Evolution of a Digital Book Reader

I Become a Digital Book Reader

Over the last few years, I've rediscovered the joys of reading for pleasure. My first few years at university, I never really got around to reading for pleasure because I was too busy doing homework, but once re-introduced, I doubt I'll ever stop - mostly because of recent technological innovations which have made it the most convenient way to pass time while forced to stop and sit still for a few minutes.

I think I really started reading again over spring vacation in 2007. A friend loaned me a copy of Wizard's First Rule, which I gobbled up avariciously while relaxing on a beach in Oregon. After I returned to school, I visited library after library searching for the sequels so I could finish the story.

That's when I noticed something.

Terry Goodkind's books are huge - colossally huge. They are also heavy if you are already carrying around a number of textbooks. They don't fit in your purse, and you can't easily whip them out while you're waiting in line at the bank or for your dinner to come at a restaurant.

So although I didn't originally leap into eBooks because of their weight, when I couldn't find several of the books in the series at my local libraries, getting them online and reading them on my Nintendo DS Lite had *huge* appeal to me. The DS Lite had a lot of nice features for one just starting out reading digital books. First, the software I was using, dslibris, was free, and had excellent support for varying levels of contrast and brightness. The fonts were antialiased and easy on the eyes, and the hardware itself was easy enough to use by plugging in the microSD card into a card reader on my computer and copying books to it which I had downloaded from the internet. Some I got from the baen books free library, which has thousands of free books, including much of the Honor Harrington series. The DS Lite itself was great for someone used to reading dead tree format due to its dual screen format and long battery life - I could read for days without charging!

The Epic Adventure of Searching for Hardware and Software

At some point my eBook collection started to get unmanageable. I had already given "Books" a first class location commensurate with "Music" and "Movies" in my folder hierarchies, but the formatting and internal organization was getting out of hand. With dslibris, every book had to be in xhtml format. Many books are delivered in ePub, mobiPocket, lit, PDF, or plain text. So I had to do a lot of converting back and forth via command line and I really wanted some software to handle it for me, in the style of iTunes or Windows Media Player. I even wrote a few very simple scripts that would automate much of the process, but it was getting too big to handle.

There were many solutions available, including calibre, but none of them had the quality that I was looking for, and eventually I abandoned them all as being too young in their development cycle. So eventually I simply abandoned the effort of managing my collection.

I did, however, find Stanza, by Lexcycle. Stanza is a well-designed piece of software for reading books on both your PC and Mac. It opens just about every file format you would ever need, and follows conventional wisdom on column width for easier reading. So books are paneled across your screen in scrolling columns of only a few inches, rather than reading all the way across the screen and losing your place before the next line.

While using Stanza, I noticed a pretty neat feature: Sharing. After opening books in the reader I could open up stanza on other devices and share the book to the device. Noteably at the time, I owned an iPod Touch. I quickly downloaded Stanza to my touch (for free), and shared all the books I was currently reading via my home wireless. This was much quicker and easier than pulling out the SD card, extracting the SD card, plugging it into the usb reader (which I often lost), converting books to xhtml, and copying them to the card. So I almost immediately stopped reading on the DS and started reading on my iPod Touch.

This continued for much of the last year, until I got a new job and started having a spare bit of cash. So instead of downloading free books from the internet, I downloaded the Kindle reader onto my Touch (nee iPhone) and just bought and downloaded books directly to the device. Or, as I do more often, purchase the books on the amazon store and have them sent to my iPod Touch.

Not to show favoritism, I downloaded the Barnes and Noble reader, which is in many ways superior to the Kindle reader - it supports highlighting and annotation. The one thing that irritated me about the B&N reader, however, is it's page turning. In both the Kindle reader and Stanza, gradual page turning is supported. So I can grab the side of the screen and start dragging to read the next page. Then if I realize I started turning too soon - wait, did he just get SHOT? - I can abort my page turning. It's admittedly a small complaint, but it really has made the kindle reader, for its lack of features, preferable to B&Ns.

However...Stanza is still superior to either of them. And I can't read books from B&N or the Kindle store in anything but their own app because of the DRM. Sigh.

While I would very much like to purchase a Kindle for reading technical books, I just don't know if it's the right thing to do. My book reading device changes all the time, and I don't want to be locked into the Kindle if Sony suddenly releases a fantastic new reader that supports everything and a monkey. And I *do* want my reader to support everything and a monkey. I'm haunted by purchasing drm songs and never being able to play them when hardware moves on, as it invariably does.

So what's a modern technophile-bibliophile to do?

Complain about the software design, the specification formats, and the hardware, as usual.

Software: I wish I could remember where to find that passage

Reading technical books, technical papers, references books on technical topics, and leisure fiction are completely different activities, and each of them requires a completely different feature set. Some of the current readers are better at some than others, and none of them are good at all of the scenarios.

Technical papers are possibly the most demanding and the least supported. Complex renderings of diagrams, tables, and more make reading technical papers on readers that don't support the PDF format almost impossible. I can't speak from experience with hardware, but if my experience with PDF software is any indication, PDFs even on the Kindle DX are bound to be a nightmare. Many technical papers just *require* 8.5x11" format because of hardcoded layout. I can see this not being a problem on a somewhat larger version of the iPhone due to multi-touch zoom, but on a Kindle? Yuck.

Technical books may have the above problem, but at least have the problem of type expectations. Code listings absolutely must be readable, and depending on the application, these may not be well-supported. In addition, while reading a technical book, I want to be able to make quick notes on useful passages. Ideally these would be uploaded with a snippet of the original text to the internet so I could view them at my leisure to recall what I learned from the book, or share them with friends. "See? This book has a great section on SQL injection! You should buy it!"

The other important thing that readers of reference and technical books on a device need is a spatial memory index. How often when trying to remember some bit of knowledge that you learned do you recall the context you learned it in? When recalling things from text books, I remember it in a fashion of "oh, that bit was about 3/4 of the way through the book, about 1/2 of the way down the page." If search functionality worked on these book readers, we might not need spatial help. But so far it doesn't, for the most part. Also if there was an index of the book where the size on the screen of a chapter was relevant to it's character length, it would be much easier to "feel" where you were in the book, eliminating much of the one-dimensional feeling that those who remember things visually get from ebooks.

Leisure book readers don't really need any of this functionality, but students and professionals do. And students buy more books than almost any other class I can think of. Textbooks are heavy and very expensive. If readers would support all of these features well, the textbook market would be primed for adoption. Well, if DRM didn't cripple it and the prices were reasonable anyway - which I'm sure is a pipe dream. The last textbooks I bought at Western, the publisher decided to get clever. They published the textbook in a loose leaf format (which I didn't know I was buying) that had to be put in a 3-ring notebook. I can't imagine wanting to purchase a used version of THAT from someone - how would I know they hadn't lost pages?

Anyway - software readers on hardware need to implement a spatial index, annotations, multi-touch zoom, and excellent rendering of all typesets in order to truly have my vote. Wireless delivery and whispersync would just be icing on the cake if I had that feature set.

But...I just bought that book on the Kindle!

Which brings me to point two of my considerations - formats. DRM sucks. Steve Jobs admitted it himself for the iTunes store, and removed all of it from their music. The same is true for books, as publishers of eBooks will eventually learn the hard way. DRM is the single largest issue keeping me from jumping whole-heartedly onto the eBook bandwagon. I don't want to spend thousands of dollars on books that I may not be able to read when I switch hardware devices. Even Kindle to Kindle 2 users had problems switching all their content over! If the content wasn't DRMd, I wouldn't worry about buying a kindle or buying books, I would probably get both *today*, because I wouldn't worry about content loss.

It's not even content loss in every case. You can't find every book in every format. Some publishers are going exclusively Kindle, while others have gone exclusively Sony. I hate this! Don't eBook makers realize how bad this is for their adoption rates? Why bother getting a reader if you're still going to have to buy paper copies of half the content you want?

God, I love the iPhone

I know, I should stop gushing over the iPhone. But multi-touch really is what makes the web usable on small devices, and it could make books readable too. Unfortunately I don't think it would be enough.

Annotations are one of the big points for me, but I haven't made many yet because I keep switching software and hardware, and none of the annotation formats are cross-compatible. If they were kept online, it would make it much easier. I would be able to contribute to a body of knowledge instead of just jamming it all in my head. John Siracusa from Ars Technica blogged about the past of eBooks, and mentioned remixes of books being one of the things that eBooks could do that paper books couldn't. I would *love* to see that. (His article is a really great read, and you should check it out.)

I keep mentioning Sony, but I haven't gone into their readers yet. One of the reasons is that I haven't owned one, and I don't know anyone who owns one. But Sony's eBook technology has been out much longer than Amazon's, and they both use the same screen. One nice thing about the Sony readers is that they are both e-ink and touch screens. I would love to have a chance to see how well-implemented it is, because the idea is fantastic. But if I couldn't read Kindle books, I would be cutting out about half of the available library. It just sucks.

So for hardware? Multi-touch and e-Ink. Pen might be nice. I can't tell. Wireless is almost required to compete with the sheer convenience of the Kindle.

Though honestly, a tablet that was about the size of a Kindle DX would probably blow all these devices out of the water. If only Apple would get on it...

That's what I have for now on this topic. I'm probably going to purchase a Kindle or Sony Reader in the near future. I just hate to compromise so badly. Meanwhile, the iPhone is an *awesome* book reader for fiction. If you have one, do it. You won't look back.

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