slate, which I never have time to do at home." Neither Hood nor Rubin mentioned anything about file formats. I assume they’re leaving that concern up to their publisher, who has the unenviable choice of which ones to support and inventory for any particular eBook title.

As with all things electronic, doing one thing well is never enough. Feature creep is the bane of our modern existence, since it means new models are always in the pipeline waiting to take their place, along with your money, in the Latest and Greatest spotlight. On the horizon are new display technologies and manufacturers that will compete with E Ink’s EDP technology. Several new eReaders will debut at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show, including Plastic Logic’s QUE eReader, which sports a groundbreaking 8.5 by 11 inch, flexible touchscreen display. In the near future, also look for color e–paper displays. Both technologies will bring eMagazines/eNewspapers, outdoor/point of purchase signage, and even wearable displays to whole new distribution channels and levels of performance.

Unlike some pundits, I believe that eReaders are a distinct subclass of portable electronics, with their own strengths and attractions. Granted, at some point in the future, all portable displays will possess the features now used in eReaders. I also know that, as power supply technology improves, "computers" as we know them will slowly disappear, blending literally into the woodwork of our lives. eReaders as a separate product class will disappear as well but, that day is at least 8 to 12 years away. In the meantime, as competition in this space heats up, it’ll be interesting to see what new business models eReaders will either promote or engender outright.

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About Oliver Masciarotte

A graduate of the Lowell Institute of MIT, Oliver A. Masciarotte has spent over 30 years immersed in entertainment tech, working with top companies & clients on marketing, production and product development…More at www.seneschal.net/about/
  • http://cafeofdreams.blogspot.com April

    What an excellent and informative article! I am a huge avid reader and have been doing some serious debating on purchasing an ereader myself. At this time I download to my Blackberry via MobiPocket and really enjoy that. It would be nice to have a bigger screen and just the gadget itself sounds fun and appealing. I have a feeling that I will be waiting a bit to see if they come out with a cost desired reader that contains all the things that I desire – easy to download PDF format, memory expansion, color would be great… Time will tell… Thanks for the great info!

  • http://www.sensechal.net/ Oliver Masciarotte

    Hey April,

    The iPad is out and, though it’s a great product, I think it’s a separate category from eReaders. It comes down to battery life and legibility/long term eye strain.

    I may write a part two to this piece this fall, when vendors are prep’ing for the Winter CES, the big Consumer Electronics Show where many new eGadgets debut.

    OMas