Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Sony Reader: The Great Hope for E-books?

Not that long ago I argued that books are resistant to digitization due to a combination of convenience, experience and cost factors. This week, I first learned about the Sony Reader, and initially began to wonder about the soundness of my argument. The product specifications that Sony details on its official webpage are impressive: the Reader is smaller and lighter (9 ounces) than a standard paperback, yet contains a six-inch screen and a memory slot to expand beyond its capacity of eighty e-books, and can also store other electronics such as PDFs and mp3s. In writing about his initial experiences with the Reader, Frank Wilson of the Philadelphia Enquirer notes perhaps the most winsome feature:

“…the crucial question is a fairly simple one: How readable is it? The principal reason e-books haven't caught on is that print on a screen hasn't been able to compete with ink on paper when it comes to readability. E-books have, for example, proved less than ideal for reading in full sunlight.

“The Sony Reader seems to have solved that problem. I've read mine in full summer sunlight on my patio. I've read it in morning and evening twilight on the sofa in my living room. I've read it in bed in ordinary lamp light. And I've read it on the bus and on the subway. It's easily as readable as newsprint, and sunlight is certainly no problem. In fact, the brighter the light, the easier it is to read.”

If the experiential factors of reading are what primarily limit the current market for e-books, then creating a device that allows for easier reading in what are normally less-than-ideal viewing conditions is a step in the right direction. Yet Wilson cites plenty of drawbacks: a general user-unfriendly software interface (no indices or search feature and a confusing help guide), a limited selection available through Sony’s e-book store, and a high expense for both the Reader ($235) and the e-books (same price as hardback versions, which is an incredibly poor decision). At four to six hours per charge, the battery life is so-so. And then there’s Sony, whose consumer reputation could be better.

Even if we set these issues aside, the Sony Reader doesn’t fundamentally address the issues of e-book technology. David Haskin of PC Advisor finds that in addition to the fact that e-books lack a standardized format (leading to compatibility issues):

“…the devices [for e-books] themselves just aren't good enough yet. Some people find them unwieldy; others say they're difficult to use. And for many people, there's just no replacing the old-fashioned, reassuring feel of paper” (emphasis mine).

Wilson thus demonstrates that the Sony Reader is difficult to use, and that while it replicates the look of book paper, it isn’t an equal replacement for the tactile sensations of turning a page.

I think the “old-fashioned” book is safe for now.

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