Times Online has a worthwhile article provocatively titled Could This Be Final Chapter in the Life of the Book. That’s just a tease, however — the article is really concerned with Google’s book search and issues of copyright. It’s a bit desultory and concludes out of the blue that teachers should be concerned with encouraging students to think rather than just process information. Did that really need saying? But the author also tosses in some interesting bits about the French being concerned that Google is anglocentric, so they’re going to build their own Google. Good luck to them — the more search companies of the calibre of Google the better, though it’ll be surprising if anything of the sort can be achieved via government initiative.
Personally I think the fate of the book will have as much to do with hardware as content available online. I don’t like reading large amounts of text on my monitor, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. What I want is a device about the size of a paperback, sporting a very high resolution colour screen which is easy on the eyes, and a physical interface which makes it easy to turn pages. It should support a wide variety of file formats, from simple text through to word processing document formats, as well as PDF. It should cost less than $200. Those into serious research should be able to afford a few of them so they can have several books “open” at the same time. It should also be possible to have several books open in an individual device along with an easy way to switch between them. That doesn’t sound unreasonable, does it? So what is available today?
The Sony Reader looks promising.
The screen is black and white, as are the screens of the other two we’ll look at, but that’s not a big deal for most books, and it is probably easy on the eyes. The reason to avoid this puppy is that it only supports PDF files and a special DRM restricted proprietary Sony format. Also, in my opinion, Sony is pure evil and should be boycotted across the board. They’ve even gone as far as to install root kits on customer computers.
According to pre-release reviews, the iRex iLiad supports PDF, html, and text. Their website, doesn’t mention the latter, but it’s hard to imagine they’d include html and not text (html basically is text).
The major pain with iLiad is the price of about $800 US. A little portable reader should not cost as much as a laptop.
Coming soon(?), the Hanlin eReader.
This one supports most of the file types we’d want; PDF, text, DOC, html, and some others I’ve never heard of, as well as supporting zip compression of files. From the image it appears that you have to poke it with a stylus to get it to turn pages, which strikes me as a mistake in interface design; we should be able to turn pages with our hands, as with an actual book. A stylus, though, could be handy for copying, pasting, highlighting and that sort of thing. And the cover is a nice touch, though there is a case available for the Sony Reader that does the same trick. But it’s all moot, as you couldn’t get one now if you wanted to — and who knows what it will cost when finally released?
So it appears as though the actual, physical book will be with us for the forseeable future. Perhaps there will come a day when amazon.com and chapters.indigo.ca will either cease to exist or will sell only downloadable files, while abebooks.com and bookmooch.com remain as sources for those old fashioned dead tree formats so treasured by eccentric old kooks, but that day is not today nor will it be soon.
In the meantime, you can read books on your mobile phone. In Japan, they even write novels on their phones. In the end, e-readers may emerge as an application on a device that’s a marriage of mobile phone and PDA. It appears to be happening already, but I think I’ll pass on being an early adopter. The interface and display on my real books are still so much nicer.