Saturday, October 3, 2009

E-Book Readers: Yay or Nay?

Movies are most convenient when they're digital. We're all sick of returning them to video stores and Netflix, not to mention going to get them in the first place or 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. Unless you live alone you can never find the CD in the right jewel case, and when you do manage to find it it's often scratched beyond use.

But what about digital books?

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 sound enhances your experience. Books are the same 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. You can't really do anything to improve the content until the day comes when we're jacking them straight into our heads via a neural transceiver and, even then, most bookworms will opt out 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 just want to read in bed again. My girlfriend says the bedside lamp doesn't bother her, but her presence is distracting to me, anyway. 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 my 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 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. Technically, that means you don't actually own it. No resell or transfer rights is like paying for a book you have to return to the library.

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 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 reading 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.

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 until I flipped to the next page. If you didn't know any better, you'd think you were reading an actual piece of paper. So far, though, 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 and Playboy centerfolds 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. They're reliable, because of this, and thieves 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. That still doesn't mean I'm going to stop scouring the thrift shops and flea markets for used books.