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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 Revolution

An almost magical technology was thrust upon an unsuspecting world and changed it forever. It was a device that brought about a surge in communication between not only the rich and powerful, but between everyday people. It let ideas flow and set free voices that were once suppressed. Nothing could stop it. This new flow of information and ideas threatened the fabric of society and challenged all known beliefs.

I am speaking, of course, about the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1439. Gutenberg didn't so much invent the printing press as put together a number of ideas that had been around for some time, one of them thousands of years, and came up with a system using movable type that allowed different pages to be set and printed quickly, at least quicker than the legions of scribes who had to hand copy each manuscript one at a time.

Within half a century, most of the classic works had been printed along with books by contemporary scientists, philosophers, and poets. Knowledge was no longer the exclusive property of the privileged.

You might have thought that the first paragraph of this article referred to the computer or the Internet. It is true that both have changed our world and made information available in ways never dreamed of. They allow us to read mail, do research, entertain ourselves, and read books without touching a piece of paper. Indeed, electronic books, or eBooks, have been available for over a decade.

But, reading a book on a computer has never been a wholly satisfying experience. Sitting at a desktop or balancing a laptop while sitting down or laying in bed, is awkward. There are small computers such as the palm pilot, but their screens are tiny and can only display a limited amount of text and images at a time. Both share a common fault, the backlit LCD display screen that is hard to stare at for long periods of time and leads to eye strain.

All that has changed with a new generation of electronic readers and an invention called Electronic Paper Displays, or EPD. Created by E Ink Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts (http://www.eink.com), it uses an amazing technology called electronic ink.

When you view a standard LCD display, the light comes from a source behind the screen, usually a florescent tube, and the images are formed by small rectangles of liquid crystals that turn on and off to block the light or let it through.

ith EPD there is no need for backlighting. It consists of a film less than 400 microns thick that is made up of millions of microcapsules of electronic ink, or E Ink, each of which is about the diameter of a human hair. Microcapsules are filled with positively charged white pigments and negatively charged black pigments suspended in a liquid. By varying the charge on a microcapsule, the pigments are moved up and down. When the white pigments are on top, the microcapsule appears white, or blank. When the dark pigments are on top the microcapsule appears black. Varying the charge can produce up to sixteen shades of gray, although the devices reviewed in this article only offer four.


At the moment, E Ink is only available in black and white. In a recent interview, Sriram Peruvemba, Vice President of Marketing for E Ink Corporation, said that a colour prototype is expected by 2010.

These microcapsules are laminated onto a backplane containing a circuit board. A video driver changes the microcapsules' states to form text and images using 80% less power than that required by an LCD monitor. The result is an image that looks like ink on paper. However, unlike printed text and images, E Ink can be changed to display anything. One of the top applications is in advertising where a display can be run for an extended period of time while using very little power. The circuit board can be flexible and even be bendable. Mr. Peruvemba envisions flexible eMaps and light weight signage that can be easily and safely hung from a ceiling.


According to Mr. Peruvemba, the resolution in current eBook readers is about 167 dots per inch (dpi), but that is not due to any limitations in the E Ink product. Rather the resolution is a function of the backplanes. Epson has demonstrated a device with a resolution of 385 dpi.

The change from black to white can take as little as 250ms in the E Ink microcapsules, however, due to other hardware constraints, current products on the market that use E Ink can take as long as three quarters of a second for a new page to display. This makes moving images impractical. However, Mr. Peruvemba says that E Ink Corporation has demonstrated a microcapsule that switches within 50ms and that they are developing a model that will display full motion.

There are three families of products using E Ink, segmented, ink in motion, and matrix,

Segmented displays are flexible. They can be found in products such as wrist watches, batteries that show how much charge is left, and memory sticks that show their remaining storage capacity. E Ink envisions a membrane that could fold out from a hand held package to a 20” diagonal display.

Ink in motion places E Ink panels behind colour posters. By controlling the lighting, the appearance of motion can be created. Companies such as Proctor and Gabble are using this technology in store displays.

For the matrix displays, Mr. Peruvemba sees electronic text books, newspapers, magazines, cell phones, and web browsers.

One current matrix display application on the market is a new group of electronic book readers for eBooks. Unlike general purpose laptops, these products are designed and optimized for the reading experience. Two players, Sony and Amazon.com, have taken the e Ink concept and produced devices that could have more impact on the world than Gutenberg's press.

Sony offers its Portable Reader System (PRS) for under $300. Measuring approximately 175.6 x 123.6 x 13.8mm (6.9" x 4.9" x 0.5") and weighing about 255 grams (9oz), it displays an image using EPD that can be read by a desk lamp or in bright sunshine, just like a printed book. It accepts a wide variety of formats that include BBeB Book (Sony's proprietary format), Adobe® PDF, TXT, RTF, and Microsoft® Word after a conversion on your PC. You must have Microsoft Word installed before you can make this conversion. You can also load audio files (MP3, AAC) and graphics (BPM, JPEG, GIF, PNG), though these will only display in black and white.

The Personal Reader System can be purchased from Sony's online store (http://ebookstore.sony.com/) or from many electronics retail outlets. You can only purchase eBooks over the Internet from the Sony online store. They are downloaded to an electronic library on your computer where they can be uploaded to the reader much the same way as music is downloaded from Apple's iTunes store and sent to an iPod. Unlike iTunes, the Sony library only runs on Windows XP or Vista .

Sony representative stated that there are over 10,000 titles currently available and more being added. The PRS can hold approximately 160 books at a time. You can offload books back to the library or onto a memory card to make room for new titles on the reader. The battery will allow you to read 7,500 pages before it needs to be recharged by either connecting the reader to your computer via a USB cable (required to transfer eBooks) or with a 5.2v charger (center post positive).

The controls are easy to use. Paging through a book is as simple as pressing a button to go forward or backward. There are two sets of these located where the thumb naturally rests for either right or left handed people. The display has three zoom levels that magnify the text, a real plus for people like me whose eyesight isn't quite what it used to be. The on-screen menus are accessed with a multiuse control that moves a curser up, down, left and right. An Enter button sits in the middle of the control. On the bottom edge is a jack for headphones and a volume control.

You select an eBook to read by scrolling through a list that can be sorted by title, author or date. Books can be organized into collections for easy reference and retrieval.

You can move one page at a time or display a table of contents and jump to a chapter. A button lets you set bookmarks that can be returned to later. You can also display information about the book. For sensitive material, the reader can be locked with a password so no one else can use it.

Amazon.com, the Internet bookstore, has been selling eBooks for years. But, as founder and CEO Jess Bezos says, “I've been selling eBooks for a long time. Nobody's been buying eBooks”. Now, Amazon has introduced the Kindle, a $350 electronic device that aims to replace printed books and newspapers

Bezos says that his vision was to take what is good about the printed book and put it into an electronic form. He explains that the book has something people don't notice, yet is the most important feature, the ability to disappear. When people read they are immersed in the world that has been created by the writer, be it fiction or fact, and they don't notice the cover jacket or the binding or the paper or even the fact that they are turning pages. All they are aware of is the story. That is the level of immersion Amazon sought for its Kindle, a device that disappears in the consciousness of the reader.

Unlike Sony's PRS, the Kindle is a self contained unit. Purchased eBooks are downloaded directly from the Amazon.com store. This is done not through the Internet, but through the Sprint cell phone network. Amazon has arranged a special deal with Sprint to provide the service at no cost to the consumer. Amazon pays the phone bill. Unfortunately, this means that consumers outside the United States cannot buy eBooks for the Kindle, making it worthless to them. There is no word on whether Amazon intends to extend their services to other countries.

Because the Kindle does not connect though a computer, it has more control keys than the Sony PRS, such as a full QWERTY keyboard. This can be used for searches of with the built-in dictionary.

Through the Sprint network you can access Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia. You can also subscribe to newspapers such as The New York Times , Wall Street Journal , and Washington Post as well as top magazines including TIME , Atlantic Monthly , and Forbes . Subscriptions are also available to international publications from France , Germany , and Ireland such as Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine , and The Irish Times , as are over 300 top blogs from the worlds of business, technology, sports, entertainment, and politics.

If you are undecided as to whether or not you want to buy a particular book, Amazon lets you download the beginning of it for a free examination before you purchase.

Amazon boasts over 130,000 books in its proprietary eBook format .You can also email Word documents and pictures (JPEG, GIF, BMP, PNG) to your Kindle for viewing. If the wireless feature is turned off, the battery will last nearly 2 weeks. Amazon estimates that you can hold approximately 200 books in the Kindle at a time.

The reading experience on these E Ink devices is amazing. The text and images are crisp and clear. The ability to zoom in makes magnifying glasses unnecessary. Being able to place bookmarks or jump to chapters eliminates thumbing through the text. Having over one hundred titles available in a compact form lets you take a mass of technical material to a job site or enough novels to last weeks on vacation. You can't print from an eBook, but then, that protects the copyright of the author and is the reason publishers and writers are willing to make their books available in this form

BBeB books bought from the Sony store cannot be read on a Kindle and eBooks bought from Amazon.com cannot be read on the Sony PRS. This is one great drawback to having eBooks replace printed material. Anyone can read any book from any publisher. To truly replace books, there needs to be a common format that all readers can use as with the DVD. But, both Sony and Amazon may be reluctant to do this as they make very little margin on the players but realize a large mark-up on the eBooks. By opening up both players to a common format they would no longer have consumers locked into their stores.

Still, it is almost certain other companies will enter the E Ink device market and force the hands of both Sony and Amazon. The move to eBooks will be slow at first. As Sriram Peruvemba says, "It takes many years for people to change." But when that change comes, it could be like the near overnight shift from vinyl long play records to compact disks, or the switch from VHS to DVD. That is when the revolution will begin.

There will be casualties. Conventional bookstores will disappear the way many brick and mortar music stores are closing with the rise in music downloading. The used book business will vanish. The supportive environment that bookstores offer writers in both nurturing them and promoting their work through readings will be gone. It is possible that social networking sites will attempt to replace this contact, but it will not be the same as the personal experience. Writers may find other outlets in coffee houses and libraries.

But, what of libraries? If all books are traded electronically what role will they play? What will happen to librarians? They do far more than stack books according to the dewy decimal system. Librarians are the leading experts on research. If you want to know about a subject, any subject, ask a librarian. She or he may not have the answer, but a librarian will know where to find the answer. If libraries go, where will the librarians go? Online? Perhaps. They are all experts in the Internet. Then again, do we want to loose that personal contact?

What about the people who grow the trees to make the paper to print the books? What about the typesetters and truck drivers? If books, newspapers and magazines are all electronic a long chain of people will loose their jobs, much like the scribes who hand copied manuscripts before the Gutenberg press.

Yet, there will be an explosion in ideas and opinions available to the reading public. We already see how blogs have opened the world to people whose voices were never heard. If all books are just computer files on a server, what need is there for big publishing houses or literary agents? Anyone can write a book and get it listed. Amazon now offers the ability to self publish directly to the Kindle store through its Digital Text Platform (http://dtp.amazon.com/mn/signin). The price of books will be lower and the writer could easily see a greater share of the profit. People who have been shut out of publication because the big houses thought they would not make enough money or the topic was too hot or the opinion too far from the norm, would have their voices heard. A book doesn't have to sell tens of thousands of copies to make a profit if the cost of paper, printing, transportation, etc. are eliminated. It would also benefit the environment by reducing the number of forests that are cut for paper and the amount of energy used. As Sriram Peruvemba says, “Buy an eBook and save twenty trees.”

Of course, there is the likelihood that many of those millions of new writers will be terrible, as are the majority of blogs. In the formalized publishing world there is a degree of quality and editing. It is highly likely that the news story you read in the Globe and Mail or the New York Times has been researched and the facts checked. The same might not be said for every online newsletter. If anyone can create something and call it news, who can we trust? If anyone can write a book and call it a novel, how well will it be written? A new cottage industry of professional editors could spring up who would work directly for authors. As well, freelance publicists might offer their services to market these new books and grab the attention of readers.

Even if good content outweighs the mundane, and I am certain it will, how does someone choose what to read if millions of new books flood cyberspace. As with blogs today, too many voices can become a drone.

Still, this will all work out. In the end we will have a better way to read, writers will have more outlets and more control, and people who never had a chance to express their opinions will be heard.

 

 

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