Ebooks and ebook readers

For more than ten years I’ve been reading predictions about how ebooks were going to replace printed books, but we’re still not at that point. There are various ebook reader devices on sale and there are plenty of books in electronic format available, but we have not reached the tipping point where cheap ebook devices are available and enough ebook content is available at an attractive price. The barriers now are as much commercial as technical – for mass adoption the technology and the market must both work together.
A story in yesterday’s Times Higher, reporting a JISC study, says that while library users were “hungry for digital content” librarians found the business models for course text-books were “often inappropriate” and their prices “too high”. Hear hear.
The business model for a print book is simple – hand over the money and the book is yours. For ebooks it is a whole lot more tricky, especially when you are talking about purchasing access to a book that made may be used by hundreds of students. Even in the personal sphere, when you buy an ebook it is not always clear exactly what rights you are buying. If you lose your Kindle you have to get a police report before Amazon will agree to close down the device. And you may also find that a book you have purchased for your Kindle gets deleted by Amazon if they discover they didn’t have the rights to distribute it in the first place.
Ebooks are a strange new world – not everything works quite the same way as it does with printed books. Of course there are plenty of advantages to ebooks too, and as the medium matures (maybe another five years? ten years?) I’m sure we will find new features that transform the experience of reading a book.
The British Library is trying to help us get used to world of ebooks by providing dedicated space for researchers to get to grips with the latest technologies driving the digital reading revolution. I saw this back in May, but they have just added three new e-reader devices to the display: the COOL-ER reader, Sony’s ‘Pocket’ and ‘Touch’ Reader devices. They are also showcasing Bloomsbury Library Online, on the upper ground floor of the British Library from Thursday 3 September 2009. Readers will be able to view electronic content at their local library and remotely via internet enabled devices.
For me the key to expanding ebook use and usability is going to be the availability of a world-beating ebook reader. Trouble is, no-one has yet agreed what such a beast might look like. Is it an iPhone? an Apple Tablet? a Kindle? This lack of consensus came home to me when I read a blog post about the announcement
that Asus, makers of the eeePC netbook, were to launch the planet’s cheapest e-book reader. This was interesting not just because it was cheap but also because it is going to have two screens, facing each other and folding up like a clam shell. My first thought was “Brilliant!”, followed closely by “But why?” The comment thread on that blog post starts to dissect exactly what is needed from an ebook reader (or eeebook as Asus have it). Top of the list came e-ink, the display technology that matches the readability of paper. The Asus device will apparently not use e-ink. Hence it gets the thumbs-down from most of the commenters.
Trying to define the ideal feature list for an ebook reader is a tricky job as books themselves are so diverse. What works for a novel will not work for a coffee table book or an atlas and may not work well for a scientific monograph.
So, what is your feature-list for the ideal ebook reader for scientific books and articles? I’ll assume that we all agree on readability, long battery life and low weight.
How about colour screen, double screen, ability to annotate, ability to display any ebook format (including plain text, html and pdf), wifi/bluetooth/3G, link-in to an ebook store, lack of Digital Rights Management. Anything else?
And a prize for anyone who tell me when all these features are going to come together into one handy device that costs under GBP100!

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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18 Responses to Ebooks and ebook readers

  1. Anna Vilborg says:

    Funny, I was just reading an article about this in my morning paper, and was thinking about it while biking to work. For really reading an article (not just glancing at it) there must be, as you point out, a function for annotation – scribbling, drawing circles, making arrows and highlighting things – and maybe also an option to enter longer notes. It would also be useful to be able to give the articles tags of your own, but that’s probably an easy feature to fix.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    The first eBook reader, popular in Japan (I can’t remember what it’s called), actually had annotation tools. My Sony does not, and I really miss it. Even for leisure reading – as for book clubs – there are still passages I wish I could flag. For scientific reading, this function would be non-negotiable – a keypad and a way to insert comments of unlimited length.

  3. Richard P. Grant says:

    I like the thought of electronic PostIt notes and highlighter pens.

  4. Frank Norman says:

    I like the thought of electronic PostIt notes and highlighter pens
    I suppose on a touchscreen it should be possible to use your finger to highlight passages somehow. Highlighter pens are a very simple way to highlight, and it would be great to have e-highlighting that was as simple. Plus a function to extract all the highlights into a new document (makes plagiarism so much simpler 😉

  5. Mike Fowler says:

    Great post, Frank.
    The latest version of Preview (a pdf and other image viewing environment) in the recent Mac OSX upgrade (Snow Leopard) has a much improved text selection tool for pdf docs. The technology exists – shouldn’t be long before it’s incorporated into e-readers
    And I’d echo Jennifer’s comments – an e-reader must be multi-functional. Practical enough to allow annotation tools for technical docs or book club ummmm, books; comfortable enough to allow me to read the latest Dan Brown high art epic will lounging non the sofa or propped on a pillow in bed.

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    And waterproofed for the bath? That’s another big problem with the Sony.
    Re I suppose on a touchscreen it should be possible to use your finger to highlight passages somehow.
    Let’s hope they do better than Apple with the iPhone selection tool, which only seems to kick in precisely when you don’t want it to.

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

    Thing is, Frank, it’s difficult to riffle through an electronic device looking for post-its and highlights. In the bath.

  8. Anna Vilborg says:

    And waterproofed for the bath
    yes, and one that can be dropped or manhandled in various ways. If I had to go around being careful it just wouldn’t be worth it 🙂

  9. Frank Norman says:

    I once dropped a library book in the canal, whilst lounging on the roof of a barge, but I have never really understood the need to read whilst taking a bath.
    I think if you are serious about synchronous abluting and reading then I think you need to invest in setting up a small projection suite in the bathroom, and read off the big screen.

  10. Frank Norman says:

    Thanks Mike. I was going to say something about pdfs, but ran out of time last night. Someone suggested to me that it was important to be able to display double column pdf A4 documents at sufficient resolution and size to permit reading. This can be tough on smaller devices especially when you have mathematical or other formulae.
    This seems to make sense. But it somehow feels wrong that when moving our mindset into an all-electronic world we are tying ourselves to a format that is inherently print based: PDF is a page description format, designed for paper pages. As ebook readers become widely adopted therefore I think we may see a move away from PDF in favour of a format better suited to the screen.

  11. Richard P. Grant says:

    Frank, PDF is actually Portable Document Format. It’s media-independent.

  12. Frank Norman says:

    Richard – Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that the P stood for Page. But you are right about the media-independent aspect now I think about it and I have seen screen-based PDFs (I think OUP have some).
    The problem remains that most PDFs currently produced are suitable for printing and less suitable for viewing on small screens. I still think there is a problem here.

  13. Richard P. Grant says:

    Righto Frank. That’s a design issue though, isn’t it?

  14. Cath Ennis says:

    Heh – I always thought PDF stood for Print and Download Format.
    You learn something new every day – and seeing as it’s not even 7am here yet, do I get to go back to bed for the day?

  15. Richard Wintle says:

    I really love the idea of portable e-book devices – but have rarely seen them here yet. I would love to be able to load such a thing up with some of the chunkier novels I read (currently working through East of Eden, which, at nearly 700 pages in pocketbook format, is rather thick to stuff in a briefcase).
    Does anyone have experience with the portable formats from Project Gutenberg? I’ve only dealt with ugly text-only or html, which I confess I print out and read on paper (the only other option being a laptop, which is hardly ideal for on a crowded train).

  16. Frank Norman says:

    That’s a design issue though
    I’m struggling to know exactly what I think it is. I think it’s a problem of transition, from page to screen, but meanwhile we are creating a huge corpus of material in PDF form that cannot easily be read on screen. I don’t know enough about publishers’ operations to know how easy it would be to create new versions that are more flexible and more suitable for screens, even small screens.

  17. Pami Chen says:

    I came across an interesting eBook reader by a Hongkong based company JoinTech it has 7 inch LCD with color display and it comes in a Leather case. It has built in MS Office, MS Excel, MS PowerPoint and Acrobat Reader. You can review eBook Reader here.

  18. Nelson Smith says:

    I have the ebookwise e-reader. It is the greatest. Has anotation,highlighting,notes on pages can be made, can write on pages. touch screen, the book reader is a bit heavy (apxt. 1 1/2 lbs.) About the same as some of my text books were in college(which I never carried but had to pay for). They are building their list of books at a very rapid pace. The e-bookwise price is more than reasonable $89.95, then you pay discounted rates for the books. Some are free, and others very, cheap. Holds hundreds of books, and memory can be increased with a smart card.
    I do a lot of traveling, and it goes with me everywhere, as well as at home. Love it.