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Words on a Screen: E-Books are the Future

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
February 2010 Issue
December 29, 2009

Words on a Screen: E-Books are the Future

Amazon’s Kindle is now the best-selling product the Web retailer has ever stocked. No single book, CD, or DVD comes close. Barnes & Noble ran out of the Nook before Christmas. Sony cannot ship the Sony Reader (despite the lack of an original name), fast enough for stores like Target and Best Buy.

The e-book has arrived, with e-readers selling faster than even their greatest supporters imagined.

Considering how mediocre the technology is, the demand proves that as e-readers improve the demand will grow exponentially. The list of current deficits should be hurting the e-reader market, but it isn’t.

The screens are limited to black and white because the “digital ink” display technology doesn’t support color (yet).
Amazon, like Apple, attempts to limit purchased downloads to their hardware platform.
Popular digital books cost as much as printed books, despite the cheaper distribution method.
The user controls are horrible, and the buttons themselves often feel cheap.
Readers are overpriced when compared to netbook computers or tablet computers.

Many books I would want on an e-reader need color for diagrams and photos. This is particularly true of science textbooks. The manufacturer of most reader screens, E-Ink, is working on battery-efficient color displays, but color means more pixels and more energy consumption.

As for sharing books, there is an international standard adopted by libraries and universities known as ePub. Of course, why would Amazon want to give Kindle readers the opportunity to check out books from a library? Amazon sells books and has no business interest in allowing you to check out free books from your library. To Amazon, your local library is just another competitor. If you want to use online library services, the Kindle might not be for you.

I recently began noticing that CDs are sometimes cheaper to buy than to download. The argument is that few people want every track of a CD, so most people save money buying online. This does not explain why a paper and ink book can be cheaper than a downloaded book.

Think about it: books have to include paper, ink and shipping costs. Stores have rent, employees to pay and so on. Paper books should cost more than the nominal costs of copying a single digital edition to hundred or even thousands of consumers. Yet, I can buy several best-selling novels for less at my local “brick and mortar” stores.

The argument I hear from e-reader owners is that online books are more convenient. How much is convenience worth? For me, a popular digital book should cost substantially less than the wonderful printed edition.

Notice that I limit my cost complaint to popular books. Herein lies the appeal of e-readers for me: few books I want are current best sellers. This leads to the benefits of e-readers and e-books.

Out-of-print books can be sold forever, consuming mere kilobytes on a central server.
Niche, special-interest books can be published at a reasonable cost.
Frequently revised reference works can be updated quickly, for a small “upgrade” fee.
Textbooks and other “one-read” books can be “rented” to students.
Newspapers and magazines can be read, ideally with an option to save or print the best articles.

Currently, I read some books and periodicals on my iPod. There are now more books purchased for the iPod Touch and iPhone than games, but the screen is small and reading for any amount of time kills the battery.

Yes, I do want an e-reader. I’m sure in a year or two my wife and I will own at least one.

Since our house resembles a small library, with many of our books in boxes, I would love to have easier access to some texts. I can imagine replacing dozens of reference works in my library with digital editions. The Oxford English Dictionary, unabridged, would be a lexophile’s dream. A complete set of English and world classics, searchable and cross-referenced, would be great for a teacher like me.

For now, I’m waiting for color screens and better prices.

Data Formats for E-Book

Plain Text (.text, .txt): Files that contain only text content. These are the most “universal” of files, since they can be opened on almost any computer still functioning.
Hypertext Markup Language (.html, .htm): All Web browsers render HTML documents, making HTML almost as universal as plain text.
Adobe Portable Document Format and PostScript (.pdf, .ps): Adobe PDF is ubiquitous in business because the files can embed fonts, illustrations, and photographs. A PDF page on screen is identical to the printed page.
ePub (.epub, .opf): The open publication standard was developed as a standard for eBooks stored by public libraries, government agencies, and universities by the International Digital Publishing Forum. ePub can include some graphics, but is not as powerful as PDF.
eReader (.pdb): Developed for the original Palm Pilot, eReader is still a popular format for free and out-of-copyright books. The Barnes & Noble Nook reader supports eReader, so this old format might regain popularity.
Kindle / Mobipocket (.azw, .prc, .mobi): Mobipocket developed reader software for the Palm Pilot and other handheld devices. The file format was licensed by Amazon for the Kindle reader.

Most major e-readers and desktop book software can open texts distributed as plain text, HTML, and PDF. Currently, Amazon’s Kindle does not support ePub — the format supported by most public libraries and most other e-readers on the market.


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