TCS Daily

Electrobooks at Last?

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - February 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Herman Kahn would have loved the Sony Reader.

Whenever the great thinker and founder of the Hudson Institute traveled, he lugged a small library with him. I remember his delight over a special folding bookcase, which he sometimes took with him to set up in his hotel room.

"But of course there's always that one book you want in the middle of the night and you left it home," he said. And he so loved gadgets. I'm sorry he didn't live to see this one.

The Sony Reader, in case you haven't heard about it yet, is a device about the size and shape of an average book. Weighing a little over 8 ounces, it's basically a hand-held screen on which you can read a book page by page. The device, which will go on sale this April, uses a technology called "E ink" to display book pages in a form which Sony claims comes closer than ever to the experience of actually reading off the paper page.

Those who saw it at the big gadget fest in Las Vegas recently marveled at the readability of the device and seemed to agree with Sony's claim. There are no electronic jitters, no backlit screen (you need light to see the Sony Reader, just like any book) and therefore, such is the claim, none of the tired eyes and headaches common to staring at PC screens and other devices.

E-ink is a cool bit of micro-technology -- microscopic white and black ink capsules suspended in a thin layer of clear fluid beneath the surface of the device's screen, which is in effect a blank page until electrically charged. A negative (black) or positive (white) electric charge brings the proper capsules to the surface of the "paper" to print the page you are reading. When you have finished that page, you press a button and "turn" to the next. It's kind of like "Etch-A-Sketch goes to MIT."

The device uses minimal power because once those ink capsules have been electronically goaded into their proper letter shapes, no more power is needed. The page will hold until you decide to go to the next one. The Reader boasts "7,500 page turns" before its battery needs a recharge.

Sony claims the Reader, which is to go on sale at a price somewhere between $299 and $399, will hold about 80 average sized books in its digi-brain, but hundreds more can be added to your hand-held library through an optional "MemoryStick" or a memory card.

Sony promises "access to thousands of titles" through the CONNECT Store on-line. "You'll find all the latest bestsellers as well as a deep catalog of books in every category... with free first chapters available, plus author bios and reviews," claims the promo material. An accompanying photo of the Reader shows a page from The Da Vinci Code. Sheesh! Well, we won't hold that against an interesting product.

As an eclectic reader, somewhat given to grazing through English poetry, military history, ancient history, a short story, the Bible, some satire or humor in a single day, I find the Sony Reader intriguing. I could see throwing it in the back seat instead of a pile of books when my wife and I decide to drive up to our cottage at Lake Conneaut, Pa.

At least I think so.

There's the rub. We old dinosaurs, who like the heft of a favorite volume in our lap, may not adapt so easily. The novelty could wear off pretty quickly, I think. There's a lot to be said for this old compact, bound paper technology that has been around for the past 600 years or so. It has proved extraordinarily durable. And although it has been endlessly pointed out, it is still amazing to me that I can "hear" Paul preaching in Athens, walk the streets of London with Samuel Pepys, or marvel at the minds of Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson through their letters and papers -- all within the compass of my two hands.

For example, I've been reading and re-reading a lot of Shakespeare lately. I can sit under a tree beside Linn Run creek, in Pennsylvania, or out by the swimming pool in Delray Beach and not worry about batteries as I wander from sonnets to soliloquies helped by a few scraps of paper for bookmarks. I rarely make marginal notes or underlines in books, unless they are easily replaceable paperbacks, but that practice is another comfort of paper books. (It is certainly within the grasp of present technology to allow some sort of electronic scribbling and highlighting on these electrobooks.)

I mention these happy attributes of books even as I openly embrace this new technology. I love the whole idea of the Sony Reader. Perhaps I'm just admitting that it will be the next generation that will adopt it wholeheartedly. I find too much comfort in books. I love to browse bookstores. And when I am sitting in my study in Ligonier, the two thousand-plus books that line its walls are all old, sturdy, reliable friends.

It seems to me the big selling point about the Sony Reader is all that promised storage capacity. If the past is any gauge, it is only a matter of time until devices like this will be able to store whole libraries. Then you won't have to worry about the proverbial question of what book would you like to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island. (The rotund and redoubtable G.K Chesterton, was once asked this question and replied: "Thomas's Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.")

Even those who might not do all their reading on it would like to have a Sony Reader or some clone of it, just to have a tailor-made mini-library at hand. I, as a writer (of sorts) wouldn't mind having an easily portable brace of books ready to the touch - H.L. Mencken's New Dictionary of Quotations, W. E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of the Bible, the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, and the New York Public Library Book of Chronologies, to name a very few.

Some politician or journalist boning up for a debate on missile defense or asymmetrical warfare might like to have a Reader on the plane or in the Green Room. On a more mundane but no less useful level, take my favorite hot dog hangout, Beno's, in Ligonier, Pa. The proprietor, Pat Clark, keeps a little library of "bet settling" books on sports records, entertainment trivia etc. on the counter. They're propped up with a napkin holder and a ketchup bottle for book ends and they're always falling over and in the way. A Reader would take up less counter space and provide a wider variety of source material. Someday, every bartender will have one.

These devices could also be a boon to do-it-yourselfers, technicians and mechanics of every sort. Imagine having home repair, auto repair or other such manuals literally at your electronic fingertips, whether you're under a kitchen sink or the hood of a vintage Mustang. I suspect that just such specialized uses will provide one of the biggest markets for the Reader.

Musing on the Sony Reader, critic Terry Teachout noted recently in The Wall Street Journal, that a book, for all its objective and subjective virtues, "is also a technology - a means, not an end. Like all technologies, it has a finite life span, and its time is almost up."

I agree. Almost. But, some technologies, like the wheel, have proven to have a very long life span, and books may prove mighty like a wheel. I know I'm marking myself as irredeemably old school. But, I'm a little uneasy envisioning a time when all the wisdom, folly, humor, beauty, ugliness etc. of the human condition, reflected in history and story, might repose in some micro-electro-digital Somewhere that can only be reached and breached by hand-held electronics.

What happens when we need the answer or the laugh or the inspiration, and the power goes out? Won't the pages of a book be practical and reassuring, even by candlelight?



I have not yet been able to enjoy wandering through an electronic library, nor have I been able to enjoy turning the page of an electronic book.

Libraries and space
You touched on this issue when discussing Kahn and his need for carrying multiple books with him--the space issue.

If we are voracious readers, We all have the same space issues at our homes.

I've run out of bookshelves and wall space to put them. What wouldn't I give for a simple set of computer cards where all my books would be safe, clean, and stored compactly?

The Technology
Sony's idea is great! But let's talk a little about the technology. Being way out here in the back country, with only a land line for communication, how does one download the books? Does one have to pay for a special internet hookup? And, how about cost? Pessimism? No, reality. Not all of us are satellite connected. Usable is the key factor. How many gadgets proposed to take the place of the norm and failed.

I am keeping an open mind.

The companion technologies necessary will arrive soon
Beaming book covers on a "bookshelf" so that you can browse in limited space would only be a minor effort given the current state of the art. touch the image and have the book content transfer to your e-book. What is more versatile is that you can change librarians at the touch of a button and have different sorts available to you at whim.

e books
I've been reading e-books for years and years on a pocket pc using handybook reader. There are thousands of free public domain ebooks on the internet at projectgutenberg.

Can't see e-books for the (digital ) leaves
The Dedicated reading products and their developers are missing the obvious -- smart phones. I specifically bought Verizon's XV6600 Pocket PC [Audiovox PPC-6601] because it's an excellent reading platform that happens to be a phone. The onboard Explorer browser can easily display text fields of 20 lines x 50 characters and full-color images.

Coupled with AvantGo's free service, I always have the latest stories from The Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, and CNET as well as niche content from the Sci-Fi Channel and Glide Underground [well over 50 media providers total]. I can also download & read any book, article, journal that can be read on the web, since it's just HTML. And that's with yesterday's technology -- tomorrow, the mp3 players, gameboys, cameras, et al. will become so small and cheap that the average consumer could get eveything in one super-device.

So the smart developer/investor should realize that electronic books are a mass-market dead-end.

The User Interface
Having a capacity of 80 books is great. Low-power consumption is also great. Downloading instead of checking-out books: wonderful.

But I don't think that e-books will make paper books superfluous until it is just as easy to scan through them to get a feel of what they're about, and whether you want to read it or not. We can do that pretty easily using our hands, rifling through a bunch of pages.

So I think the necessary next step is to install the e-ink onto flexible pages, that can be flipped like paper pages. Then the market will take off like a skier going downhill...

electrobooks: old news
I've been reading on my apple Newtons for around 10 years. they're still available on Ebay.

Boycott Sony
Considering all that Sony has done recently regarding copyright laws, including supporting taxes on recording media, to themselves money, because the recording media, including media they sell, "could" be used to violate copyrights, and installing software on people's computers in violation of the same laws they want enforced in their favor, I say "Boycott all Sony products!"

I can't wait...
For this technology to mature, and I only want it for one specific use.

I'm a programmer. I have stacks of technical material most of which is out of date. The new ones are only good for about 2 years on average. At around $50 each it gets pricey to stay on top of things.

There are some sites that produce online, regularly updated, technical books, but I don't always have an internet connection, and reading a book on a computer screen is less than ideal. Combining a subscription service to technical books with a well designed reader will make my life easier any my checkbook happier.

I can't wait.

Let's say the books you want contains only text.
Furthermore, let's stipulate that the average book contains 200 pages, and the average page contains 200 words, and the average word length is 7 characters, including the seperating space.

This works out to 280,000 characters.

Since these characters consist of mostly the 26 lower case letters, a few upper case letters and a handfull of numbers and punctuation characters, the text should compress very well. Compression ratios of 20 to 1 should be easily obtainable.

Even a fairly large novel shouldn't take up much more than 100,000 bytes compressed. The last time I used dial-up, speeds of 52K baud were routine. At 52K baud you will transmit around 5K bytes per second. So a 100K file will only take 20 seconds to download.

That doesn't sound too bad to me.

Of course books with extensive pictures, especially high resolution color pictures will take a lot longer to download.

Electrobooks at last
I donot think Electro books will destroy the printing books. Just understand electro books is another midum for reading, This one is not replace the printed books,WHEN t.v. Introdused all were saying that radio will finsh, that not happen when internet borned same story was repeated THAT BOOKS WILL FINSH , NOTHING HAPPEN, THESE ARE DIIFERN MIDUEM AND ALL HAVE ROOM IN THIS WORLD

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