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 powells.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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