In a recent interview, the literary critic John Sutherland said that that over the course of his lifetime musical formats had changed regularly, from gramophone records to LPs to tapes to CDs to MP3s. The commercial need to give audiences something new and improved (sound quality, artwork etc) had driven this rapid evolution. On the other hand, Sutherland argued, the codex book format hasn’t changed in two thousand years because it has always met the needs of readers. It is light, portable, durable, accessible and lendable. You can keep your place in it with a bookmark or folded corner of the page and you can scribble your thoughts about it in the margins. Media technologies have come and gone but the humble book has endured – if it ain’t broke why fix it?
Well, the likes of Steve Jobs would beg to differ. Since the establishment of the first digital archive in 1971, e-books have evolved via desktop prototypes, CD-Rom and PDF to become a major market force. Since the first e-book tablets came out in 1998, there’s been something of a gold rush with all the global tech brands – Sony, Apple, Amazon, etc – wanting a cut of the action.
I must admit that I was an early skeptic, anxious about the headaches and radiation sickness that might come from staring at a screen boning up on Blake or catching up with Coetzee. However, the new generation of gizmos that are set to come out this year seem to have vanquished that problem forever. Their high-definition E-ink aesthetic is easy-on-the-eye and does real justice to the written page. These devices also boast faster refresh rates, smoother operating systems, larger screens and a greater diversity of content, including your favourite newspapers and magazines alongside the literary classics. Last year, sales of e-book readers hit a new record with Amazon’s Kindle device alone moving 500,000 units globally. It is no wonder then that 2010 is predicted to be ‘The Year of the E-book Reader’. The battle to give the public the ultimate e-reading experience escalated into a price war in March when Sony slashed the cost of its most basic tablet in anticipation of the Apple iPad’s release. This prompted Amazon to start talking about a cheaper yet souped-up Kindle of the future, driven by a new improved Freescale processor that offers all the functions of other processors currently on the market, only more economically.
The iPad should be hitting Malaysian shores in the next month, although the hype around it is based more on promises for tomorrow than the capabilities of today. While the iPad impresses with its vast 16gb memory, it is the future prospect of colour E-ink screens and greater compatibility with other ‘Apps’ that really makes the mouth water. As the iPad stands right now, its US $500 price tag and comparatively short battery life of 10 hours means that it is ‘not yet a killer’, in the words of tech blogger Ebook Doctor. However, given that Apple already dominate digital music and are fast expanding their e-book portfolio, the iPad allows you to buy new titles online in a matter of seconds, which is certainly more convenient than heading down the mall. (http://www.apple.com/ipad/gallery/)
Even more expensive (at around US $800) but marketed more at business customers, is the Que, first developed by two lecturers at Cambridge University. The Que, which has been on limited release in North America since January, is tipped to become the slickest and most user-friendly model on the market. Its extra-sensitive touchscreen display and innovative annotation system are intended to help you read in almost any environment you find yourself in. A friend of mine who works in urban planning in the Philippines skim-reads documents on his Canadian-bought Que while stuck in traffic jams in Manila. If he tried the same thing with a hard copy, I shudder to think what sort of nasty accident might happen if he took both hands off the steering wheel to turn the pages. (http://buyque.barnesandnoble.com/Home-and-Gift/e/814311010043)
The most competitively-priced next gen tablet must be the Kobo, due out in mid-June. You can land one of these for only $149.99 and it comes preloaded with 100 classic titles which only adds to the great value. Expectations are high, with Wired Magazine going as far as calling it “the Kindle killer”. The Kobo company originally started out designing e-book software before making the step up to the tablet market. This background expertise, along with their close connection to Borders Bookstores, means that their new tablet is gifted with a first-class content delivery system, allowing cheap and easy downloads of a whole plethora of reading material. http://www.koboereader.com/360.html
Presumptuously marketed as “the tablet that has everything that the iPad is missing”, the German WePad (is that name just a coincidence?) has set itself up as a direct rival to Apple’s flagship device. The company behind it, Neofonie, have begun exclusive negotiations with publishers and media providers (such as Europe’s biggest newspaper conglomerate Axel Springer) that are less than ecstatic about Apple’s steep prices and tight restrictions. The WePad’s publicity seems to focus on its versatility: not only can you read with comfort and speed thanks to the Intel Atom Pineview-M chip but you can take pictures with its webcam, watch Flash animations and connect up to various USB devices. Expect to find this gizmo in stores around the world by late July. http://phandroid.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/wepad-1-550×292.jpg
Sticking on the versatility of functions theme, a big hitter out this summer is Condor Technology Associates’ eGriver Touch, which is equipped with touchscreen, Wi-fi, directory organization tool,web browser and integrated dictionary. Many of its competitors can boast only half these capabilities. Such tools as text-to-speech are optional with this model. Weighing just 240g, the eGriver Touch is one of the lightest e-book readers on the market. However, one drawback with this device is its lack of compatibility as only 8 e-book formats (amongst them .epub and .pdb) are supported. However, the eggheads predict that the increasing standardization of the market will soon make compatibility issues a thing of the past. (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/16/Egriver_touch.JPG)
You could forgive Apple for developing a persecution complex because they too are in the sights of yet another forthcoming tablet, the HP Slate. Last month, an internal HP presentation ‘proving’ how superior the Slate will be to the iPad was leaked to the public. In the areas of screen resolution, processor power, port compatibility and webcam, the Slate appears to win out, although it’s likely that it will cost at least $50 more than the iPad, and the buying public might well ask the question, “Why does an e-book reader need a state of the art camera?” http://media.boygeniusreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/hp-slate-side-image.jpg
Asus are tipped to release their DR-900 e-reader in the next couple of months. Its touchscreen capability has been hailed as a quantum leap in the field but, unfortunately, sneak preview sites such as engadget.com have reported sensitivity and typing issues. Apparently, this is sort of compensated for by the navigation arrows provided on either side of the screen which are much easier to use. Furthermore, it is hoped that these gremlins will be fixed by the time the DR-900 is officially released. Also in the ‘pros’ column for this device is the crispness of the 1024 x 768 display and the 1-2 second refresh time. http://www.engadget.com/photos/asus-dr-900-e-reader-hands-on/
Looking slightly further into the future, there is much excitement surrounding Google’s first tablet to be run on its revolutionary Android operating system. Although details are hazy at present and no release date has been set, information has been drip-fed from sources such as Google’s CEO Eric E. Schmidt who has intimated that the tablet would take the appearance of a more traditional computer, be equipped with the Chrome Web Browser and offer a completely open platform, unlike the iPad. Most significantly, Google will seek to take advantage of the multilingual capability of Android, offering customers the opportunity to read e-books in whatever language they choose. This gives Google’s new gadget a clear competitive edge over all the other monolingual tablets out there on the market. http://z.about.com/d/portables/1/0/p/E/Google_tablet_01.jpg
So it would seem that the brightest brains in the business might prove Professor Sutherland wrong and seriously challenge the millennia-old codex in this, the Year of the E-book Reader. Who can predict?
Originally published in Quill (2011)