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Re-discovering Reading With e-Book Readers

Sony has recently . This has aroused much of my curiosity in getting to learn more about this new breed of electronic devices.

Why do we need a reader for reading electronic books? Why couldn’t we just read these ebooks on our computers, laptops or netbooks? Why do we need to pay for and carry an additional device just for reading electronic books? I admit that I was a bit skeptical at first, but after I have learnt the features of these e-book readers and how the business models operates, I am quite convinced that they really have their role to play.

There are quite a number of e-book readers in the market but it seems that the market has eventually been dominated by 2 major players: the Amazon Kindle and  Sony PRS ebook readers. Another company, Plastic Logic, has also been very aggressive in entering the market but their product will only debut in 2010.

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Amazon Kindle (Photo from http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Amazons-Wireless-Reading-Generation/dp/B00154JDAI)

ReaderComparisonv2F_1_540x314Sony PRS Series (Photo from http://mail.google.com/mail/?tab=3m#label/Learning/12359aca7855ede2)

All these ebook readers have certain common features:

Display First of all, they all utilize a display technology called “E Ink Electronic Paper” display, which is different from the LCD for laptops and netbooks. Unlike the LCD, E Ink display is not self-illuminating. There needs to be light to read it, just like reading prints on paper. The power consumption for such display is very minimal. When a page has been loaded, it virtually doesn’t consume anymore power. Therefore, the power for a fully charged ebook reader can last for days. The display will also cause much less stress to the eyes.

Size (form factor) Tablet from 6″ to 10″ diagonal, 1/3″ thick

Extreme light weight The weight of the biggest ebook reader is just 10 ounces, 1/4 the weight of the lightest netbook.

Integration with online bookstores This is indeed an important factor for the success of the ebook readers. The Kindle is supported by the Kindle Bookstore, which is in fact part of the Amazon business. The Sony ebook readers are also backed up by a number of online bookstores connected with Sony. Users of these ebook readers can conveniently pay to download  digitized publications wirelessly through Wifi and 3G networks. I think the business model is quite similar to the iTune Music Store and the iPhone Apps Store of Apple Inc.

Comparing the 2 major market players, the Amazon Kindle seems to have the advantage by being the earlier entrant to the ebook market (end 2007), and being backed by the largest online bookstore of its own. However, the Sony ebook readers have an edge  of being more flexible in allowing personal e-documents to be downloaded and read by the users themselves (with no additional charge I suppose). For the time being, users have to email their personal stuffs to their assigned “Kindle account” for Amazon to convert and feed them to the users’ Kindle reader “at a charge” which is about HK$1 per MB. Furthermore, Kindle Reader is not available outside the US for the time being.

Anyway, I think ebook readers really have their unique role to play just for “reading” digitized books, magazines, newspaper and documents, while laptops and netbooks can be spared for other purposes such as social networking and information searching purposes. I also don’t think that it would be too much a burden to add 10 more ounces (less than the weight of 2 iphones) to my carrying bag.

It’s a pity that the ebook readers currently can only display grayscale images. I believe that further enhancements would be made with technological breakthroughs.  I also believe that more features and functions will be added to the ebook readers in order to suit the needs of users. There are rumors that Apple Inc. would announce the launch of a “tablet”. As the e-book market looks very promising, I have a feeling that this tablet might be designed for used as an ebook reader with many other computer and internet access functions. We’ll see.

With the appropriate devices and business models, I believe that reading on electronic devices will become more and more popular, just like listening music on iPod and mp3 players. In Hong Kong, we have been talking for a long while about using electronic textbooks in the schools. I think the authorities should actively explore how the available technologies and business models can be learned and adopted for making things happen.

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6 Responses

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  1. Anthony says

    This kind of liquid crystal display is limited in color by nature.
    So the only application is display serious (boring to death) books which is almost text only.
    To me, it is already a torture to read books without color and pictures.

    Generally speaking, single function gadget is either hit or miss in a short time. So I doubted the future of these reading devices.

  2. TS says

    I believe that there will be breakthroughs in display technologies.

    Interestingly, best sellers are mostly printed in monochrome. Books without colors do not necessary mean serious and boring, like Harry Porter, Lord of the Ring and many many others. Even many Cartoon books that attract young and old people are printed in black and white.

    The success of these ebook readers depends very much on how well they can suit the reading habits and aid reading and reviewing by designing in appropriate features, e.g. making notes, highlighting (on touch screen for example) searching specific paragraphs.

    Reading is a major human activity in “civilized” world. I think it deserves a specific device dedicated to just that. I see a future in these devices.

  3. Tracy says

    Thx for so many details about e-book reader. Another benefit may be the storage. In HK, many people do not have a large house so this may be very useful.

  4. TS says

    It will be nice if the ebook reader can have a “blank paper” feature for people to scribble things or draw sketches and then index it and save away for future reference. There should also be a backup feature, say sync the content wirelessly.

    In this sense, the reader can also serve as a pile of electronic papers. It can also be designed with many different paper formats, such as blank paper, graph paper, gridded paper etc.

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