Paperless paper

If you search the web for a while on the subject of electronic book readers, you are soon confronted by the real reasons why this kind of technology isn't taking off faster - there are two of them: money and money.

I was on holiday in France in September 1999: the days were warm, the food was unbelievable (except for the andouillette, which was, regrettably, far too believable), the wine was like the sacred blood of ancient holy vines, and the French were ... well, French; you can’t really put it fairer than that.

Anyway, while in Saumur (a glorious place which I strongly recommend if you’re ever in the area) I picked up a computer magazine with a cover story on an electronic book reader.

This article fascinated me — here was a device about 1cm thick and the size of a piece of A5 paper; it was essentially nothing but a large greyscale LCD with a power switch, a USB port and four buttons, “Next”, “Prev”, “Up” and “Down”. The idea was you could download books or articles to the device and read them in much the way you would read a real book, selecting titles and chapters with the “Up” and “Down” buttons, and moving from page to page with the “Next” and “Prev” buttons. According to the article, the device had a battery life of about 10 hours — easily enough to be useful in practically any situation.

Now, I’m sure at this point you’re saying, “But that’s old hat! Why is he boring us with this drivel? Everyone knows about e-books!”

Yes ... But have you ever seen one? After I saw that article, I looked everywhere for the device but I never found one, and in the two years since, I’ve still never actually seen anything quite like it. I’ve seen descriptions of similar devices (there are screeds of web pages devoted to them) but the devices themselves are elusive.

I love books — I own thousands of them. There’s something solid and comforting about a real book a screen can never provide. But electronic text has its own advantages that real books can never compete with, like searchability, downloadability and minuscule production costs. Even though I’ve been using computers practically all my life, I’ve still never really become totally comfortable with reading any significant volume of text on a computer monitor, so the idea of a device that marries the portability, simplicity and solidity of a book to the functionality of a computer is enormously appealing — and I’m sure there must be lots of people who feel the same way.

If you search the web for a while on this subject, you are soon confronted by the real reasons why this kind of technology isn’t taking off faster — there are two of them: money and money.

The first of these reasons, money, is all to do with publishers wanting to ensure that they don’t fall victim to an environment where piracy is perceived as being pandemic. I guess you can’t really argue with that — it’s true enough, after all. On the other hand though, the contention from a lot of publishers that e-books should be selling for the same price as paper books is clearly insupportable, so basic human greed clearly has its finger in this pie as well.

The second reason, money, takes us fair and square into the middle of a warzone where the disputed territory is control of the format used for electronic books — and with it, of course, the control of a potentially enormous market. This battle is being primarily fought between Adobe on the one hand and ... you guessed it, Microsoft, on the other. Our old friend Microsoft, striving to make the world better, safer, truer, an expression of the American way and so on, ho hum, yes, fine, now go away and let me go back to sleep.

The broad consensus appears to be that Adobe’s Acrobat format is technically better, but Microsoft is more willing to provide whatever “content protection” the publishers want (the Microsoft reader format offers three different levels). If you read between the lines, you’d have to say the Microsoft format probably has the inside running because it is more fiscally in tune with the high ideals of the publishing community.

So in other words, the reason we’re not seeing the kind of e-book explosion you might have expected is simply a matter of greed and politics — just like everything else these days, I guess, so that should be no real surprise.

I for one hope they can get this stuff sorted out quickly: I relish the idea of being able to download manuals, novels, cartoons — whatever I need on any given occasion — into a device just like a book, but better. Perfect for on the plane, or train — in fact, even the idea of being able to read the next issue of Computerworld in the bath has a kind of bizarre appeal to it (although I wouldn’t dwell on that for too long).

Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of internet email software Pegasus Mail. Send email to David Harris.

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