November 2006 Issue
– Do They Have a Future?
To date, e-books have endured
a short, but tortured saga. They hit the market nearly a decade ago with promises to revolutionize the way people relate to
books, yet mainstream users have not embraced them. Why? Can new technology change this? If
so, how and when?
Burning questions for members
of the industry. Publishing giants and small presses alike are keeping a focused eye on advancing technology for e-book readers.
As the iPod captured a broad swath of users (42 million) with digital music, perhaps a similarly engaging device for reading
e-books will invite its own stampede. There are persuasive reasons for book publishers, retailers and readers to usher in
the technology. E-books offer a lower-cost option for publishing and distributing books by eliminating the costs of printing,
delivery and reducing other expenses. For readers, e-books cost 20 to 25% less than traditional print books, and an e-reader
can store a small library, allowing a user to hop easily from book to book. A host of advantages and disadvantages surrounds
their use, so let’s take a closer look at both, as well as the present technology, before making our predictions.
First, the disadvantages, since
they often define the hurdles to successful implementation. So far, the disadvantages of e-readers appear to have outweighed
the advantages, creating an anemic market for a device launched in the late 1990s with hyperbolic claims about a transformed
industry. While sales of e-books are growing steadily, up 44% last year to $179.1 million in the United
States according to Management Practice Inc., they
still account for less than 1% of total book sales, which amounted to $25.1 billion in the United States in 2005.
And, to cap it off, e-books for leisure reading are a niche market within a niche market – most revenue derives from
reference and educational books, which are read on computers, not e-readers.
What is the reason behind these
dismal figures? The stats are especially surprising for the wireless-generation, raised and fed on computer technology since
grade school. Wouldn’t it seem natural for them to prefer an electronic page to a traditional print one? According to
Andy Patrizio in a September, 2005 article entitled “Why eBooks Still Suck,” teenagers were the first to herald
in electronic devices such as cell phones, iPods, PDAs, Sony PSPs, Blackberries and other gadgets, so why not e-readers? Patrizio
explains that e-book hardware is always a “day late and a pound too heavy.” Plus, e-readers have some stiff competition,
lagging behind the cell phone, iPod and the PDA in popularity. After grabbing two gadgets before dashing out the door, there
is simply no more pocket room left.
“The primary problem,”
Patrizio insisits, “is there isn’t any compelling hardware.” Indeed. So far we’ve seen the demise
of the first generation of e-readers, including the Rocket/Gem Star series from NuvoMedia and the eBookman from Franklin. Both companies left the
business, discarding a disgruntled consumer base, save for the technophiles.
The early e-readers simply could
not compete with print books. The look, feel and even the smell of paper was lost in a back-lit environment where type can
be read at only the right angle. Forget about curling up for a good read. More likely, the user had to contort around the
ebook in an attempt to adjust the light. Take an old e-reader outside, and sunlight obscures the font almost completely. For
some, it’s partly about aesthetics. You can’t display an ebook on a shelf or coffee table with a beautiful hard
jacket. And then, there’s the old tradition of swapping books… an impossibility with proprietary, DRM (Digital
Rights Management) driven software. More on that later. Other problems: slow page turning speeds, low battery life, poor resolution,
Adobe PDF files that do not allow the user to adjust font size, weighty devices, plus e-readers were and are far too expensive.
Today, readers can buy reams of print material for the price of an e-reader, which ranges from US$175 to $400.
In summary, if e-readers are
to overcome the obstacles of a failed generation, the new devices need to:
the printed page as closely as possible
proprietary content allowing for open standards and format compatibility between e-readers
longer battery life
a less-weighty device
6) offer greater
consumer control of text, such as reflowability (i.e. creating a new font size), note-taking, and faster page-turning capability
To usher in the new technology,
however, more is needed aside from the successful replication of the printed page, otherwise, it’s merely a solution
without a problem. Why simulate something that’s already working? So, we also need to ask: What advantages can an e-reader
offer that a traditional print book cannot?
Has any technology surfaced to
handle these questions and concerns? Yes, at least in part. Let’s look at the number one greatest objection first: the
reflective page. Enter E Ink Corporation’s Electronic Paper Display (EPD), featuring a new technology that allows a
page to be read at any angle. The screen absorbs ambient light and uses it to illuminate the page. Taking the screen outdoors
only increases the power and creates a brighter font. And indoors or out, the non-reflective surface closely resembles a printed
page. It’s still a hand-held device, but reviewers laud the visual aspect as a winning feature.
The next problem, resolution,
is also resolved through E Ink Corp. They have increased the pixels to 170 per inch for the EPD pad. The GemStar used around
100 per inch, which is on a par with a newspaper (Laptops average 80 to 90 pixels).
The makers of e-readers picked
up the scent and used the technology to create the next generation of e-readers. Sony launched the Librie in Japan in 2004, and while
praised for exceptional design, the model failed to take off. This is due in part, at least, to the draconian price, around
US $400, and an unrealistic anti-piracy technology—users could only rent a book for 60 days before it would self-destruct,
whether the reader had finished it or not!
This has not discouraged Sony,
who unveiled the Sony Reader in January, 2006, to wide-spread acclaim at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Rivaling the look of
paper, it weighs less than nine ounces, utilizes e-ink with a 6-inch gray scale screen and houses up to 80 “average-sized”
books, according to their webpage. Its rechargeable battery powers up to 7,500 page turns, and it can be recharged in as little
as 4 hours with an AC adapter. For the hard-of-seeing, the text may be enlarged up to 200%. The font can be resized at the
touch of a button. Sony has adopted the iTunes downloadable model through a CONNECT Store, which puts thousands of ebook titles
online.—all for a price, of course. With a multi-formatted capability, it equally displays Adobe PDFs, personal documents,
newsfeeds and JPEGS, but does not convert encrypted PDF or html files (big minus for readers with tons of pre-owned ebooks
that work for other readers, such as Mobiepocket). It even plays audio files.
iRex Technologies Inc., a spin off of Philips Electronics, and the Chinese supplier Tianjin Jinke Electronics Company, will
also hit the US market with similar e-readers. Competition, of course, is a very good thing.
So that handles a few items on
our list, though the Sony Reader is still pretty pricey, retailing between US$299 and US$399. That weighs in about twice the
price of other current offerings. However, as the more budget-minded technophiles know, if you wait, the price invariably
comes down. As for having too-many-gadgets-to-tote-around, technology is not that far away from creating it all on one device.
Imagine one that plays music, operates as a cell phone and a PDA, connects online and
allows users to read ebooks with all the advantages mentioned. Already, cell phones are equipped with digital cameras
that take both still and moving shots. They key will be to create a small, lightweight device, which isn’t hard to imagine
if the EPD or LCD pad is multi-tasked.
All good news…but there’s
still that little proprietary issue—the one about the DRM driven content on the Sony Reader that will likely keep users
invested in the Sony CONNECT store, buying their titles for at least the life of the reader. Users cannot convert to other
popular formats, nor can they share their e-books with others. A lockdown on the software leaves users unable to tweak it.
Blog users sharing technical information about the Sony Readers decry these omissions loudly, chastising Sony for setting
back the cause of e-books yet again. David Rothman, writer, editor, author and self-appointed Sony watchdog says, “Beware
(of Sony). Maybe the interface will be slick, but short of ample evidence to the contrary, don’t dare trust the company
behind it…I wonder if people will be able to own Sony books for real…The
best approach remains a standards-based one of the OpenReader variety. I hope that competitors such as iRex—which in
April will release an E Ink reader able to handle HTML and other common formats from the start—can crush Sony.” As I said before, competition is a good thing.
And, for technophiles who have
faithfully used e-readers of one kind or another since their inception, it can only get better. Deron Douglas, owner of Double
Dragon Publishing, owns three original Rocket eBooks before they sold out to GemStar. He bought his first seven years ago,
and paid between US$100 to US$175 for each. He says, “I can carry thirty to forty novels in a package that is approximately
6 X 9 inches and 2 inches wide. It weighs 1-2 pounds. No heavier than a text book. I like to read 3-4 novels at the same time.
So I can switch from one to the other when necessary. The screen is bright and doesn’t hurt my eyes. The font can be
set to Paperback size or bigger, and it has a back light for night reading.”
Which addresses the question
regarding the advantages of e-books over print books—it may take the next generation of teens to appreciate them, but
for lovers of both technology and the written word, these advantages are distinct. A book with a fancy hard jacket cannot
allow readers to do any of the features that Douglas outlines, nor can it perform searches or look up words, bookmark pages,
or allow for neat note-taking without defacement.
Perhaps Baby Boomers, with a
decades-old love affair of brick and mortar bookstores, will hold back the e-book market for as long as they still own their
private hard-bound collections. Perhaps a tree endangerment campaign will turn readers, albeit reluctantly, from their precious
paper. Or perhaps researchers, such as those with Tianjin Jinke Electronics where ninety-five percent hold post graduate degrees,
will create new solutions that lure both Boomers and teens alike into the new market.
As naysayers define the problems,
researchers will strive for the solutions. While e-books have plenty of ground to cover before surpassing the appeal of print
books, their progress is, nevertheless, steady. It is easy to imagine that the time will arrive when all the conditions are
ripe for the transition. Progress toward this end may resemble the experiment detailed in Kenneth Keyes book, The Hundredth
Monkey: When a good idea plays out long enough (and we are operating from the premise that e-books are a good idea), it becomes
a question of when acceptance will hit the mainstream. Already, e-books have tested the market for nearly ten years, a long
time in terms of technology. Will we wait another ten years to see significant changes? Less?
More? Maybe they will never catch on, though it seems unlikely given the nature of the market always to seek a better solution.
This will be an interesting watch as new devices are unveiled.
One thing, is certain: if more
people worldwide adopt e-books over print books, it has the potential to propel literacy rates to all-time highs. But that’s
another story for The Fiction Flyer.