So in the latest technology buzz, Barnes & Noble has unveiled its highly anticipated Nook eReader. Already, some of my friends in the geek-laden Information Science department up the street are atwitter with excitement. Alas, call me a killjoy, but I'm at a loss to see where eReader technology is going. From my point of view, the eReader market looks like one big dead end. And it's not, as you might suppose, because I don't see the benefits of these gadgets. On the contrary, I've owned one in the past.
A couple years ago, I received a Sony PRS-505 eReader as a gift. At the time, it was the big competition for Amazon's recently unveiled Kindle. Kindle, however, was awash in DRM and the content you could access on it was pretty much limited to what Amazon was willing to sell you. You couldn't, for instance, read a run-of-the-mill PDF on Kindle, which is a big part of the show if you happened to be a starving grad student who sleeps in a pile of journal articles. Sony, on the other hand, advertised itself as Adobe-friendly, and its eReader worked like an external hard drive, allowing you to load any file you liked on or off as you pleased.
Not long before, I'd finished hauling a truckload of books, papers, and Xeroxed journal articles to Brooklyn, and then to Cornell, from my previous graduate home at the University of Pennsylvania. I was eager not to repeat this experience, and even on a day-to-day basis, a 10-ounce eReader seemed like a Godsend compared to a backpack full of books. So, I was pining for a Sony and elated when I received one for my birthday. If only it had worked as advertised.
First off, the gadget didn't handle PDF files as it should have. A scant few of my PDFs would indeed load correctly, but over 90 percent of them came up blank. Even after extensive trial-and-error, it was never quite clear to me what the distinguishing characteristics of the working files were, much less how I might reformat a non-working PDF to have it load correctly. Second, when a PDF did load, it was scaled down mercilessly in a Procrustean fashion to fit the tiny reader screen. As it turned out, the Sony gods, in their great wisdom, had limited the device's zoom functionality to an ability to scale up fonts, and this feature only worked on text files. So there was ultimately no way to increase the size of a PDF's lilliputian lettering after scaling.
Ultimately, the thing was only good for reading text files, which proved a dead end. It had no keyboard, so it was no good for reviewing or proofreading my own writing. And when it came to the much-touted eBook functionality, I was sharply limited by Sony's DRM ploys. The device wouldn't read eBooks unless they were from Sony, and the only way to get a Sony eBook was to install the company's retail software on your computer. Unfortunately, the software was only designed for PC. I have a Mac and a Linux machine, so I was out of luck. When I did find a junker Windows PC to load up the proprietary software, I realized it didn't much matter because most of the titles I wanted were only available from non-Sony eBook outlets.
"Oh, well," you might say. "Those are the perils of being an early adopter." And you'd be right. Upon hearing this story, my friends over in Information Science point to the B&N eReader specs, or their sparkling next-generation Kindles. These read many file formats with ease, allow you to type, check your email, and load any file you like. Not only do they not need to dock with your computer, they connect directly to the Internet. Why on earth would I continue to be so cynical about eReaders?
Here's why. I firmly believe that eBooks are the wave of the future, but eReaders—not so much. When I sold my eReader, I ultimately used the cash to buy an iPod Touch. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. My iPod reads PDFs as well as eBooks from every major online retailer. Yes, the text is a bit small on its tiny screen, but ironically it's larger than it appeared on the old Sony—and unlike with my old eReader, I can actually zoom in on text while using the iPod. But here's the kicker. In addition to all that reader functionality, I can check my email, edit Word documents, browse the Web, and do my banking. There's are even IDE clients I could use to do programming on my iPod, were I so inclined.
Whether or not you like Apple products in general or iPods in particular; whether or not you'd use an iPod or an iPhone to do any of these things—All of that is beside the point. My ultimate point is that there are an increasing number of devices out there that do everything an eReader does and more. Netbooks, digital tablets, cell phones, and mobile internet devices all read eBooks, but they also have a world of functionality beyond what an eReader does, and all of them are either currently cheaper than eReaders or rapidly coming down in price. If the eInk or the slim profile of eReaders is so desirable, then other devices will no doubt adopt these advantages in the future. And at that point, what edge will a dedicated eReader possibly have on the market?
My prediction is that ten years from now, eBooks will be ubiquitous. eReaders will look nothing like they do today, if they're still around at all. Of course, I may be horribly wrong. But that's why Newsvine columns have discussion threads—so you can say, "I told you so."