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David A. Wimsett
Providing Technological Solutions

David's interest in technology extends back to his teen years with science fairs and amateur radio. He is fascinated with hardware, but his real interest is how people use technology. David's goal in providing technological solutions has always been to listen to the end users.


The eBook Revisited

Last year in this column, I wrote about the rise of electronic book readers in “The eBook Revolution”. Some amazing advancements have occurred since then that make eBook readers even more powerful and easier to use with improvements to existing readers and new players in the game.

Electronic books made up just 1% of the total book market last year. This year, that has doubled to 2%. Some analysts expect that figure to rise as high as 6% within 5 years,.

Conventional books are certainly not dead. The sheer momentum of printed publications controls how books are marketed and read. There is an entire culture wrapped around paper copies. It extends beyond the physical volumes to the social structures built up around books. Bookstores are often destinations in themselves. They are the basis of a social community with coffee shops and couches that draw people out of their homes to meet and converse as well as buy books. They are also the site of events that bring readers and writers together.

However, there are other forces at work. I feel there is a good possibility that eBook sales will grow beyond current projections. Consider the demise of the long play vinyl record. I was in a prominent record store one day where there were a mix of LPs and CDs. I returned the next day to find not a single LP in the racks. It was all CDs. When I asked what had happened to the records, a clerk opened a bin beneath the racks and showed me stacks of LPs at discounted prices. I bought several box sets, some originally retailing at over $60, for just 99 cents each. Like the snap of a twig, the shift to the compact disk had happened literally overnight.

Newspapers across North America are facing sale or bankruptcy as advertising revenues drop. Advertisers are spreading their message in more ways, and the Internet is one of them, leaving a smaller piece of pie for traditional media. Some newspapers have augmented their paper editions with free online versions. Others, such as the Detroit Free Press, reproduce their entire print version online to paid subscribers. Some eBook readers can access these online editions, as well as copies of major magazines. As newsprint, transportation and labour costs rise, all newspapers could become electronic in just a few years. At the same time, retail chains are reporting a decline in the number of paper books sold while eBook sales are rising.

There is also a change in the way people are forming communities. More and more relationships are found online in social networking sites such as facebook and twitter. As traditional newspapers struggle and die, online news expands. With the demand for news and entertainment to be provided demand, people are looking for different ways to interact with content providers, and eBook readers are a viable answer.

Innovative hardware and a new book format offer more choices than ever.

An international open book format called ePub has been adopted by many of the big players, the exception being Amazon. This sets a standard that allows books to be bought from a variety of online stores and read on many different platforms. Such an open standard allows publishers to feel more comfortable putting out eBooks without the fear of being locked into one company's hardware. If a proprietary format becomes the de-facto standard, publishers might have to pay royalties to use it the way some game designers must pay to produce games for certain video consoles.

Sony has released the PRS-700 to replace the PRS-505. The suggested retail price is $340 USD. It is the same size and weight as the 505 with a new interface and faster page turns. The biggest change is the addition of a 6 inch touch screen. This allows you to select books from a list, search for titles and text with a pop-up, onscreen keyboard and turn pages by just brushing your finger or a supplied stylus across the screen as if you were flipping through a book. You can also use the keyboard to make annotations.

Sony has added a built in side light. The eInk technology does not use a backlit LCD screen. Instead, it is made up of millions of microscopic capsules that have charged black and white pigments. As the charge behind each capsule is changed, a gray scale of 16 levels can be displayed against a light background, giving the same reading experience as black ink on white paper that is easy on the eye. It can be read in any light, even direct sunlight. Adding a light to the side of the screen means it can now be read in a darkened room. Using the light, however, will shorten the battery life that is rated at about 2 weeks of normal use.

Like the 505, the 700 can enlarge text for easier reading. This zoom feature has been increased from 3 to 5 levels. I find this feature very handy as my eyes aren't what they once were and I sometimes have to read conventional paper books with magnifying glasses.

Internal memory has been increased so that an estimated 350 standard books can be loaded into it. There is also the ability to add memory cards to increase storage capacity. You can read published eBooks in formats like BBeB (Sony's native format) and ePub as well as user generated documents in text format (TXT) Rich Text Format (RTF), Microsoft Word (converted automatically to RTF), HTML (also automatically converted) and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF), and it does it all with full zoom capability. As well, it can hold JPEG images in black and white and MP3 files that are played back though a headphone jack. Files are transferred over a USB cable with an easy to use drag and drop interface.

The Sony reader requires you to run an application on your desktop that connects to the Internet in order to download software updates, buy books and load user files. This software only runs under Microsoft Windows, a serious mistake by Sony that alienates Macintosh users. The company is promising a Wi-Fi version that will connect directly to the Internet without the need of a computer. There is no announced release date.

One of the best features of the Sony PRS-700 is the fact that you don't have to buy books from the Sony store. You can download books from any online store or web site as long as the files are in BBeB, ePub, TXT, PDF, RTF or DOC format. Books bought from an online retailer such as eReader.com can be read on the PRS-700 without conversion. This creates a level playing field for publishers be they large, small or independent and true choice for consumers.

Apple's iPod Touch can also be used to read eBooks. It retails for between $349 (8 GB) and $429 (32 GB) USD. It also uses a touch screen to select books and page through them. The screen is smaller (3.5 inches), however, the iPod Touch is more portable and offers a wider range of options beyond just that of an eBook reader, not the least of which is the iTunes store and the vast array of third party applications. The screen, though backlit, is sharp, and its in colour. The Sony and Amazon readers are also sharp and easy on the eye, but are both blank and white. However, as the text will almost always be in blank and white, a colour screen might not be such an advantage. Also, the colour screen uses more power. Independent tests have shown the iPod Touch battery life will range between 9 hours for straight display viewing down to as little as 3 hours when using Wi-Fi.

The small size and portability make the iPod Touch a great platform for eBooks. You select an application such as the Stanza eBook Reader from several available apps, so your reading experience can be tailored to your taste. The iPod Touch has Wi-Fi capability and can download books without a computer either from the Apple store or, as in the case of the Sony PRS-700, from any online eBook dealer because the iPod reads a wide variety of format including Amazon's AZW and the international ePub standard.

The iPhone can run the same eBook reader applications as the iPod Touch for the same experience.

Amazon has updated its eBook offering and now has two models, the Kindle 2 at $349 USD and the Kindle DX priced at $489 USD. The main difference between the two models is size. The Kindle 2 has the same 6 inch screen as the Kindle 1 whereas the Kindle DX offers a 9.7 inch screen. Both use black and white eInk technology.

The Kindle 2 has been re-engineered to be slimmer with more ergonomic controls and a robust user interface that significantly reduces the steps required to issue commands. It includes built in stereo speakers as well as a headphone jack. The controls allow you to select individual words that can be defined with the built in dictionary. The Kindle 1 could only select a line and would display definitions for all the words on it.

There is a built in keyboard for entering comments, searching for text or ordering books via a cell phone connection directly through the sprint network (Amazon pays for the call). Because of this, there is no need to connect the Kindle to a desktop computer. Indeed, there is no computer interface at all, although there is a mini-USB connector that is used to recharge the unit. This means Apple Macintosh users are not shut out from online book stores as they are with the Sony PRS-700.

There are also some features marked “experimental”. These include a web browser and a text-to-speech application that has a somewhat mechanical sound but is still very clear and easy to understand. The speed of the audio read can be adjusted to a person's taste. The quality is certainly not as good as a professional actor on an audio book, however, it does a very good job in either a male of female selectable voice. This feature could be very nice on long drives when using the build in speakers as it can read any text.

The DX appears to be aimed at the text book and online newspaper/magazine market. Besides being larger than the Kindle 2 (10.4”x7.2” compared to 8”x5.3”), it is also heavier (18 vs. 10.2 ounces).

Both Amazon readers have built in physical keyboards that take up a fair amount of room and make the devices larger than they need to be. As most of your time will be spent reading, the keyboard has limited use beyond searching for text or entering comments. Both Apple and Sony use pop-up soft keyboards and touch screens to enter text, reducing the size of each. Neither Kindle has a touch screen.

The available formats for the Kindle are limited compared to Sony or Apple. It cannot read ePub books, only books in Amazon's proprietary format (AZW) as well as text files (TXT) , unprotected Mobipocket (MOBI) and PRC. It supports audible format 4, audible Enhanced (AAX) and MP3 sound files. It can also load PDF, HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG and BMP files using a conversion tool. However, you cannot load these files onto your Kindle through a USB connection. You must email it to a special account associated with your specific Kindle machine. This service will cost you 10 cents per document.

You can zoom in and out of Amazon books, but not PDF or DOC documents.

The Kindle allows you to buy books, subscribe to newspapers like the New York Time or magazines like Newsweek through Amazon's cell phone connection that can be accessed even in areas without Wi-F. This is the major reason the Kindle is not currently available in Canada . Unlike Apple and the iPhone, Amazon has not cut a deal with any Canadian cell phone companies.

Battery life is comparable to the Sony reader at about 2 weeks.

The lack of a touch screen is a major problem. People are used to interacting directly with the screen and to use pop-up virtual keyboards. But, Amazon's biggest mistake is in attempting to lock Kindle users into their proprietary book format by not allowing for international standards like ePub. This is a mistake that could come back to bite them. They sell a huge volume of physical books at deep discounts compared to brick and mortar stores because of greatly reduced overhead. But, Amazon is not the only player in the eBook world and their electronic competitors have no more overhead than they do. Fictionwise, with it's eReader.com store (now owned by Barnes & Noble), has been selling eBooks for years. They can be read on the Palm Pilot, Sony PRS, iPod and any desktop or laptop computer. The Google Books project has the intention of digitizing every book ever written and making them available on the web. Google has struck a deal with Sony to allow PRS-700 readers to access hundreds of thousands of public domain books for free, all in the ePub format.

Other contenders are appearing in the market. Fujitsu has an 8 inch eInk colour touch screen that lists for $1,000 USD. I have not seen the Fujitsu screen first hand, so I cannot comment on the quality. It runs under the Microsoft CE operating system, so it could be used for a host of applications. Though the price is far above the Kindle, PRS-700 and iPod, it may drop as Fujitsu passes from research to full scale production.

 

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