The E-Reader

The next iPod will be the e-reader. I do not predict a killer e-reader device to come about for another few years, but it will start to gain traction soon. The iPod was so huge because there’s so many people wasting so much time going from place to place or working out at the gym or at work and they need to fill that space. What else do people do a lot of when they’re waiting around? They read a book! On the metro. In a waiting room. Lunch break. Before bed. E-readers are the next logical step.

E-readers are electronic handheld devices that can display an electronic version of a book.

Imagine a small device that looks like a Palm Pilot in upright rectangular shape but folds open, like a book does, so you can feel it with both hands. The screen displays fonts beautifully, with one page of text per screen. There are enough buttons with a soft tensile touch, to change font, to change font size, turn pages back and forward. The cover could be done in a beautiful LCD with a fully-colored photo on it.

Ideally, one could add notes in the margin with a stylus or highlight portions that are interesting. I know I love dog-earing books for favorite quotes, but I’m not much of a margin-writer. The productivity and ability to make connections through writing notes in the margins is a big feature, left out by most readers who want to protect the book. These notes could then be automatically added to one’s favorite quotes list, or cross-referenced elsewhere for easy searching. Typos could be automatically reported to the publisher. Factual errors could be sent also, or at least to a wikipedia entry with the rebuttal to a claim. Text could contain hyperlinks to the web, connecting via wi-fi, for deeper research, without losing your place.

I don’t really want multimedia inserted in it because that will pollute it. I want text. Pure text. Text from the author, text from friends, text from myself, text from others. Maybe some photos if it’s a historical or non-fiction book. Drawings from the author as it is done now.

The audio version of the book should also be included with the book. Books should not cost much more than they do now for this added content.

Books are the last analog medium not to be translated into a productive electronic device. We managed to turn music digital by decreasing its footprint; when we compressed a 40-50MB track into a 3-5MB compressed MP3, what we did was facilitate the manipulation of music through the backend: electronic editing tools. Eventually, with widening of bandwidth pipes, iTunes Music Store could be economically feasible, letting customers download songs at 99 cents a piece. With miniaturized form factors, increased hard drive space, and Apple’s shiny design, the iPod was the perfect product at the right time. Now music is organized via database, tagged with star ratings and reviews, and is truly a digital, shared experience.

This has yet to happen to books. Books will need to follow a different path besides footprint. Bandwidth is no longer a problem, with text taking up such a small amount of space. More photos can be placed in a book but someone could easily download any e-book now.

What books need is not a smaller footprint. What they need is a device that works, like iPod and its wheel dial and its sleek, pastel-colored stylies.

Imagine an extremely light e-book that has wi-fi access to download books or even the newest magazine. Imagine if the cover of the device displayed the cover of the book. Read extended reviews of the book, prefaces, introductions, all added by strangers or your friends. Imagine if the text could be manipulated, unlike Adobe’s evil Acrobat shitware that doesn’t let the user touch the text. Imagine that the device even opens like a book, and can take on the form of different tactile surfaces like leather or smooth steel or whatever. Imagine that it offers beautiful textual fonts that warm a reader into the experience. Imagine if content providers all went on board and started selling their books on location or through mail. Instant distribution. No physical production limitations.

What if content could be dynamically created? A database would store different authors’ works and then be able to characterize their styles so that any book you wanted could be re-written in another author’s style. Or you could go in and suggest your own endings through the device.

Content manuals could be uploaded via wi-fi or IR or whatever, and consumed and saved on the e-reader, when you are trying to learn how to operate a new appliance or a new vehicle.

One thing I think could be exploited out of digital books is the whole social aspect of it. What if my afore-mentioned notes in the margins could be shared so that others could see what you thought about that particular passage? What if you could look at your buddy’s e-book profile and see how far you were through the book, their review of it? Take advantage of man’s competitive impulses. Reading is a very competitive hobby yet it is not represented at all right now except through broad social stereotypes and through book reviews. What if you could see who the top book readers were? Or view what your favorite people or authors or artists have read?

Take it one step further. What if, through efforts to scan in all the pages of text out there, we could come up with an algorithm that mimics writers’ styles? What if an e-book could literally write itself using a specified author’s style?

Yes, books are a solitary experience because you get time to yourself to think. But there is so much social potential to unlock through digitization of books through a killer app device that it’s unfathomable. Another iPod. A textual revolution. I love text. I love beautiful fonts displaying text. I love crisp display of text. I love random, ragged notes next to text. Even with beautiful Photoshopped photos and design, text’s beauty has been under-appreciated. Text has not been made into an artform yet because it’s held in a vice grip still, whether by foundries that charge $30-$1000 for a font or by printing presses. We ourselves must rely on Arial and Times New Roman and Garamond as the limits of our artistic textual expression.

Sony announced a new version of its Sony Reader at this year’s CES. It’d be a natural progression for Apple to allow multi-tasking on its iPods with music in the background and an e-book to read on screen. If any company is going to come up with the killer interface for an e-reader, Apple will be the one that makes it all legitimate.

Here’s a pic of the Librie. You can tell that its form factor is too large, the text is not big enough, the screen isn’t the main part of the device, and there’s way, way too many buttons. Sony is a loser with this e-reader, which is why Apple or someone would need to come along and package the product for success. The new reader from Sony looks like shit. Old Palm Pilot shit. Horrible.

So perhaps Apple itself will be the one to release the winner. Whoever wins, they will have to defuse centuries of tradition of holding a book in one’s hands, flipping the pages and feeling the weight of the book. It will feel foreign to even lightweight readers and the stigma of electronic book interfaces will have to be destroyed.

But it’s gonna happen, we’ll all be able to interact with books and read them more enjoyably, and there’ll be a stock run to capitalize on.

More info on the Sony Librie: http://www.simonwaldman.net/2006/01/15/reader-i-downloaded-an-e-book/