Kindle and Kindle 2 are on the fore­front of many dis­cus­sions now. Rather than talk about the pros and cons of the device in depth, I thought it might be good to repost some­thing I wrote on June 4, 2001 about another eBook reader.

The short ver­sion of my argu­ment against Kindle is twofold.

1. There’s no guar­an­tee that what you buy today will be usable in ten years’ time. My REB titles are all now fad­ing into obscu­rity, since the REB stopped being sup­ported by RCA — or any­one else — in 2002.

2. DRM assumes that your key will always be valid every­where, under all cir­cum­stances. Customers upgrad­ing from K1 to K2 already know what’s wrong with that assump­tion. It’s hard enough today to keep non-​​encrypted data read­able; for more on this, cf. the dif­fi­culty NASA has now in read­ing old space probe data from the 1960s. There are no com­put­ers today that can decode the stored infor­ma­tion, ren­der­ing it essen­tially worthless.

From a tech­ni­cal aspect, K2 has 1 GB inter­nal stor­age and no SD slot, unlike the K1. That means you either have to be able to sync your K2 to a desk­top com­puter to han­dle large libraries; or trust that Amazon’s WhisperNet will always be there for you.

Always, until the end of time.

And if the K2 bat­tery goes, you have to send the device back to Amazon to replace it; it lacks the remov­able bat­ter­ies the K1 had. While this sup­ports a short– to intermediate-​​term busi­ness model for Amazon, it doesn’t actu­ally do any­thing to help the end user.

As I wrote on a mail­list, some things are far too impor­tant to be entrusted to a pile of sil­i­con con­trolled by a sin­gle cor­po­ra­tion.

Post fol­lows. Note, as you read it, that a lot of the fea­tures the REB had are the same boasted today by Kindle, and that in fact the REB had more fea­tures in some areas than either K1 or K2, such as sty­lus input, back­light­ing and a color screen option. Also note that the fol­low­ing unedited copy is pre­scient of a few things, such as text-​​to-​​speech. Until you read this post, though, had you ever heard of the REB before?

Think about that.

Throw the book!
The Indigestible, June 4, 2001

Since I was about 12 I’ve wanted a way to cart around books with­out hav­ing to deal with things like shelves.

Books are great. They’re highly portable, and they’re good enter­tain­ers, edu­ca­tors and gen­eral alle­vi­a­tors of intel­lec­tual ennui. But they’re also bulky when you get sev­eral of them together, can be pretty heavy, and when you move from one house to another hoo boy you start to won­der if maybe five cases of ‘em isn’t a bit much.

Naturally some things can­not be replaced. A good hefty first edi­tion on acid-​​free paper still makes a col­lec­tor sali­vate, but most books bought are bought for read­ing, not museum dis­play, and there the for­mat isn’t as impor­tant as the infor­ma­tion it contains.

So when elec­tronic books began to become tech­no­log­i­cally fea­si­ble in the last cou­ple years I started pay­ing attention.

But the ones most com­monly ref­er­enced now, Glassbook and Microsoft Reader, aren’t portable. They run on your desk­top sys­tem. If I wanted to sit around all day long star­ing at a com­puter, I’d be a — oh, wait, I do sit around all day long star­ing at a com­puter. So there’s no way I want to do it all night long too as “leisure activity”.

Desktop book read­ers like that, then, are pretty much worth­less, at least to me.

There aren’t any for the Palm plat­form, not really. There are doc for­mat read­ers and writ­ers, but you won’t find an elec­tronic book for sale in that for­mat, since it doesn’t pro­vide such things as copy pro­tec­tion. And besides, the Palm screen really doesn’t lend itself to lengthy read­ing, being as it is about half the size of a 3 by 5 inch index card.

RCA and Gemstar (the TV Guide peo­ple, if you can believe that) recently released a new pair of eBook read­ers, though, which caught my eye, the REB 1100 and the REB 1200.

Neither design is actu­ally orig­i­nal to RCA; the 1100 is derived from NuvoMedia’s Rocket eBook, and the 1200 is the off­spring of the SoftBook. Both mod­els’ orig­i­na­tors were evi­dently in bad shape finan­cially, and even­tu­ally ended up sell­ing out.

The results are strik­ing, to put it mildly, for in spite of what their model des­ig­na­tions might imply, the REB 1100 and 1200 have vir­tu­ally noth­ing in com­mon beyond the eBook file for­mat they read.

The 1200, with its color screen and phys­i­cal dimen­sions approx­i­mately that of a hard­cover novel, is the ini­tially sex­ier of the two. Its large, clear and col­or­ful dis­play allows com­fort­able read­ing of any loaded text, and its back­light would seem to answer to any light­ing con­di­tion. Its leather cover is held in place by mag­netic clasps, the sty­lus (for con­trol­ling the eBook reader via its screen inter­face) tucks dis­creetly away in a socket at the top of the device, and its abil­ity to store books on flash mem­ory cards per­mits it almost infi­nite expandability.

The books them­selves can be writ­ten on using the sty­lus — you can “draw” right on the pages, and what you scrawl there will remain there indef­i­nitely. You can also add high­lights, notes and bookmarks.

There are prob­lems, how­ever, with this model. The great­est is sim­ply one of bat­tery life; the 1200 is good for about 8 to 12 hours’ read­ing, at most, before you have to recharge it. It is also heav­ier than might be desired, a lit­tle unwieldy, and its page-​​control but­ton loca­tion — cen­tered on the right hand side of the unit — is awk­ward for read­ing one-​​handed. And, though this is really an aes­thetic quib­ble, the stitch­ing on the leather cover really isn’t well done. And when I was attempt­ing to remove the spring-​​loaded sty­lus from its socket I ended up inad­ver­tently launch­ing it sev­eral feet. This is amus­ing when it hap­pens in a con­fined space, but would lend itself read­ily to styli being lost.

By com­par­i­son the 1100 appears down­right frumpy. Dimensioned to the scale of a paper­back book, its small black and white screen doesn’t yield the vibrant attrac­tions of the 1200. This eBook reader, how­ever, does not require its back­light to be on for text to be leg­i­ble, the reader has onboard mem­ory as well as SmartMedia card expan­sion (the 1200 has no inter­nal mem­ory for book stor­age at all), and its bat­tery can pro­vide up to about 30 hours’ read­ing max­i­mum (less depend­ing on how bright you’ve set the back­light to be).

While you can­not draw on the pages with the 1100, you can under­line text, add book­marks and anno­ta­tions, and there is a pos­si­bil­ity at least that in the future you will be able to play back audio clips in some texts. (This leads one to spec­u­late on the like­li­hood of an eBook reader which will actu­ally read aloud. Assuming these mod­els do well enough and the over­all con­cept takes off, I’d say maybe no more than five years before you see it happening.)

The 1100 is not all roses, of course; if you get going too quickly with it it some­times seems to lock up, requir­ing you to hit its reset pin in the back. (Why an eBook reader should lock up at all, when it is being called upon to do noth­ing more than dis­play text on a screen, one page at a time, is beyond me.) Every once in a while, though, the reader retrieves soft­ware updates online, so pre­sum­ably this prob­lem will even­tu­ally be fixed.

The 1100 appears to run a lit­tle faster than the 1200, and this one’s design is a bit more cus­tomiz­able: You have the option to rotate the ori­en­ta­tion of the pages you are read­ing, so you can hold the 1100 pretty much any way which suits you. Also its pag­i­na­tion but­tons are in bet­ter loca­tions for ease of use, and its case design sim­ply feels more sub­stan­tial than that of the 1200.

Both eBook read­ers retrieve texts from Gemstar’s online servers. You buy a book, either via the cat­a­log you can retrieve with the built-​​in modem on your eBook reader or from pow​ells​.com or bn​.com, then you can down­load it from your “online book­shelf” and read it as you wish. Since the eBook device can store about 12 nov­els in its included mem­ory (an eBook novel is per­haps 300 Kb in size, so you can fit about 3 to the megabyte) you can carry around sev­eral texts at once for use at your dis­cre­tion, and of course if you’ve added mem­ory you can carry even more.

The price for a sin­gle eBook is usu­ally sev­eral dol­lars less than that of the paper edi­tion, and there are prob­a­bly a cou­ple thou­sand titles to choose from right now, with more being added reg­u­larly. Both eBook read­ers come with a copy of Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and a Webster’s Dictionary.

While both devices offer roughly sim­i­lar acces­si­bil­ity to eBooks, and while the 1200 offers a color screen and the abil­ity to “write” mar­gin notes, I feel the 1100 has a bet­ter ergonomic design. This, along with its greater bat­tery life, makes me think the 1100 is the eBook reader most would want to con­sider buy­ing, at lest of the present mod­els available.

Of course, the fact that the 1200 costs $700 while the 1100 is merely $300 might make the deci­sion much eas­ier for most con­sid­er­ing tak­ing the plunge and going dig­i­tal. For my money, I’d say that the large color screen and the draw­ing abil­ity don’t make up for the 1200’s phys­i­cal design flaws, cer­tainly not enough that I’d be will­ing to pay over twice as much for it as I would for the 1100.

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