phony reader

sony reader in hand.jpg What to say about this thing? After multiple delays, it’s finally out, and in time for the holidays. David Rothman, as usual, has provided exhaustive and entertaining coverage over at Teleread (here, here and here), and points to noteworthy reviews elsewhere.
It’s no secret that our focus here at the Institute isn’t on the kind of ebooks that simply transfer printed texts to the screen. We’re much more interested in the new kinds of reading and writing that become possible in a digital, network environment. But even measuring Sony’s new device against its own rather pedestrian goals — replicating the print reading experience for the screen with digital enhancements — I still have to say that the Reader fails. Here are the main reasons why:
1) Replicating the print reading experience?
E-ink is definitely different than reading off of an LCD screen. The page looks much more organic and is very gentle on the eyes, though the resolution is still nowhere near that of ink on paper. Still, e-ink is undeniably an advance and it’s exciting to imagine where it might lead.
Other elements of print reading are conjured less successfully, most significantly, the book as a “random access” medium. Random access means that the reader has control over their place in the book, and over the rate and direction at which they move through it. The Sony Reader greatly diminishes this control. Though it does allow you to leave bookmarks, it’s very difficult to jump from place to place unless those places have been intentionally marked. The numbered buttons (1 through 10) directly below the screen offer offer only the crudest browsing capability, allowing you to jump 10, 20, 30 percent etc. through the text.
Another thing affecting readability is that action of flipping pages is slowed down significantly by the rearrangement of the e-ink particles, producing a brief but disorienting flash every time you change your place. Another important element of print reading is the ability to make annotations, and on the Sony Reader this is disabled entirely. In fact, there are no inputs on the device at all — no keyboard, no stylus — apart from the basic navigation buttons. So, to sum up, the Sony Reader is really only intended for straight-ahead reading. Browsing, flipping and note-taking, which, if you ask me, are pretty important parts of reading a book, are disadvantaged.
2) Digital enhancements?
Ok, so the Sony Reader doesn’t do such a great job at replicating print reading, but the benefits of having your books in digital form more than make up for that, right? Sadly, wrong. The most obvious advantage of going digital is storage capacity, the ability to store an entire library on a single device. But the Sony Reader comes with a piddling 64 megabytes of memory. 64! It seems a manufacturer would have to go out of its way these days to make a card that small. The new iPod Shuffle is barely bigger than a quarter and they start at one gigabyte. Sony says that 64 MB will store approximately 80 books, but throw a few images and audio files in there, and this will dramatically decrease.
So, storage stinks, but electronic text has other advantages. Searchability, for example. True! But the Sony Reader software doesn’t allow you to search texts (!!!). I’d guess that this is due to the afore-mentioned time lags of turning pages in e-ink, and how that would slow down browsing through search results. And again, there’s the matter of no inputs — keyboard or stylus — to enter the search queries in the first place.
Fine. Then how about internet connectivity? Sorry. There’s none. Well then what about pulling syndicated content from the web for offline reading, i.e. RSS? You can do this, but only barely. Right now on the Sony Connect store, there are feeds available from about ten popular blogs and news sources. Why so few? Well, they plan to expand that soon, but apparently there are tricky issues with reformatting the feeds for the Reader, so they’re building up this service piecemeal, without letting web publishers post their feeds directly. Last night, I attended a press event that Sony held at the W Hotel at Union Square, NYC, where I got to play around with one of the devices hooked up to the online store. I loaded a couple of news feeds onto my Reader and took a look. Pretty ghastly. Everything is dumped into one big, barely formatted file, where it’s not terribly clear where one entry ends and another begins. Unrendered characters float here and there. They’ve got a long way to go on this one.
Which leads us to the fundamental problem with the Sony Reader, or with any roughly equivalent specialized e-reading device: the system is proprietary. Read David Rothman’s post for the technical nuances of this, but the basic fact is that the Sony Reader will only allow you to read ebooks that have been formatted and DRMed specifically for the Sony Reader. To be fair, it will let you upload Microsoft Word documents and unencrypted PDFs, but for any more complex, consciously designed electronic book, you’ve got to go through Sony via the Sony Connect store. Sony not only thinks that it can get away with this lock-in strategy but that, taking its cue from the iPod/iTunes dynamo, this is precisely the formula for success. But the iPod analogy is wrong for a number of reasons, biggest among them that books and music are very different things. I’ll address this in another post shortly.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ebooks are a dead end. Will it be convenient some day to be able to read print books digitally? Certainly. Will the Sony Reader find a niche? Maybe (but Sony Ericsson’s phones look far more dynamic than this feeble device). Is this the future of reading and writing? I don’t think so. Ebooks and their specialized hardware are a red herring in a much bigger and more mysterious plot that is still unfolding.
See also:
phony reader 2: the ipod fallacy
phony bookstore
an open letter to claire israel

5 thoughts on “phony reader

  1. dan visel

    What’s most striking to me about this is how the general lack of any sort of input device emphasizes what a limited idea of reading this device espouses.
    I’ve been thinking lately about iPods and iTunes, and how they affect my media consumption. People tend to think about these two things as being effectively the same thing, but I think they’re actually vastly different in terms of how the user interacts with them. Using an iPod, you can choose what you’re listening to only in predefined ways – you can listen to a particular playlist you’ve predefined in iTunes, you can listen to a particular album or artist, you can listen to all your songs on shuffle. With iTunes, I find that my listening is much more fluid because there’s the search-and-filter window: by typing in the name of the German musician “dettinger” I get a playlist of all the tracks I have that Dettinger was involved in, whether or not he’s the designated artist on them. What I’m playing in iTunes, I find, tends to change on the fly largely because I keep adjusting what I want to hear – usually tiny changes, nothing that takes more than a second, or distracts me overly much from whatever else I’m doing at my computer. But these interactions require the use of a keyboard or a mouse. The comparatively coarser controls of an iPod make these gestures much more difficult – an active effort on my part is required. So when listening to an iPod, I tend to set it on something to just let it play. (This is why, I think, the iPod Shuffle is an almost perfect device – lacking a display, it permits only minimal interactions, and the user wastes no time attempting them.)
    Sony would probably be happy with the analogy that they’re doing for text what the iPod does for music. But that’s something that needs to be thought out more clearly. When I’m reading a PDF on my MacBook, I can attach notes and highlight things (using Preview or Acrobat). If something’s interesting and I want to use it somewhere else, I can copy it and paste it into another document (not very well, PDF being PDF, but I can still do it). I can stop reading it and effectively bookmark my place in the text by hiding Preview so that I can come back to it later.
    Using Sony’s Reader, the only one of these basic reading behaviors that is possible is bookmarking. A Sony Reader that came with a stylus that let you scribble on the screen would be fantastic. As it is, Sony’s Reader manages to be less interactive than a paper notebook.

  2. George P Snoga

    What is a good e-book reader? Before you can have an answer, you must understand the question. For my money, there is no good e-book reader in existence. Here’s my take on the question. (I use a cybook myself).
    The popular view espoused is basically a full blown computer that’s small, light and uses a small amount of energy. It can connect to the web, read thousands of text formats, play back MP3s, show pictures, ect. A wonderful gizmo, but it can’t be built with today’s technology. What we have is limited takes on the idea, full of bugs, with short battery lives and high prices. Definitely not something that is a “killer app”.
    At home, I have three 15-20 year old hand calculators. I expect them to last another 50 years, unless the contacts wears out. Why do they last so long? They run with ambient light, with built-in solar cells. They don’t do much, but they do it simply, cheaply, and durably. I don’t expect them to do spreadsheets. I suspect the “killer app” for e-book readers will be something like my calculators.
    Imagine a clamshell e-book reader, which opens like a book. One side is the screen, which could be e-ink or possibly a non-backlit LCD (depending on energy consumption), and the other side is a 6″ by 8″ panel of solar cells (which would produce 3-4 watts). In the top you have a flash memory reader (your choice of flavor). The guts are a slow, ultra-low-power CPU and a few meg of RAM. The control program (I won’t even call it an operating system) will just be able to read the Flash chip, read a few non-DRM’ed text formats, a few image formats, and be able to display both on the screen. Sort of a stone-age e-book reader. But cheap, very cheap.
    Yes, you lose all the great abilities that high end e-book readers have. You can’t take notes, surf the Web, download files, ect. It won’t be better than a paper book with one enormous exception. You can pack 1000, 2000, 3000 books with you at one time. And you don’t have to have a charger (and therefore a wall plug somewhere) to keep it running. If you make it out of durable materials, it’ll last 50 years. I’ll buy several.
    I could read it on a plane, or in the Outback, or leave it on the shelf for a decade and it’ll still work. You can’t say for high-end e-readers designs. Yes, there’s a market for the fancy note-taking designs, but there’s a market for the simple one too.

  3. cpwebmaster

    No good ebook reader?
    Are you kidding?
    Well, maybe not if you are talking exclusively about dedicated devices. (And I have no experience with that.) However, if you’re talking about software, that’s another story!
    Let’s put this in perspective…until last week, I never read an ebook. I’ve never been remotely interested in reading a book (or watching a movie or television show) on a digital screen while sitting at a desk. For me, those things require good print or TV and a comfy chair.
    My first foray was downloading a MySQL manual in a format I viewed as just an “alternative” to .chm files — and found out I now had a full-fledged ebook reader!
    Have you tried the ThoutReader? It allows all the features you are talking about — and then some! You can annotate it (“private notes” or “public notes”), download the annotations of others (“public notes”), export your private notes to share them with a group, search your entire *LIBRARY* of books, or just one book (full-text or Table of Contents), view entire pages/chapters at once or just “nodes” and “subnodes”, view notes by themselves, etc.
    There are already both free and commercial books available on
    But the best news is that it has gone total open-source via the GPL and is being totally reworked to support the OpenReader format. That is a standard that to date nobody has used. The rework is called “dotReader”. “dotReader” is the first reader to support it!
    They also have a plug-in to deliver small adds for some commercial projects, such as textbooks — the goal is to get the average cost of a math/science textbook down to $39.
    “dotReader” can also read the ThoutReader ebooks (I had problems with only 2 ThoutReader files). Right now “dotReader” is in *BETA* (just came out last week), so all the functionality isn’t there, such as “Notes”. Search is improved in dotReader (before your search would return orphan nodes whose context/location wasn’t given, at least in the detailed hierarchy of a programming manual). In dotReader, search results are given in tree-view including parents of the node, so you can navigate through node-view and page-view without losing your search results.
    I’m a “beta tester”, so right now I use both dotReader and ThoutReader for the same books, and still must use ThoutReader if I want to view Notes by myself or anyone else.
    You basically download your ebooks then import them into the program. In ThoutReader, this was one step, you just click “File – Add to Library” then choose the book through the browse dialog. In dotReader, it requires 2 steps: 1) “File – Open” and browse to the book; 2) after the book loads, “File – Add to Library”. This will change.
    Right now, dotReader has commitments to deliver a customized version to “Teachers Without Borders”. Meanwhile, they are using the *beta* version to test features and garner feedback while features are still being programmed.
    If you want a clue of how powerful ebook reading can be, download ThoutReader from but if you want to beta-test dotReader (especially if you need to search without getting orphaned results), download dotReader from
    You do not need to download the same books twice, since you must import them into your library.
    Also, conversion tools are being created. They also plan to get an online collaborative authoring tool up until software tools are available. Their goal is to have coversion tools as plugins and the ability to read several formats natively (the most important being OpenReader format).
    Again, dotReader is open source, so if you like programming software tools or want to contribute to the project, you can download the source code and contact the programmers of dotReader. I am sure that once dotReader is done, it will be ported to various hardware, such as PDAs and dedicated readers. dotReader beta is currently for Windows and Linux and due for Mac shortly. You can make feature requests, share ideas, and report bugs though the forums.
    Download your books from the ThoutReader site. Currently, some publishers also give discounts if you own a physical copy. Again, there are also many free books and official documentation for things like Apache and various programming languages. OReily has quite a few commercial books there.

  4. R. Deschaine

    I did my research before ordering, but when my Kindle 2 arrived, the device exceeded my expectations.
    It’s better looking than I had anticipated, thinner and slightly heavier than I expected. It is the most user friendly device I have ever used. You can just start reading on it right away. Anyone, no matter how technologically challenged, will be able to use this. It’s about as complicated as a calculator (not the scientific kind).
    I was able to “get lost” in my first book as easily as the marketing blurbs promised. I experience no difficulties with the greyish background – as long as you read in sufficient light (daylight or a reading lamp), the contrast is similar to a paper book.
    What surprised me most is that I now prefer the Kindle over paper books. I’ve had to read some since getting my Kindle and it was so uncomfortable. I realised that I had to keep shifting position to keep the book open at a comfortable reading angle, turning the pages meant moving my arm and the text had to be read at a slant, due to the stiff binding of some new books. With the Kindle, you can maintain a comfortable position for as long as you like, turning a page is as easy as clicking with either hand, no need to move your arm and the text is always perfectly flat in front of your face.
    With the recent update, the Kindle 2 can read PDFs natively, with no conversion needed. Amazon also added a rotate function, so that you can read on the Kindle sideways. I will continue to convert my PDFs using the free software available, however, because I like the ability to increase the font size on the Kindle.
    I am extremely satisfied with my Kindle. I am able to catch up on my reading anywhere, and I’ve also bookmarked several Wikipedia pages to read when I get a minute or two.

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