Why I Won’t Be Buying an E-Reader Device Anytime Soon

For awhile I was set on acquiring a Sony Reader PRS-505. If you look hard enough, you can find them for as low as $270. But my budget these days won’t allow for an expenditure on something that does only one thing. (There are rooms in the house to be painted and a bathtub to be replaced…ah the pleasures of home ownership.)

E-book readers also still suffer from extremes. You can only get a lot of new content if you submit to one manufacturer’s device or you can get almost no new reasonably-priced content by going with a different device. For example, if you want to buy an e-book from amazon.com, you can only do so if you own one of their Kindles. If you want to buy an e-book from Sony’s store, you don’t need one of their readers, but you won’t be able to read their e-books without one of Sony’s devices. This is akin to only being able to listen to CDs or MP3s from Universal music if you own a device made by Universal music. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

It is. And you can thank the people who brought you Digital Rights Management (DRM). With DRM you can’t lend an e-book to someone, or resell it, the way you can with a physical book. The other day, I went to Schuler Books here in Okemos and picked up two used books: Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty (mass-market paperback) and Jane Smiley’s Moo (first edition hardback). Get Shorty was $1.75. Moo was $7.00. When I got home, I didn’t need a device to plug them into in order to access the content between the covers.

There are other readers from other companies such as Astak, but new content, current content, is sparse. Sites like Fictionwise (now owned by Barnes & Noble) provide a lot of new content, but the formats are mostly DRM’d. You can get all the public domain content you want from Project Gutenberg. But the titles are those published before 1923.

I spent a dozen years working as a technical writer before becoming a stay-at-home-dad. Having documented my way through a number of buggy applications and not-quite-working devices, I’m turned off by all the “THIS DEVICE WILL REVOLUTIONIZE XXXX!” garbage that comes from boosters, early adopters with cash to burn, and over-excitable journalists (I’m talking about you, Slate).

For digital reading devices to really take off, prices need to come down and DRM needs to go. All the claims made by digital reader supporters miss one vital fact: printed books are self-contained systems. If you buy a book you can read it. No device is required. For playing MP3s, CDs, or DVDs you’ve always needed a device (such as a computer or dedicated player) to access the content. So locking people down the way Amazon and Sony do (but Amazon in particular) seems stupid to me. It also annoys me that product boosters neglect to mention this fact.

Here’s what I’m waiting for: PixelQi. It’s a company started by Mary Lou Jepson, who designed the screen for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. I first heard of PixelQi from this article in Wired. They’re developing what appears to be a modified version of a color LCD screen that will also be able to shut off its backlight, operating much like e-ink screens do and using less power.

From the looks of things, you’ll be able to buy a netbook with one of PixelQi’s multi-function screens by the end of this year. And that’s what I’m waiting for. Surf the web with a full-color screen, check email, buy an ebook from a site and read it there on my computer in “ebook mode.” Sounds more useful to me.

Update: Time has more, including using one of the screens.


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