Thursday, January 28, 2010

Are iBooks a Game-Changer for eBook Publishing?

I watched the reports coming in from Apple's announcement of the iPad yesterday with one thing in mind: What does it mean for eBooks? The answer I came up with surprised me. The iBook application and store will not have a huge impact on eBook publishing, and what impact it does have will be positive.

The iBook reader looks nice, with animated page turns that have always appealed to people who would rather look at books than read them. It is a full-color experience that will allow designers to knock themselves out with splashes of color where none existed before, much like typography on early Macintoshes. As cynical as I am, these are actually good things. Color and animation are an inevitable part of the future of publishing and if we have to go through another period of ransom-note publishing to get there, the result on the other side will still be worth it.

The down-side of the iBook reader is that it is a backlit LCD display that will be harder on the eyes over long periods than the black and white ereaders like Kindle, Sony, and Nook. If Ray Kurzweil (of Blio) is correct, LCD displays are now of such high resolution and flicker-free that people won't need to have eInk.

What I was really worried about was that Apple might come out with their own file format for eBooks. In its one exercise of truly good sense, however, Apple has adopted the IDPF standard ePub format for its books. That should mean that non-DRM ePub eBooks that you get for Adobe Digital Editions, Sony Reader, or Nook should play just fine on your expensive new iPad, and that file creation will be a matter of applying whatever DRM Apple elects to use to the publisher's existing files.

That is huge. It means that when you see the names of Harper-Collins, Penguine, Simon & Schuster, MacMillan, and Hachette up on the big screen, it's all about distribution, not about creating yet another version of the book. Easy entry for publishers means the iBook store should grow rapidly and have no difficulty in being at parity with other popular stores when it opens in two months.

From The National Post: Apple's iPad and new iBooks app to 'go a little further' than Kindle
From TechCrunch: Think iBooks Looks Familiar? You’re Not The Only One.
From CNET News: Apple iBooks e-reader: First Take
From The Huffington Post: iBooks: Apple's New iTunes-Like Store And App For Books

Sunday, January 24, 2010

You don't really need a device, do you? Part II: ePub readers

The on-screen eReaders reviewed in this post all accept the IDPF standardized ePub format eBooks. That doesn't mean that every ePub you acquire can be read on all these devices. DRM protected eBooks are still typically readable only on the platform/device that they are sold for. The major non-Amazon eBook players in the market today, Adobe, Sony, and Barnes&Noble, have all announced support or standardization on the ePub format. We can only hope that sometime soon they agree on a single DRM solution so we can read our books on whatever device or screen-reader we choose. Currently, it is kind of like saying you can read the paper books on your bookshelf only in the room where that bookshelf is. You can't take them from the bedroom to the living room and are absolutely forbidden to read them on the bus!

Enough of that rant! I started out just grabbing an unprotected copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in ePub format (you'll find dozens), but I quickly realized that many, or even most, of the ePubs in the market today aren't very well-constructed. Each person or company that makes a conversion from print or text files has its own set of style classes that it uses and generally ignores good XHTML coding and element-usage in creating their ePubs. So, I grabbed the text for the first chapter of Alice from Google Books and coded it as cleanly as I could with as few styles as I could manage. The book includes large illustrations centered between paragraphs and floating images. It includes a unique treatment for the first word of the first chapter. I set a style for the page that includes a margin at top and bottom so the text doesn't smash up against the top of the reading window, set left and right padding on the body text and removed the space between paragraps, adding a paragraph indent instead. The rest is raw, unstyled text.

Adobe Digital Editions

Adobe Digital Editions is one of the premier reading applications for the PC on the market and is one of only a handful that are not linked to any specific device. ADE supports PDF, ePub, and Sony Reader formats. It has a reasonably good interface and automatically formats text into multiple columns if your reading window is very wide. Best of all, in my book, ADE supports borrowed content, as in what I check out of the public library. I'm almost ashamed to say that I've only purchased a very few eBooks for myself because so many are available from the library. ADE did a lovely job of laying out the eBook and following most of my layout instructions, like centered graphics or floating graphics. You can choose from four different type-size settings, bookmark locations, and find text in the book. Nicely done.

Sony Reader Library

The Reader Library is designed to work with whatever model Sony Reader you happen to have, managing your bookshelf, purchased and borrowed books, and synchronizing with the device. It also has a pretty good on-screen reader included in it. Well, it should be pretty good as Sony licenses the Adobe Mobile Reader software for its display. So, if it works on Adobe Reader, it should work on Sony Reader Library as well. The two share a DRM, so most books in ePub format licensed for Sony will work on Adobe and vice versa. Sony Reader has seven different type sizes to choose from, but only one page size. It has the ability to bookmark and make notes.

Barnes & Noble Desktop eReader

The first time I loaded an ePub book in this reader I got excited. It has an elegant interface with reader settings that are the best ever. The layout of the screen, in fact, is reminiscent of the Microsoft Reader, including its page bar at the bottom that indicates how far into the book you've read and the automatically generated header at the top that tells you what chapter you are in. I can choose what size type I want and how much space between lines. I can control the width of the viewing pane to meet my own personal preferences. And the thing is that almost every eBook looks good in this reader because the Barnes & Noble Desktop eReader ignores all the formatting that the designer put into the book and applies your personal viewing preferences. Since a bejillion% of the eBooks that have been produced today appear to have been generated by machines without human intervention, that is great news. eBooks that have actually been designed by someone who knew what they were doing are few and far between. Unfortunately, you'll never know if you use the B&N reader because it will impose your personal design on the book no matter what that designer has done. I was so close to giving this reader three thumbs up that my disappointment sent me into three days of mourning. Why? I discovered that the reader ignores floating graphics and sets them as in-line graphics. Apparently content is as dispensible as the design because it is often missing from the layout completely. Yes, between pages 1 & 2 there were 5 lines of text missing! The same on every page, no matter what I set the reader preferences at. No matter how great a book looks on your reader, an absolute requirement is that all the words are there! Blech!

Mobipocket Reader Desktop

Missing content in Mobipocket Reader Desktop 6.2 includes all the images. In Mobipocket, you can set your own preferences as to what font and size you want to view your book in, how big the margins should be, and what the line-spacing should be. You just can't view the pictures. Mobipocket also reformats into multiple columns if your screen is wide enough. In single-column mode, it is a scrolling interface. clicking the left or right arrows advance or return one screen-load, but you can also scroll up or down a line at a time. When in multi-column mode, up and down advances by a full screen load just like left and right. If you just want a clean, uninterrupted reading experience, Mobipocket could be your choice, but I rather like to see the pictures if illustrations have been included.

Calibre eBook Management

Calibre brings us into a new genre of eBook readers. In fact, Calibre is mostly not for reading, but rather for managing and manipulating your library. Calibre does a nice job of laying out the eBook in an unpaginated (scrolling) interface, but all the content is there. That means, however, that there are no margins at top and bottom and there are frequent half-lines of text or pictures that are split between screens. The real strength of Calibre is the file conversion feature. You can convert to and from a dozen different file formats, including PDF to ePub. Definitely worth a look.

Stanza for Windows

Reading an eBook in Stanza is like reading it in your Web browser, only there aren't any pictures. This is truly a plain-Jane text reader that scrolls through the content in your ePub. But Stanza has two genuine claims to fame. First, it is an app that can be loaded on your iPhone or iPod Touch so you can read eBook content on your little device. In that world, eliminating pictures makes some amount of sense. Second, it has 16 different file formats that it can read and convert to/from. That includes Amazon Kindle. It could be a valuable tool for an intermediate stage of getting text into xhtml or even getting pdf to text. Don't assume everything will automatically come out looking as good as it should. You don't get great eBooks without working at it.

Don't forget Bookworm!

EDITED INFORMATION! Thanks to Liza Daly at Threepress Consulting for reminding me that I need to include Bookworm in this review. I had already uploaded my version of Alice and taken a screen-shot, but somehow missed including it in the list here. Bookworm is an in-browser reader for ePubs. That means that you do need to be on-line to use it. Through a simple interface, you browse for the book on your PC and upload it to your Bookworm library. Then just read. You can switch between serif and sans serif type with a nearly-infinite selection of type-size settings. Graphics and typestyles all adapt nicely. The width of the page changes with the width of the browser and can be set for a great line-length for your preferred type-size. From there on, it is just like reading in a browser: you scroll through the chapter. I have had some problem with reading multi-chapter eBooks. It is a great place, however, to quickly check your ePub code to see that it renders correctly, and it is very nice to have your eBook library backed up on-line.

Well, the end result was that I'm still most likely to read eBooks with Adobe Digital Editions if I'm on my PC or laptop. I had high hopes for Barnes & Noble Reader, but unless I can find an operator error that is causing it to lose lines of text and not wrap around graphics, no matter how beautiful the interface I'll have to take a pass. Since I often use a Sony Reader, I am also often in the Sony Reader, but I still find ADE to be easier to navigate in the long-run. Hope this exhausting comparison helps in your search for a great on-screen reading experience.

Friday, January 22, 2010

You don't really need a device, do you? Part I: Proprietary Formats

There are a lot of eBook readers that don't require a specific piece of hardware. I'm going to do a quick survey of eleven different ways of viewing non-DRM protected eBooks on your PC or laptop. (Sorry, I don't have data yet as to which are available on Mac, but I suspect most are.)

I'm dividing the field up into two categories (and at least two posts): Those that require their own proprietary file format, and those that will display any non-protected ePub. Some of the latter will also display either their own or other people's proprietary formats, but the thing I'm interested in is that they display the industry standard ePub format. For some reason (probably because it is readily available from Project Gutenberg as a free eBook and has great illustrations) for the past ten years Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been used as a sample for showing eBook layout. So since it is available in nearly every reading format, I've chosen it as the sample to show.

Category 1: Proprietary formats

Google Books, scanned format

Google has launched a project to scan all the books that exist in the world. This has been met with some controversy, but I'm not going to engage in it. I simply want to point your attention to the 1898 edition on the site as a reference point. I am also not going to pay attention to the text, epub, or pdf versions stored by Google. This is a great picture of what the printed book actually looks like. You can scroll through the pages and read the book just as if it was the paper book on your computer screen. Google has converted the images to searchable text, so if you want to find a specific reference you can. The only downside to this version of the book is that it doesn't have a pretty, page-turning interface (you scroll infinitely down the screen) and the type is a bit fuzzy since it is a scanned bit-map. Further, if your screen is not large, you can't see the whole page and you have to scroll to see it all or change the magnification to make it fit, which might make the type too small to read. But it is a picture of the book as The MacMillan Company printed it in 1898. There is a lot that could be said about this book (you should definitely read the preface!) but I will leave this as a reference point for now.

Adobe PDF

If The MacMillan Company had been setting the type for this edition in Adobe InDesign as many books are set today, we would expect that the PDF would look exactly like the paper version that was printed from it. In fact, the type would be much clearer than the scanned version as you can see in this facscimile that I created of just this page. I did not tinker with the typesetting, so you can see that InDesign added some appropriate hyphens and that the PDF is actually typographically superior to the scan. But in 1898 the publishers were working with bits of lead and tin spacers, not with computer algorithms for justifying the type. While PDF preserves the exact look and feel of the printed version, it encounters much the same problems as the scanned version. The type is much cleaner, but the page size and layout are static, so you must either reduce the size to fit on the screen or scroll through the page. Adobe Reader has three features that allow you to manipulate the image for better reading. First, if viewed in single page mode, you can turn the pages without the feeling that you are scrolling endlessly. Second, you can actually rotate the reader on your screen so that on a laptop computer you can hold it sideways and have a viewing experience that is more booklike. Third, you can choose to "Reflow" the text on your screen if it is smaller, and it will fit the text to the width of your screen. I does, of course drop the page formatting. Finally, most eBooks can be read aloud in PDF. The voicing is a little mechanical, but it is a great boon for visually impaired readers.

Microsoft Reader

Still around after nearly ten years, the Microsoft Reader offers one of the better reading experiences available. It's proprietary format (.LIT) has had its ups and downs over this time period, not the least of which was the decision by DRM provider Overdrive to stop supporting the DRM on books at Fictionwise. I lost the license to several books I had purchased. Microsoft Reader has 60,000 volumes in its library and adds a few each week. It is adaptive to page size and re-lays-out to match your screen size. It is also available on Ultramobile PCs and Windows Mobile devices. The clear-type rendering with ability to change type-size to match your personal preferences help to make the reading experience a good one. It has text to speech capability and annotations. If it had a million volumes in its library it would still be a top pick.

Kindle for PC

Amazon has chosen to use a proprietary format for its Kindle device and that goes for the PC screen version as well. Follow the link above if you want to download this because you can search on the Amazon site for a long time without finding it. You'll also have to search through about 50 editions of Alice before you find one that compares to the versions shown on all the other devices. And it's not a free one. This is the only one that I found that had a reasonable rendition of the illustrations by John Tenniel in the book, but is not the MacMillan 1898 version. I was, however, beginning to despair at what was available on Kindle after I'd downloaded all the free versions and bought two paid versions. The Kindle for PC application has a couple of nice features, including the ability to resize the window to any size and have the text reflow and the images scale. You can manually set the type-size and you can set the line length so that you aren't bouncing across the entire width of your computer screen to read the text. There is no text to speech.

Rocket eBook

I really can't say too much about the Rocket eBook reader from NuvoMedia, which was acquired by Gemstar in 2000. The device is one of the pioneering eBook readers of the industry and is still being sold by eBookwise and as of 2007 is supported by eBook Technologies, Inc. The PC screen reader will allow you to download and view non-protected material from the sites, but it has no ability to view protected content that is assigned specifically to the device. You can downloade the PC eRocket Reader from eBookMall.

Those are the proprietary formats that I'm going to look at today. Yes, Mobipocket, Sony, and Barnes & Noble all have proprietary formats, but you can also read standard ePub files on them, so I'll include them in my next installment.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What if I want to change from one eReader to another?

The answer to that question, of course, is "Too bad, so sad."

When we look at the number of different eReaders that were announced this month, we realize that one of the biggest barriers to sales for any of those readers is the fear that my investment in books will one day evaporate because a business model has changed, a system update has obliviated my collection, or a bankruptcy has left the copy protection inoperable. And those are very real fears.

Ten years ago the industry started working on an eBook standard file format that could be viewed on any conforming reading device. The specification for that format called EPUB is now in its second generation and is managed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). But in the typical rush to become the dominant eBook distributor in the market, the big players pretty much ignored the standard. Adobe really wanted PDF to be the cross-over format from print to electronic. Microsoft had its own Reader and .LIT format. Sony, first to market with a major commercially viable eReader created its own .LRX format (a BBeB Secure Book). That's not to mention the formats that were evolving within the Open eBook Forum (pre-IDPF) like Mobi-Pocket, Gemstar, and others. Then Amazon came to market with both a device and a marketing arm with pockets deep enough to wait out the adoption cycle and a distribution model that locked publishers into a new file format (.PRC) and rights management (.MBP). But like its predecessors, the Kindle was and remains a closed system. Your Kindle eBooks will not play on any other device unless the device runs Kindle for PC, Kindle for iPhone, etc.

The new glut of eReaders coming on the market mostly support the ePub standard. Sony announced a few months ago that it would be shifting all its books to the ePub standard. Adobe's Digital Editions are ePub books. Nook reads ePub books. So problem solved, right?

We wish it were so simple. There is still that pesky digital rights management (DRM) thing going on. Publishers, authors, and distributors are so nervous about people pirating their precious words that they have devised countless ways to license and protect the works. This has probably slowed adoption of eBooks more than the lack of reader competition. Even if my book is an ePub, it may have any of a dozen different encryption and anti-piracy "features" built in that prevent me from moving the files from one device to another, or giving them to someone else to read. In other words, my books aren't my books. My library is a temporal thing that I really only have the right to read in a specific environment dictated by the distributor and initial choice I make.

Attributor Corporation, one of those companies providing content security, released a report January 14 painting a picture of nearly $3 billion revenue lost from digital piracy. The report makes it seem like everyone in the world will be downloading your content without paying you. But of course, Attributor makes its money by providing anti-piracy security. Magellan Media, updating their February 2009 report on digital piracy before the Booksellers Expo, stated that pirated books actually showed a second sales peak in the weeks after piracy that non-pirated books did not have.

Two things need to happen to avert the morass of problems experienced by the music industry. First, nearly all books need to have DRM removed from them completely. I'm only saying "nearly all" because I know that someone will come up with a reason that certain books really need to have high protection and licensing. I just can't think of them at the moment. Second, books with DRM need to have a single, portable standard that enables the book to be shared across any device. In other words, if I have a license to read on a Sony, I should be able to read on a Skiff. The license needs to be transferrable, not only among my devices, but to a different person if I decide I don't want to keep my "used" books.

The major readers brag about the extent of their bookstores--1 million, 1.5 million books available. But if you examine the stores, they contain the same titles. The publishers have obviously realized that they can't be tied to just one device. The device makers need to get to the point that they aren't the end-all and be-all for my book collection. They are really just shelves my books sit on.

I've been promoting that concept for ten years now. There may finally be a chink in the armor developing that will make eBooks as friendly as their printed ancestors.

I used a lot of sources in researching this article. Here is a list of on-line references that have hit the news recently.

JK On the Run: Competitive Shopping — the Sense Behind Multiple e-Book Sources
The eBookNewser The Attributor Reports Rampant eBook Piracy citing also U.S. Book Anti-Piracy Research Findings and The Impact of Piracy
Chris Gaylord in The Christian Science Monitor: E-readers: the compatibility conundrum
And for an interesting comparison to print piracy, Kate Mayfield pointed me to The book pirates of Peru (11 pictures) in The Guardian.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Phantom eReaders from ASUS?

The lines are abuzz with news of a new eReader announced from ASUS, the people who revolutionized netbook computing. The Sunday Times reported yesterday that ASUS had announced a new color OLED eReader with a battery-life of 122 hours and features packed in tighter than sardines. That was followed this morning by GIZMODO announcing that it had seen a new grayscale eInk ASUS reader that was a new phenomenon. The color OLED is the DR-570 and the grayscale eInk is the DR-970.

The pictures of the devices look great, showing full color renditions of Elle Magazine, for example. But surprisingly, ASUS is silent. a search of their Web site comes up blank on all related topics. Their press page shows no new announcements since the 10th. A single paragraph in The Sunday Times report says:
Not all the ereader action was at CES. Asus, the Taiwanese manufacturer that pioneered the netbook concept, has given InGear exclusive details of its DR-570 reader, to be released by the end of the year. Asus says it has developed a 6in, high-brightness, OLED colour screen that should run for a whopping 122 hours on one battery charge — and that’s not just when displaying text but under real-world conditions, such as running Flash video over its built-in wi-fi or 3G. If that claim stands up, it would make this game-changing device nearly as energy-efficient as today’s monochrome readers.

Even a search for InGear comes up with no relevant information.

The UK's Electric Pig Web site includes this comment: "We’ve confirmed with Asus that the Asus DR-570 is indeed on the way, and are chasing more details now so stay tuned: we’ll update them as we get them."

Electric Pig also has the most complete description and photo gallery of the grayscale DR-950, and says: "The Asus DR-950 will pack a 1024×768 resolution display, and on the software front will offer RSS feeds, translation and text to speech. It’ll also pack 2 or 4GB of internal memory and an SD slot, Wi-Fi and HSDPA or even WiMax, plus a USB port for sideloading, a 3.5m audio port for music."

There are simply too few details regarding pricing and availability to make an assessment as to the viability of either device, but they could spell a new level of competition in the eReader market.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is it all in the display?

Perhaps the single technology that made eReading devices possible was the development of eInk by E Ink Corporation and first seen in the 2004 SONY LIBRIĆ© in Japan. The technology and variants of it spread to other eReaders, to highway signage, and to cell phone displays. The technology allowed for clean and clear display of readable type in any lighting condition or at any viewing angle. Now we see electronic ink displays made by several manufacturers coming into the market on the widest range of eReading devices we've ever seen.

We saw the announcements last week of the Blio, which Ray Kurzweil said was the result of LCD displays of such high quality that a different technology wasn't needed to be able to read.

Well, add to this mix a new technology that purportedly went into mass production this week: The 3Qi from Pixel Qi. Headed by display guru Mary Lou Jepson who started the One Child One Laptop campaign a few years ago, the 3Qi (pronounced three chee) modifies the high-battery consumption LCD monitor by letting it go into a front-lit reading mode that draws power only when pages are turned. The single screen technology allows all the color and speed needed to display video, images, and Web sites, but also gives low-power consumption grayscale viewing for reading.

So the question is whether a hybrid screen is the answer to reading on computers or if people actually would rather have separate devices for reading and computing. As in all similar situations, I suspect the answer is both, at least in the near-term.

Pixel Qi has not yet announced a list of devices that their technology will appear in, but I expect we'll hear a lot of noise from that front in the near future.

From Popular Science (POPSCI): Pixel Qi: The LCD Screen That Could Finally Kill Paper For Good
From Pixel Qi: E-Paper with Color and Video
From E Ink Corporation: Electronic Paper Displays

Friday, January 15, 2010

Back to the Future

Back in the late '80s, I saw a remarkable concept video that showed a young man learning to read using a portable device. After choosing a sports article he put it on the screen. The device scanned the article and displayed it, then prompted the student as he read aloud from the screen. The device was called a Knowledge Navigator from Apple Computer. It was a concept way ahead of its time, like so many others that have arisen and died, only to be produced as "new concepts" years later.

Garnering over 30,000 votes in the CES "Last Gadget Standing" competition and earning 4th place, the Intel Reader claims that prize this year. A boxy little device with a fairly small screen, the Intel Reader captures text through a 5mp camera, then converts it on the fly to the spoken word. It is listed as assistive technology for the blind, but you can readily see its potential application for many other uses as well. A rapid OCR reader could be used for converting any text page to both spoken and printed words. I have to wonder if I could even use it on my computer screen to capture content right off the screen. It is evidence that assistive technology has benefits to all the population.

A number of years ago I was privileged to meet Dr. David H. Rose, founder of the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). I was promoting an education prototype device and Dr. Rose gave me some advice that I've held close ever since. "When you design for the fringe, everyone benefits." Certainly, the Intel Reader is one of those devices, designed for a fringe population, that could have far-reaching benefits for all readers.

Unfortunately, as is the case with much assistive technology, the Intel Reader is priced out of the range for anyone who can't get assistance in purchasing it. At $1499, it is likely to remain locked into a small niche until more mainstream devices license and commercialize the technology.

Last Gadget Standing: Intel Reader.
Computer Technology Link: Intel Reader Order Info.
Intel Corporation: New Intel® Reader Transforms the Printed Word.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Two-in-one from enTourage eDGe

Even the name of this device makes it look like someone was trying too hard. Looking at it is reminiscent of cartoons that show inventions hammered together out of a dozen different kitchen utensils. But hidden beneath the obvious cliches, there is some thought-provoking technology. If Nook can have a miniature LCD touch screen beneath an eInk reader, why not expand that into a fully functioning netbook? That's what enTourage seems to have done.

The enTourage eDGe is about the size and shape of a netbook, but when opened up it doesn't have a keyboard. Instead it has a 9.7" eInk screen on one side and a 10.1" LCD touch screen on the other. One side is a fully functioning ereader for ePub and PDF format files and the other is a fully functioning tablet netbook. You can use them separately or at the same time, and transfer files acquired on the netbook to the reader for viewing. The eInk screen also allows note-taking and drawing, while the netbook side is equipped with media player/recorder and newly announced Office document editing from DataViz. The device is based on the Android mobile operating system and when released next month is expected to retail at about $490, a little less than buying both a netbook and an eReader.

Possibly the best feature of the dual screen device is the ability to use a stylus on the eInk screen to write notes, draw, or annotate text. The interaction between the two screens seems very smooth, using the touch screen keyboard to type on the eInk screen, searching on the Internet for phrases in eBooks, and managing the library.

The device, announced in October and revealed to the public at CES last week, has a lot of potential for those who want a single device on which to do everything. But it also runs the risk of being a little bit in two worlds and not fully in either. Years ago a friend compared such devices to cross-bikes, too heavy to really be a street bike and not quite rugged enough for mountain trail-riding. This is another device that I can't wait to get my hands on, but can't really see myself using, either.

From Gizmodo: enTourage eDGe Dualbook On Sale in February For $490, Combines Ereader With Tablet
From DVice: Entourage Edge: slick Android e-reader or overpriced dud?
enTourage eDGe Home Page and Demo: Introducing the enTourage eDGe™

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What problem does Blio solve?

There was a lot of buzz at CES last week about the new Blio eReading software backed in part by the name of Ray Kurzweil. This software-based reading solution is not a device but will run on most computers and many cell phones. Kurzweil believes that people don't want multiple devices and that eReaders like Kindle, Sony Reader, nook, et. al. limit the display of eBooks because of their black and white eInk screens.

It has been almost impossible to find a demo of the Blio software but there is a video of Kurzweil demoing the product at CES and answering a few questions with his typical "wave of the future" and "what people want" and how he anticipated all this in what he wrote a few years ago. Sometimes I wasn't sure if he was talking about the product or just about how clever he has been. You can see the CNBC demo here.

NPR had this article about the Blio.

But what is it? From all appearances, it is an enhanced UI for a PDF reader. Folks, we've been producing PDF books that retain all the typography, graphics, and layout of the original print book -- in color -- for 15 years. Adding page-turning graphics doesn't really seem like that big a step forward. Granted, Kurzweil has chops in text-to-speech, but it doesn't seem that advanced over any current screen reader. And about putting interactive graphics in your book? That seems to step away from the idea of preserving all the experience of the printed version -- not to mention that you still have to do all the video, flash, or other interactive media to add in.

The big thing that it appears Blio got right (and it is hard to say if this is a Blio feature or part of their partnership with Baker & Taylor) is the ability to keep a restorable copy of your entire library in the cloud that you can access from anywhere. As one journalist mentioned, I wish I could do that with my music.

Yes, the Blio (PDF) books are reflowable so they can be read on small devices like an iPhone. How? By flattening everything to a text file with no illustrations that can be flowed onto small screens. So, pretty much by turning the PDF layout into the kind of black and white, text-only eBook that Kurzweil complains about Kindle, Sony, Nook, etc. doing.

Blio (a free download) will be available in early February, and I will be among the first to install it. I have a lot of PDF books that I'm limited to viewing on my computer monitor anyway, so I might as well see if I can get a nicer interface for them.

Blio Reader Web site

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Spring Design's Alex eBook Reader

You may have heard about the pending lawsuit brought by Spring Design against Barnes & Noble contending that B&N copied Spring's eBook reader design when they brought out the Nook. Now Spring has announced the date the Android-based Alex eBook reader will be released is February 22. Currently, the reader will support Google books and Borders Books, but Spring Design expects other libraries in the near future.

The dual-screen reader with a 6" reading screen and 3.5" LCD touchscreen bears a slight resemblence to the B&N Nook. The problem is how to quickly and conveniently navigate your library and your seller's offerings while still maintaining the brilliant and eye-easy display of e-ink. Alex and Nook have the second LCD touchscreen. Sony, Bookeen, Copia, Fujitsu, and Samsung are among those that use an array of buttons (Samsung following the cell phone slider model). Skiff uses a hybrid touchscreen e-ink display. and of course, there is Kindle, iRiver, and Jinke that all have full keyboards in either the physical or virtual device.

The real issue that Spring Design will have to resolve is marketing a $400 device that is on a par with the most popular $250 devices in the market. Frankly, I'm not seeing anything in their technology so far that would merit paying the extra.

Spring Design's Alex priced and dated at CES
Spring Design Alex e-reader: sexy gadget or Nook clone?
Spring Design sues Barnes & Noble over Nook ebook

Can a Library Be Replaced by eBooks?

Cushing Academy, near Boston, is reportedly replacing its 20,000 volume school library with eReaders and wireless workstations. The half-million dollar makeover is designed to give students access to millions of books rather than the limited number of paper books in the library's collection. Stan Schroeder at Mashable asks if books are obsolete and if students will suffer or benefit from the change.

Can a School Library Be Replaced by E-Readers? Apparently, it Can

According to Cushing Academy: "Above all, it is important to know that Cushing Academy is not going "bookless." The issue at hand is merely one of offering books via an electronic or printed medium; many teachers continue to assign printed books in their courses, and students are encouraged to read literature in any format they find most convenient."

The original story broke in "The Boston Globe" back in September, but with all the excitement over new eBook readers the past week in Las Vegas, it certainly bears looking at more in depth. James Tracy, Headmaster at Cushing spent a good part of the aftermath of the article responding to readers with answers to questions and comments about the move. It was not undertaken lightly. According to Headmaster Tracy:
Our research found that, of a library of 20,000 printed books, only 48 were circulating at any given time, on average, and more than thirty of those were children's books taken out by the families that live on campus. When we spoke with students, they told us that they were not using the books on-site for research, either. Teachers confirmed that students mostly cited on-line sources in their papers.
We decided that we would provide students with much richer on-line database sources, including access to full-text, peer-reviewed journals, to teach them how to select out the most reliable content from all of the junk that they will encounter as students and professionals in the 21st century.

There are key elements to keep in mind regarding this transformation.
  1. Cushing Academy is already on the cutting edge regarding the use of computers by students. All students are issued laptops, regardless of economic standing. Within the Cushing community, there is not a digital divide.

  2. Both students and teachers continue to have the option of using print, electronic, or combinations in both research and pleasure.

  3. The transformation emphasizes the library space as a place to gather and discuss, rather than a place to isolate and immerse.

On my computer and my two eReaders, I have hundreds of eBooks. I check eBooks out from the local public library on a regular basis. My home also has hundreds of print books, newspapers, and magazines, some dating back as far as the early 1800s. While we are most definitely in a transitional era regarding media, I can't help but think Cushing is giving its students a great boost when it comes to the future of reading and even surviving in the near future.

Friday, January 8, 2010

OPL is keeping track

"This week is the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Continuing the trend from the second half of last year, eReaders are among the most talked about devices. We will try to keep track of all of the related announcements and coverage on all products and services annouced at and around the event that may influence the future of digital publishing."
Open Publishing Lab

Recommend an eReader

I got this request from a Twitter reader today:

So what's your take on which e-reader is (or has the potential) to be the best? Say, for the type of customer who probably won't use advanced features and doesn't want to pay a ton of money.

You'll never hear me say here that one device is patently "better" than another, but Tharyn asked a question with some very specific parameters around it. 1. Won't use advanced feature; 2. Won't pay a ton of money. Based on those two things, I'm ready to recommend based on my direct experience with specific devices.

Skiff is first a periodical reader and second a book reader. It's a big 8 1/2 x 11 inch device that's still only 1/4 inch thick and weighs less than a pound. You can write on it and annotate what you are reading. --Coming soon. That doesn't sound like the device you are looking for "for the type of customer who probably won't use advanced features..." Don't know about the price yet.

I have a Sony Reader and have been very pleased. I have the PRS 505 and believe it or not, have purchased only one book in the 9 months I've had it (though I've read dozens). The rest I've gotten from free book sites and from the local library. It's small, convenient, and when I broke the screen, Sony replaced it. I paid ~260 for it. Sony has a new touch-screen version out at about $300 and a pocket reader that is slightly smaller size for under $200. Sony has a big bookstore of several hundred thousand eBooks and has now switched to the industry standard ePub file format. It also reads Sony's proprietary files and PDF. If I were forced to buy a new device today, that is probably the one I'd buy. In three months my answer might be different.

I've looked at the Nook from Barnes & Noble and had a fun time helping unpack it. I guarantee you will break the packaging when you try to follow the two pages of unpacking instructions and will panic, but all will be well when you finally hold it in your hands. As to the device itself, B&N probably knows its market better than any retailer in the world. (I think it is because people work there.) They designed this device specifically to appeal to 25-40 year old women who would normally wander into the store and spend an hour looking around, reading, and choosing a book or two each month. This device is just made for that audience. It feels good in the hand, has a very book-like interface, and the color touch screen is great for looking at your library and selections from the bookstore. If you are in the bookstore you can connect wirelessly and read anything in the electronic store while you are in the store, just like taking books off the shelf. The downside is that the Nook, from the reports I've read, doesn't have great responsiveness, takes a long time (mostly waiting) to set up, and is generally slow. I'm sure that will improve soon, but maybe not in the first release.

Of course there is Kindle. It has one of the largest bookstores of electronic books available and is the biggest seller by virtue of the fact that it has been pretty much unchallenged for two years. But Amazon suffers from Microsoft syndrome. If it's not made here it doesn't count. So they've not yet adopted the industry standard ePub format, meaning that the only books you can really read on it are Amazon's Kindle books. Last I heard it wasn't even displaying PDF. I don't think you can check out Kindle books from the library because the library uses almost exclusively ePub and PDF. Sony recently switched its standard to ePub and both Nook and Skiff are ePub readers (after a fashion), so I'd guess that Amazon is going to feel the pressure to adopt the IDPF ePub standard as well eventually. Right now, though, I'd consider it more a Web surfing device than an eReader.

So of the devices I've seen and used to date, I'd rank them like this for the person you describe: Nook if you can stand the slowness (not so evident while actually reading), Sony Reader Pocket edition if you like something really compact, Sony Reader Touchscreen if you'd like something a little slicker. If you read periodicals or need to annotate things, I'd wait for the Skiff or one of the other large-screen readers. If an immediate library of over a million titles and several subscriptions to periodicals are a priority, then Kindle.

Hope this was helpful!

Skiff presents a new challenge

Okay, if you haven't heard about the new Skiff Reader announced at CES this week, you need to pay attention. This is a company that has gotten some things right. What impresses me most about this is that Skiff is not focused on a single eReader, though what they've shown is impressive. They are focused on publishers getting value across as broad a range of devices as possible. As a result, you'll find some pretty big publishing names (like Hearst) backing the company and an association with real innovators in technology (LG's screen and Marvell's chip) to create a service designed specifically to rival Amazon.

With an 8 1/2 x 11 inch device that appears custom made for the display of newspapers and magazines, an "always connected" partnership with Sprint, and an eInk touchscreen, this device and what it heralds could be very big. Check out these engadget articles:

Skiff e-reader hands-on: watch out Amazon
Magazine publishers announce joint digital distribution scheme
Skiff and Marvell announce Skiff Reader Develop Kit in a bid to rule the e-world

I've had my hands on the device, and I like it!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Que proReader still coming

Plastic Logic's Que proReader is still coming. We've been waiting to see it since they announced they would be the official Barnes & Noble reader back in October last year. That was quickly followed by B&N's release of the Nook and confusion about what "official" meant.

Now Plastic Logic says the Que will begin shipping in mid-April and will be available in bookstores like B&N later in the year. The Que bookstore is powered by Barnes & Noble.

The Que is one of the new, larger format eReaders in the 8 1/2 x 11 inch size range, making it suitable for display of magazine and newspaper content with some amount of layout. "Today, Plastic Logic is announcing new content partnerships with some of the leading business, news and sports publishers and publications, including news publications from the Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune, the Huffington Post and The Sporting News Today, along with magazines from Barron’s, Fast Company and Forbes." according to Plastic Logic's press release. What we haven't seen yet, however, is what these magazines might look like on the device. Where is design going?

Earth Times: "Live. Work. QUE.TM Introducing the QUE™ proReader by Plastic Logic"
Que proReader

Will concept design become commercial device?

Liquivista BV and GBO Design-Engineering have unveiled a new eReader at CES this week that is impressive as all get-out, but probably shouldn't be expected on bookstore shelves in the near future. The "Pebble" was created to showcase Liquivista's technology and GBO's design strengths in hopes that some of the big names will license the technology. And here's hoping they do. The 6" Liquivista color display video on their site show amazing screen redraw time with little or no black flash between pages. I'd like to get my hands on one of these for a thorough review, so let me know if you have one to share!

Earth Times: "New compact eReader concept unveiled by Liquavista and GBO Design-Engineering"
Liquavista Pebble
Liquavista Color

Another eBook Blog?

This is just what I need. One more blog to keep track of and post to. That makes what? ten? twelve? twenty? So why bother with another?

Ever since starting Long Tale Press with my two business partners, I've found myself becoming more and more involved in the eBook industry. Most recently I did a contract with new eBook and eReader provider designing eBooks. I hope to do a lot more there. Now I'm staring at the range of new eReader announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and thinking "This could finally be the beginning."

I've been in the publishing industry for thirty-plus years and heavily involved in eletronic publishing in one form or another for most of that time. While I understand (and even invented some of) the technology, at heart I consider myself a designer and writer. So, I figured there was a place in my life for a general blog about eBooks, eReaders, eBook design, eBook formats, and the impact of electronic publishing on the industry as a whole and on our lifestyles as individuals. So here is what to expect:
  • A hodge-podge of articles and comments about developments in the industry

  • Commentary on the differences and uses of various devices and eBook formats

  • Thoughts about digital rights management (DRM)

  • Announcements from the industry and eBook publishers

  • An open forum for commenting on eBooks

It's likely to be pretty disorderly and to get off the ground in fits and starts, but it should be a fun ride! I hope you'll come along.

Follow me on Twitter. I'm Wayzgoose.