Futurists have long predicted the death of paper books. The "conventional wisdom" has been that books are too expensive to print and distribute. Reading from a handheld device is the obvious answer. Predictions have existed for years that "the world will switch to electronic books real soon now." There has been only one problem: consumers have paid no attention to the forecasts!
In fact, the year 2006 saw more printed books published than in any previous year in history. Paper is still firmly entrenched as the most popular publishing medium. However, this week I saw a device that may change all that. I now believe that e-books have a chance of succeeding.
Previous predictions of impending conversion to e-books (electronic books) have failed simply because the technology wasn't there. Most predictions claimed that books would be read on handheld devices that look like Palm or Windows Mobile PDAs (personal digital assistants). However, given the small screen size, the blurry text, the glare-inducing backlighting, and other visual limitations, nobody wanted to read an entire book on one of these devices. To do
The new Sony Reader is about to change all that. I used one this week and was very impressed. The monochrome screen is large, sharp, and very easy to read. There is no backlight; the Reader reflects ambient light and requires about the same amount of light to read as a printed page. The fact that no backlighting is required also allows for extended battery life; you can read up to 7,500 pages on one battery charge. That's the equivalent of twenty or more full-length novels. The reader only consumes power for a fraction of a second when changing the information displayed on the screen. Once displayed, no additional power is needed to keep the information on the screen.
All data is stored in memory; there is no hard drive. The Sony Reader is also an instant-on device. Turn the power on, and start reading a second or two later.
The Sony Reader measures 6.9 inches tall, 4.9 inches wide, and a half-inch thick. That size is smaller than most paperbacks. It weighs nine ounces, again less than many paperbacks. Like most paperbacks, it is too big to carry in a shirt pocket but slips easily into an overcoat pocket, a purse, or a lunchbag. It should work well on the commuter train.
The Sony Reader's built in 64 megabytes of memory allows you to carry 80 or more books in your pocket or purse. Try doing that with books printed on paper! If you add an extra memory card, that capacity can be multiplied several times.
However, the most impressive part of the Sony Reader is the screen. Sony calls it "E Ink" technology. The display is crystal clear with very sharp fonts. In fact, the lettering is more distinct and easier to read than that of paperback books. It is easily viewable from almost any angle. It can be read in bright sunlight as well as indoors.
I'd guess that the Sony Reader will produce less eyestrain than a typical book. Moreover, the screen is much, much sharper looking than any laptop computer or handheld PDA that I have ever seen. It can even be magnified for those with sight impairments. I find it difficult to describe the excellent screen display in words; you have to see one of these devices for yourself to appreciate the clarity of the text. Drawings are also crystal clear although only displayed in black and white. I saw some cartoons on the Sony Reader; they looked better on that screen than they do in the local newspaper. Pictures tend to be a bit blurred as the Sony Reader can only display in four shades of black and grey, not enough for most pictures.
The Sony Reader is more than a book reader, however. It also plays music, either through tiny (low fidelity) internal speakers or through high fidelity "earbud" style earphones, similar to the Apple iPod. In fact, this unit can easily replace your iPod.
To load available books into the Sony Reader, you use the included software to connect it to your Windows computer. You purchase the books or magazines or newspapers you wish to read online, download them to your Windows computer, and then transfer them across a connecting cable to the Sony Reader. Macintosh capability has not yet been announced.
Of course, any book reader is going to be limited by the amount of material available. Sony is a big name and is pushing its weight around to obtain all sorts of titles. Sony says that it now has more than ten thousand titles available. Prices tend to be significantly cheaper than purchasing the same books in paperback. You can browse the available titles at http://ebooks.connect.com.
The Sony Reader can also be used to read many computer documents. It will read files in Microsoft Word or in Adobe Acrobat PDF formats, as well as RSS newsfeeds, blogs, and JPEG images. I believe it is possible to read this newsletter on a Sony Reader although I haven't tried that yet.
The other hindrance is price: the Sony Reader currently sells for about $350. That's still cheaper than many high-end PDAs and is a low price for something with a super high-tech screen like the Reader's, but it is still high enough to discourage most casual buyers. Only hard-core "techies" will purchase the Sony Reader at that price.
I am very impressed by the Sony Reader. However, I must admit that I do not plan on buying one. At $350, it is hard for me to justify the investment. Nonetheless, we all know what happens to the price of technology items. Within a few years, prices usually drop by 50%. A few years later the prices are halved again. I wouldn't be surprised to see similar devices available for $50 or so within a decade. At that point, an e-book reader may indeed replace printed books.
Whether you are thinking of purchasing a Sony reader or not, I think you will want to hold one in your hands and read a page or two of text. I am sure you will be very impressed with the clarity of the text. I think you will agree that pages on the Sony Reader are easier to read than those of a paperback book.
You can see the Sony Reader on display at all Sony style stores (found in many major cities) as well as in most Borders bookstores. Some CompUSA stores also may have the Sony Reader on display although not all of them do. Stop by and see for yourself.
More information about the Sony Reader may be found at http://www.learningcenter.sony.us/assets/pa/prs/index.html?hqs=learn.