Friday, December 23, 2005

X-Mas List Item #6: An Open, Fully-Supported E-book Reader

Pull up a chair and grab an eggnog, and I shall tell you the the haunting tale of the First E-book Migration.

Somewhat ironically for the technology sector, the failure had little to do with over-hyped and underperforming equipment. Text requires minimal bandwidth to transmit, and minimal memory to store. The LCD displays of the day, though drab by today's standards, were perfectly adequate.

But being first type of media capable of making the jump to digital distribution turned out to be a disadvantage. Consumers were still new to the internet, and leery of using it to make purchases. No successful online media marketplace existed that the would-be e-book titans could emulate. Publishers feared a backlash of the brick-and-mortar stores upon which they were dependent for shelf space. And, perhaps most importantly, the venerable scaffolding of contracts between authors and publishers had no accommodations for digital release. Nothing fosters inaction like the prospect of a legal quagmire.

Still. It was morning in dot-com America. E-books were possible, so they had to be done.

Ships under many flags disappeared over the horizon. They had names like Franklin and RCA.

Those who early-adopted their way into the First Migration found themselves in a wilderness both sparse and cruel.

Only a handful of publishers released titles digitally. Most of those who did handpicked a seemingly random fraction of their titles for e-release – probably for arcane contractual reasons or because they were afraid to extend themselves more deeply than their competitors.

Manufacturers and publishers sported a ridiculous array of incompatible formats. They also shared different visions of how the e-book universe should operate. Some opted for a direct-download model in which readers would dial-up content directly. Others thought reading on the computer should be sufficient, and spurned dedicated devices entirely.

The differences went on and on. Should Ebooks be just like regular books, page numbers and all? Or should they act more like the web, with hyperlinks and interactivity? Should they cost more than regular books, because they are more flexible? Or less, because they are intangible?

While the early adopters tried to colonize this wild frontier, the rest of us cuddled up with our dead trees and waited for news of a bounteous harvest.

It never came.

Later explorers tell of the lost colony. It was there, they say, exposed to the elements on a rocky coast marked by the wreckage of the Gemstar. Buy them a drink, and they will show you charcoal rubbings of mysterious inscriptions like “.rb” and “.fub”. They will speak in whispered tones of ghostly modem chirps in the wind.

The numerous sightings of readers gone feral and still living in this devil's land are, of course, the fevered ramblings of codec-sickness, and not to be taken seriously.

Superstition aside, the promise of Ebookland remains. Contrary to popular belief, plain paper is not just plain better. It goes without saying that many books can be stored simultaneously on a digital device. But my favorite features are these: A well designed E-book reader can be held and operated continuously with a single hand because a page-turning happens instantly at the touch of a button. And, because they usually provide their own illumination, e-readers work well in cozy places with poor lighting. You can read in a dark car, a dimmed airplane cabin, or next to your sleeping spouse with the bedroom lights turned off. I find the e-book experience to be smoother and less distracting than the one I get with bound paper.

If consumers are willing to pay a little more, they will undoubtedly see combination gadgets that combine the purposeful design of an e-book with wireless internet browsing capability. Telephony and music playback could be thrown in, too, but with each extra purpose battery life will drop, weight will rise, and the distraction-free charm of e-reading will fade.

But wait! I haven't mentioned the killer ap for e-readers yet. It's surprisingly mundane, and was found in many of the earlier models.

I predict that e-books will become a hit not because of tech-savvy generation Xers, but because of their parents. Baby boomers are realizing their eyes aren't what they used to be. E-books are preferable to paperbacks because they can provide strong backlight and adjustable font sizes.

For this reason I am still agnostic about electrophoretic displays (E-ink is a tradename, but I'll use it anyway). E-ink looks a lot like regular ink on regular paper, and only drains power while “turning the page” or otherwise refreshing the display. This makes e-ink superior for reading in direct sunlight. Less power also means smaller batteries and lighter weight. But e-ink cannot be effectively backlit. You would need some sort of lamp attachment to read in the dark or ease aging eyes, which could mean keeping the bigger batteries around anyway.

An promising hybrid may exist in a type of LCD from ZBD that, like e-ink, only uses power to change content. (It is mentioned in this recent ElectronicsWeekly article.) It won't be quite as easy to see in direct sunlight as e-ink, but it can be backlit.

Clearly, technology is giving us even more options than we had during the First Migration. This may just mean more crippling confusion, but it might spark a new wave of interest in e-reading.

The Second Migration recently got off to a slow start with the first commercially available e-ink based reader, the Sony Librié. The Librie has frustrated many consumers – not because of the technology, but because of the draconian copy protection scheme used. I suppose Sony did this to allay the fears of Napsterphobic publishers. After all, you can't have a viable e-book reader if you don't have any publishers on board. But Sony has resorted to making the Librié useless for viewing files you already own in other formats, like .html and .pdf. Early adopters are very turned off by this; support for common file types should be a no-brainer in a product that as yet provides little content of its own.

In fact, people like me enjoy “open” e-readers without any e-books at all, because we can take long digital documents away to more comfortable reading locations.

So, for X-mas, Quantum Future Santa, bring me a future where publishers and manufacturers have at least agreed to support each others' formats if they can't settle on a single standard. Bring me a future where every title ever written is conveniently available as an inexpensive e-book. I'll be overjoyed if you can also bring me a backlit ZBD reader, but I'll settle for e-ink (with a built-in lamp of some kind) or even a standard LCD or OLED display. If worse comes to worse, I can make due with the old REB1100 I use now.


This concludes my QFS X-Mas Wish List for 2005. (What, you thought I had to go up to ten?)

As a token of my gratitude, Santa, I have left you a sealed box. It contains cookies or milk, depending on the unobserved outcome of a random single-bit operation. I thought you would appreciate it.


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