Saturday, January 19, 2008

Optons, Kindles, and eBooks

In his novel, Return from the Stars, Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem imagined a device called an “opton.” It was a “book” with a single page into which you would plug a small crystal containing whatever book you wanted to read, and the text would then appear on the page, along with places you could touch to display other pages. (You can read his description here.)

Sound familiar? As with much of the science fiction paraphernalia of a few decades ago (this one dates from the 1960's) the device has quickly popped into reality about a century ahead of schedule. Today's ebooks may not have pages exactly, but thinner and more flexible displays that would resemble them are already in development. And Lem failed to foresee that not only a book but a whole library could fit into a much smaller chip than he had in mind, and that the device would be able to wirelessly acquire new material for itself, and thus to function as a newspaper as well.

That last feature, of course, belongs to Amazon's new Kindle reader, the latest in a series of progressively better attempts to redefine the book for the digital age. I will refrain from giving yet another review of this device, because the Internet is crawling with them already. However, I have to share my experience with its chief competitor, the Sony eBook Reader, which came as a wonderful Christmas gift from my wife.

Sony's been in this game longer than Amazon, and this year's model has technical improvements over last year's. But they haven't done nearly so well at marketing it. Amazon may have done Sony a big favor here by “kindling” (you knew it was coming, didn't you?) interest in the concept. [There is also an impressive reader called the Iliad from iRex, a spinoff of Phillips, which boasts more bells and whistles but a price tag twice as high as Sony's.]

Which of these devices you prefer has more to do with how you like to select your reading material than what it is like to read on them. They both have comparable “epaper” screens that present black on off-white text which you read by reflected light, like a normal page. They have a resolution at least double that of a computer screen, making the text sharper and easier on the eye. Unlike computer screens, the legibility of these displays is actually improved by good light-- even sunlight--again, like a real page. And because they only draw power while the page is being drawn, they have unbelievable battery life--about 2 weeks even with heavy reading. You really don't even have to think about it, it's not going to die on you. And unlike trying to read on a laptop computer, your legs don't get hot.

In short, if you are at all interested in trying this new way to read, there is no longer any reason to wait for a better solution. No doubt the pages will continue to get bigger and more clear, and the devices will continue to offer new features, but they are already good enough for years of use. And there is plenty to read, even for free. Project Gutenberg alone could keep the most avid reader busy for many years, and publishers are getting more interested in putting out digital versions of current titles.

Which brings us to the subject of Digital Rights Management, or DRM, and the reason I prefer Sony's reader. DRM, of course, is how content providers (AKA publishers) will prevent you from passing along your used ebooks to friends, hospitals, thrift shops, and used bookstores, as you have been doing throughout the rest of your life. Henceforth, they hope, you will be satisfied to email a link to the book's web page to your friends, encouraging ever more sales. In exchange for this, they will discount the price you and your friends will have to pay for each copy.

Whether this brave new world will pan out as intended is still a matter of ongoing debate. Even though it rubs many the wrong way, myself included, I have to admit that if I am willing to pay half the cover price for a used paper book then I should be willing to pay something comparable for a new digital one. But it still bothers me that I won't be able to rush up to a friend, full of enthusiasm, and press it into his or her hands with the admonition, “You've just GOT to read this!”

I'm sorry, but an email suggesting that they hurry out and buy one is not the same. I guess we'll just have to get used to treating books the way we do movies.

The other downside of DRM is that it requires infrastructure that gets between you and the book. This comes in the form of software that has to be installed on your computer (in the case of Sony) to “authorize” you to download from their ebook store and control which devices, including your computer and your ebook reader, will be allowed to view the book. As we know, the best laid software “gang aft aglee,” so there has to be customer support, in the event your privileges are lost, to get them restored--which sounds a lot like having your voting rights given back after you are no longer a felon.

See, I have this nightmare. In it, I walk into my living room where all the books I've collected throughout my life, and have not culled out through periodic moving and cleanup, lie in state on their shelves, with a moderate degree of organization so I can usually find the one I'm looking for when I want it. But in this dream I select a book and open it, only to discover its pages are either blank or filled with gibberish. Frantic, I place a call to the bookstore (not the publisher), and find myself in tech support hell. It seems they no longer have a record that I ever bought that book (after all, it was years ago), so they are sorry, but I will have to buy a new copy if I want to read it again. Then I discover the same thing has happened to the rest of my library. At this point I wake up in a cold sweat.

Amazon has taken this a step further by electing to use a proprietary format for everything you read on your Kindle. That means, in case you're wondering, that if you have a PDF or text file you'd like to read, even a draft of your own novel, you have to email it to Amazon where, for the modest fee of ten cents per file, they will convert it for you and send it back. This puts my nightmare to shame – now I can't even read my own handwriting without permission!

Sony has been generous enough to let me read my own stuff, at least text files and PDF's, without paying extra for the privilege--at least so far. And this, combined with a lower selling price, makes their reader my preferred choice. [The Iliad does this too.] Though it lacks the Kindle's magical ability to grab Amazon's contents from thin air, at least I can plug it in and put whatever I want on it, including a wealth of free books from Project Gutenberg. Such a wealth, in fact, that I will have to write more about it in weeks to come.

Until then, happy reading, whatever the format of your choice.

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