Wednesday, January 23, 2008

E-Book Reading Devices Need Design Changes to be Successful

Electronic Book Readers (EBRs) have been one of the holly grails of gadget lovers for decades. Why then have they remained only a moderate success despite the fact the technology has been available to produce them for quite some time? I believe the answer is that no EBR has been released to market that is sufficiently flexible to give it an advantage over paper books. Until this happens EBRs will remain a niche product for gadget lovers instead of breaking into the mainstream of our culture.

The first hurdle that EBRs need to overcome is the fact that there is nothing really wrong with paper. Paper is a perfected technology. It has high image quality and is cheap to produce. Its not a technology that needs fixing.

The second hurdle is one of perception. Book readers love the platform of the book itself. Many like the feel and smell of paper. For others its just the aesthetics of books they are in love with. The sight of a bookshelf brimming with volumes fills them with glee. But this is because they associate these sensory stimuli with the ideas between the pages.

There is nothing sacred about paper any more than there was about clay tablets when they were state of the art technology. Paper has just been the best technology for storing and distributing ideas for so long that it seems almost a betrayal to abandon it. Book lovers will abandon paper when they are convinced electronic books are superior. However this won't happen until it is actually true.

There are still major drawbacks to the current devices on the market. The two most popular EBRs on the market today are the Kindle sold by Amazon and the Sony Reader. Their limitations are typical of this product category.

Digital rights management is a serious issue with these devices. In order to prevent theft. The manufactures rapped the books they sell in copy protection. This limits how you can use the documents and actually makes them less useful than paper books in many ways. They also make it less than straight foreword to get you own documents properly formated for use on the devices.

Current EBRs don't provide sufficient ability to organize your documents on the devices. With the ability to store thousands of books, it is crucial that the user be able to quickly find the precise document he is looking for. You don't have to put a thousand books on the device but it sort of defeats the purpose of EBRs if you can't load them up with books and articles.

The EBRs on the market currently use electronic paper (e-paper) for their displays. E-paper displays do not use power when the page is static only when the page is updated. This significantly reduces power consumption but e-paper has one major deficiency. It is too much like paper. E-paper displays take about one second to refresh which is not much longer than it takes you to turn a page and start reading again. If this sounds acceptable then just imagine if the computer you are using right now took one second to update your screen every time you gave it even the slightest command. Your computer would feel frustratingly slow. This slow refresh rate would also severely limit your ability to navigate the user interface and quickly locate documents. Some would make the case that EBRs aren't computers and they should be used like books. I counter that EBRs must be more than books to replace books. They must be computers. Dedicated computers but still computers. Trying to turn a computer into a book negates the purpose of the device because we already have books. Improvements in electronic paper technology is promised but for now it is an obstacle to wide spread EBR acceptance.

I am convinced that there are just a few things companies who wish to sell these devices need to get right and EBRs would be readily accepted by book lovers.

LCD displays are the way to go, higher refresh rates allow for more interactivity. Which means a better user interface. As well as a higher contrast ratio. Power consumption need not be an issue. Reflective LCDs don't need back lights. Although back lights could be optional.

Getting your books on these devices should be as easy as getting music on an mp3 player just drag and drop nothing more complicated than that. No fooling with file conversion. EBRs must support a huge number of file formats and there is no reason why they couldn't. Open source word processors already do, and their code is free to use.

The system software of EBRs must make it easy to organize and retrieve the thousands of books and articles any avid reader, student, or professional is going to want to store on them. This is the primary advantage EBRs have over paper books and if it can't do this well then what's the point.

I want access to every book I own at all times. Just like I can access anything publicly available on the Internet within seconds. Why should my own documents be excepted?

The Electronic Book Reader is a market just waiting to explode. The iPod of electronic books is yet to be produced. All it will take is for electronic companies to realize EBRs are a tool not a gimmick.