Saturday, October 3, 2009

E-Book Readers: Yay or Nay?

Movies should be digitally distributed. I'm sick of returning them to video stores and Netflix, not to mention going to get them in the first place/waiting for them to ship. Just when you upgrade your entire VHS collection to DVD, they go and come out with Blu-Ray, the bastards. Albums should also be digital. I can never find the fucking CD I want in the right jewel case and when I do, it's often scratched beyond use. But should books go digital?

Movies and music can be enhanced by new technologies. Books can't. When a movie you've seen a hundred times comes out on Blu-Ray, you sometimes want to see it again. That clearer picture and the 7.1 sound enhances your experience. Books are the same all across the board, whether you read them in hardback, paperback, or on your computer. The experience remains unchanged.

Books haven't changed much in hundreds of years. They don't break when you drop them. They don't have to be plugged into the wall from time to time, either. You can't really do anything to improve them until the day we're jacking them straight into our heads via a neural transceiver and, even then, most bookworms will just opt for the traditional experience.

So I've been pretty skeptical about the e-book devices, which is a growing market dominated by Amazon and Sony, but this story from Times Mobile piqued my interest. That the device essentially opens and closes like a traditional book is a step in the right direction, I think. And it's made by Asus, who more or less pioneered the netbook. The article also says that Asus is aiming for a harmonic balance between price and functionality and who could complain about that?

Bookworms, for one. There's only one reason I want an electronic reader: the backlight feature, which doesn't warrant the price tag. I want to read in bed again, like I always did when I was single. My girlfriend says the bedside lamp doesn't bother her, but she frequently sleeptalks in the middle of the night and grumbles about the light, whether her waking self knows it or not. Kind of breaks my concentration when I have to put a book down and smother her with a pillow. My cellphone doesn't seem to wake her, but have you ever tried reading an e-book on your phone? I've seen small print legalese that strained the eyes less.

Then you get into the problem of DRM (digital rights management), which is packaged with most legally purchased e-books. DRM is the copy protection that basically limits your use of the software. Virtual books are bought no differently than traditional books (sometimes the digital versions cost more than the ink and paper versions!), but you probably won't be able to freely lend the non-physical book you paid hard-earned cash for. If you ask me, that means you don't fucking own it. No resell or transfer rights is like paying for a book at the library.

And I don't really see a way around that, other than pirating the books, which DRM doesn't seem to prevent, so what's the fucking point of DRM at all? This copy-protection bullshit only affects the legal users—the people who shelled out dough. Why punish them? One of the greatest pleasures of being a bookworm is the whole, "Hey, I just read this great fucking book, now I'm going to make you read it" thing. I'm not prepared to give that up, yet. Books are about the only things I'm actually willing to share.

The good news is, these e-readers are easy on the eyes. Amazon's Kindle and Sony's device have beautiful e-ink displays; the first time I saw one in real life, I thought I was looking at a demonstration display, not the real deal, until I flipped to the next page. If you didn't know any better, you'd really think you were reading from an actual piece of paper. There is no screen-strain. But so far, the e-ink displays aren't capable of color and who knows how expensive they'll be when they are? Kind of lame when you're reading the Sunday funnies, huh?

And how will pop-up books make the transfer? Built-in holographic projectors?

Like I said, paperbacks are remarkably hard to break and you don't ever have to plug them in from time to time (call me when e-readers automatically draw from broadcast power). They're reliable, because of this, and thieves just don't steal books. They steal laptops and $200 e-book readers. So make me a cheap, holographic, color e-book reader that doesn't break, that works off of broadcast power, that is impossible to steal—and abolish user-restricting DRM practices—and I'm there dude. But that doesn't mean I'm going to stop scouring the thrift shops and flea markets for used books, either. The other day I got three books I've been meaning to read for less than three bucks and you can damn well bet I'm going to loan them to others when I'm finished.

E-book reading aside, I'm still interested in Asus's book-style device. Especially if I can connect a physical keyboard to it.