Æsc and Œthel

E-Reading

I have to say that, even though I am a total and utter gadget lover, I still love to read a traditional paper book for preference.

Part of this has to do with being a little materialistic as far as owning books. If I have the money I prefer to own a book I like rather than borrow it from the library. There's something rather satisfactory about a jumble of books on a shelf, folio, dust-jacketed and paperback. There's also something pleasing about leafing through pages.

The other part, for me, is about e-reader technology not quite being there yet.

Part of this is due to tablets and 'value added' extras.

I don't need colour. I'm reading a book not watching a movie. Colour is a nice idea and when they've cracked it for e-ink it will be brilliant in terms of bringing the world of comics to ereaders but it is by no means essential. I certainly wouldn't want to swap my e-ink for an lcd or OLED experience.

I don't need text-to-speech. If I were blind I'd be better off just downloading my ebooks to a phone or mp3 player or purchasing an audio book read by a normal human being in any number of formats.

I don't need a touch screen.

I can get the Internet on my phone, my PC, a tablet and so on.

I could go on but basically my point is this:
E-readers main selling point was that you could replace shelves of books with a lightweight reading device which provided a paper-like reading experience. The idea being that ebooks would also be cheaper and so the device would pay for itself over time.
With this in mind here are my ideas on where ereaders SHOULD be going:

DON'T give them 3G connectivity.

One of an ereader's two benefits is its long battery life. This is due to the fact that displaying an ereader's screen takes no energy. Only changing the display takes energy and that is only a tiny charge. For this reason early ereaders like the first Kindle would need charging only on a weekly basis. Sometimes less often than that. For simular reasons the 'screen savers' I've seen on some ereaders are an extremely stupid idea.

A small form-factor keyboard or a touchscreen with low touch resolution would be useful as well as built in search and dictionary support.

Here's the key: being able to interface with a smartphone would be incredibly useful. Bluetooth is one option for this, although it would have to be power managed to avoid battery drain. As USB connection through the smartphone USB standard is possible on Android and likely to be possible on Windows Smartphones after the release of Windows 8 and as even BlackBerrys are starting to support Android apps - meaning they also will probably support USB device connection if they don't already do so, the best solution would be a connection through a microusb to microusb cable. This would provide the 3G download and, later on, Internet connections, and mp3 and read aloud support and many other options included needlessly on current ereaders. There are precious few situations where I'd have an ereader available and not have my mobile phone on me so why needlessly duplicate what my mobile phone does better.

Finally we need to work on what ereaders do best. So first order of the day is to improve readability. There is no problem with the static display. More grey levels, better resolution and colour support are all desirable but none are essential. The problem I find is with the 'Page turn'. After a page worth of readability I 'turn the page' only to have my eyes assaulted by a rapid black-white flash which makes my eyeballs want to retreat back into my head. It appears that currently the only way to refresh the screen without leaving little artefacts is to turn the whole thing black and then clear it. Finding a way to do this and making the page refresh quicker should be the main target for ereaders. All this and also ways of making the technology cheaper. See my next point.

The other target should be price. I see a place for 3 main form factors - the first the size of a small novel with side buttons or simple touchscreen for navigation. This needn't have anything other than navigation. No search, no keyboard, no dictionary. A simple ultra portable novel reading device. Dimensions would be 175mm by 110mm by 10mm the screen taking up the whole of the front. The next size up would be A5 not much bigger but still designed as a reasonably portable study device with search, notes, and dictionary. Dimensions would be 210mm by 148mm by 15mm with a slide out keyboard 210mm by 120mm to 210mm by 150mm in form factor. The last would be a true A4 device 297mm by 210mm by 15mm with a keyboard dimensioned 297mm by 120mm to 297mm by 150mm.

I think the prices would be best set at £20 - £35 for the first device, £50-£75 for the second and £100 to £200 for the third.

All devices would support mobi, epub, HTML and pdf as standard and preferably also other XML standards as appropriate.

Ebooks should also be made cheaper. At current prices some ebooks work out more expensive than their paper counterparts. They should also be more portable. Being able to read something on my phone, tablet or PC if I don't have my ereader available is a must.

Consider this:
Say we charge £3 per novel for ebooks. A paperback costs about £8 these days
Would you rather pay £56 for 7 current books on their own or the same £56 for a reading device with them included and each novel thereafter only costing £3 and all those novels also available on your phone or PC? Of course this is with the smallest device costing £35 and with no discount for bundling the books. It's also missing the advantages of books which are now free of copyright. So say a deal was made with publishers to include 5 current novels at £1.50 each, and the reader was priced at £25 and 50 classic novels out of copyright were also included. Now, which would you rather pay: £32 for 4 paperback novels or add an extra 50p and get 5 novels and an ereader and each book thereafter at a £5 discount?

All this seems unlikely at the moment because companies keep concentrating on adding "wow factor" and 3G capabilities to their devices. All it would take is one (probably chinese) company to work out that a more basic but well produced product at a lower price point could be beneficial and they might be able to steal the market.

By aiming at cheapness and quality of reading experience ebooks and ereaders will hopefully become a valid alternative to paper.

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