Monday, 12 October 2009

Avoiding e-Readers

There has been a great deal of hype about electronic books from Sony and Amazon but, as much as I like shiny new gadgets, I just can't get excited over these offerings. Fundamentally, I like replacements for old ideas to be better than their predecessors in every measurable way, but e-readers are more give-and-take.

On the plus side, you've almost eliminated the weight/bulk factor. You can buy books on-the-go, and have them almost instantly available for reading. The Kindle offers free Wikipedia access, which is handy for settling those pub debates. The text-to-speech feature could occasionally be useful if you just want to stare out of the train window for a while on the way to work rather than squinting tired eyes at text on a page.

But then, the negatives are huge:

  1. Sure, the battery life is impressive, but it's still a battery life that dead-tree just doesn't have to worry about.

  2. It's no big deal if you lose a book or drop it in the pool by mistake on holiday, but doing the same with these pricey devices is a blow, both from the perspective that it cost so damn much and that your entire holiday reading was on it.

  3. Digital Rights Management. This is wrong on so many levels it's hard to know where to start. Want to lend a book to your friend? Not allowed. Want to view it on a broader range of devices than the publisher of your book wants? Not allowed. Have you inadvertently bought something that shouldn't have been sold to you? No problem (for the publishers) -- your reseller can remotely remove the book from your library (the fact that this was done with George Orwell's 1984 is deliciously ironic).

  4. On a DRM-related note, you can only buy books for your reader from online stores affiliated with the manufacturer of your device, and it's not too difficult to envision a music industry-like scenario where a given title is only available on a given platform.

  5. (and this is the part that makes me think I'm getting old...) it just doesn't feel good. Some throw-away books I don't really care about, but others, I want to feel the paper under my fingers to get a feel for it (I have a copy of the Smalltalk 'Blue Book', printed in 1983, that exudes that fuzzy feeling)

Maybe that's it. The only books I'd be happy to have on an electronic reader would be ones that I don't care about; ones that are effectively disposable. But disposable and expensive don't sit well together.

How can e-readers get it right? They have to be better than 'old-style' books, and that involves both a significant drop in price and the ditching of the DRM millstone. Some unique opportunities arise in the case of corrections and updated versions, as well. Does your technical book have a new, updated edition? Maybe you could get it cheaper because you owned the previous one. Maybe you can wirelessly submit feedback or corrections back to the author/publisher. When you're part way through a series, waiting for the author to publish the next volume, wouldn't it be useful say, "I'm interested in this series" and automatically be notified when it's available?

Despite my dislike of the current state of affairs, there's lots of potential for the platform, but only if some draconian notions of control relax their grip on its throat.

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