It seems that nearly everyone I know, including my 80 year old mother is considering buying an e-book reader device of some type. I'm reluctant to take this step yet, for a variety of reasons explained below. Since my mother is interested in trying one of these devices, I did some shopping with her on my recent trip to omaha. Some of you might be considering the same issues, so I thought I'd put my thoughts down in an entry here.
Let me start by saying that I'm completely convinced that in the long run, e-books will eventually displace conventional printed books. There are huge advantages in terms of reduced storage space (my house is full of book cases and I have to get rid of books because I simply don't have room for more) and in terms of how easy it is to carry books with you. E-books offer the potential for easy searching and annotation. However, there are lots of problems with current implementations of e-books that make me quite wary.
I should also say that I'm a voracious reader. I read about a novel a week, and I also deal with many textbooks (I'm a college professor), technical reference books, and research papers. I already have a collection of several gigabytes of .PDF files of papers, theses, etc.
The e-book readers on the market, like the Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony reader, and many other less popular devices are all pretty much alike. They typically have an E-ink reflective display in the 5" to 7" range. The reader can be plugged directly into a Windows PC or Mac, or it can get content through a Wifi or 3G connection to the internet.
The E-ink displays have very different performance from the displays that you commonly find on laptops or on smart phones like the iphone. They work with light reflected from the screen. This means that they work well outdoors even in bright sunlight where conventional displays work very poorly. On the other hand, if you want to read an e-book in a low light situation (think of flying on an airliner at night with lights dimmed), you'll need some source of illumination. Under most normal lighting conditions, the reflective display is easy on the eyes compared to other kinds of displays.
I really like the readability of the E-ink display, but there are two huge issues. The first problem is that (with the exception of the new color Nook from B&N), these are black and white displays, which means that you can't look at color images on the device. The second problem is that the displays can't rapidly display a new image. This means that viewing video on an E-ink display is out of the question, and that the user interface can seem slow to respond, even while reading simple text.
So, I'm not really happy with the E-ink displays. There are more things about the e-book readers that I don't like. My biggest concern is having yet another device to carry around with me- the e-book readers aren't useful for playing MP3's, watching videos, or surfing the web. If I had an e-book reader, I'd have to carry around with me along with my cell phone, and an iPod Touch or laptop computer for these other functions. An e-book reader with a 7" display is too large to fit in my pocket, so it would end up in my briefcase, where it would typically be sitting next to a laptop that is also capable of displaying e-books!
I have another particular problem with the smaller screens used on the e-book readers. The e-book readers (and devices like the iPad) have software that can reformat e-books on the fly to adjust for the smaller size of a particular e-book screen. Furthermore, if you're eyesight is as bad as mine, you can set the e-book reader to use a larger font and the text will again be automatically reformatted to use the bigger font.
Unfortunately, much of the technical material that I read is in the form of .pdf files that cannot easily be reformatted in this way. Although there is software that can "reflow" text documents, it isn't very good in dealing with mathematical equations and it also doesn't really help with figures, graphs, and pictures that might appear in the text. For these kinds of documents, the only really practical way to read them in electronic form is to use a display that is in the 10" to 13" size range. By the way, there are similar issues with the formatting of poetry.
It is certainly possible to read e-books on other devices. You can read your e-books on a laptop or desktop computer. You can also read your e-books on a slate like the Apple iPad or one of many recently announced slate devices that will run Google Android. You can even read e-books on an iPod Touch, an iPhone, or some other type of smart phone, although the tiny screen makes this difficult.
I've come to the conclusion that if I make the switch to e-books, I'll be reading them on a slate that I also use for lots of other functions (email, calendar, tasks, playing music and videos, games, etc.) Although I've been happy with my iPod Touch, and would probably also be happy with an iPad, I'm really pinning my hopes on the next generation of slates that will use Google's Android operating system.
OK, so suppose that I've got a nifty iPad or a new Android slate. Now what?
The next issue is that there are a gazillion different e-book formats, supported by the different companies that sell e-books. Thus Amazon has a format used by its Kindle readers, while Barnes and Noble uses a different format with its Nook readers. Having a bunch of different formats means that you'll end up having to use different software to read e-books that came from different sources, assuming that those companies actually make software available for your device.
One thing that all of the formats share is the use of "digital rights management" to prevent unauthorized copying of the e-books. The war over DRM for music was fought several years ago, and the open and non-DRM MP3 format ultimately won out. So far, the publishers of books are holding the line and it does not appear that DRM free e-books will ever be widely available. I'm not interested in pirating e-books. However, I do want to be sure that I'll continue to have access to any e-books that I buy, even after I might switch to using a different device to read my e-books, and even if the publisher goes out of business (some consumers have lost access to music they bought after the company they bought it from went out of business.) No DRM scheme yet devised satisfies my requirements.
Finally, I'm concerned about a fundamental change in the way that books are bought and sold. With printed books, you're free to sell a book after you've read it. This won't be true with e-books. I've bought and sold many thousands of dollars of books over the years, and the prospect of a world in which there is no secondary market for books disturbs me.