The digital book

I love reading and I love collecting books. I have done since childhood and consider the written word to be one of mankind’s greatest achievements with its ability to preserve information, whether it be for entertainment or knowledge, completely intact for future generations to enjoy. True, the English language itself, being a ‘living language’, will evolve over time but words that are written down remain unchanged and will never degrade, and in fact provide a snapshot of how the language was used at a particular point in time.

Over the years I have amassed a beautiful collection of both fiction and nonfiction books, but sadly it is becoming extremely difficult to access that collection as the muscle tissue in my hands and arms atrophies away and the paralysis creeps forward. I can no longer reach up to lift a hardback book off a shelf for instance, nor do I have the strength to hold it for long and instead have to rely on the help of others. But even when a book has been placed on a table I am still finding it extremely difficult to move my arms in such a way as to allow me to turn the pages. In fact I find myself having to keep standing up when I want to flip through the pages. An electro-mechanical page turner will hopefully be one answer – but they are not a perfect solution being big and bulky and requiring specialist setup. When I eventually acquire one of these beasts I’ll document my experiences of it in a separate blog article.

Sadly one of my favourite pastimes (browsing in a bookstore) has become impossible (unless I’m with someone) so where I still have a need for a physical book I’ll purchase it online (and then struggle like crazy to unwrap the parcel). For a person with upper limb disability the whole concept of digital books purchased over the Internet and downloaded to a lightweight portable device that can be taken anywhere is very appealing.

Last September Sony launched an electronic book (eBook) reader here in the UK called the Sony Reader PRS-505. It wasn’t the first to be released in this country but with the Sony brand name behind it as well as being competitively priced, it was probably the most high profile launch to date and captured the attention of the media. Having a brother that works for Sony and thus being able to take advantage of a special launch offer price for staff enabled me to ‘dip my toes’ as it were into the world of digital books for a minimal outlay and to see what all the fuss was about. So for this blog entry I thought I would do something a little different this time. I would write a product review based around my experiences and try to find answers to some of the questions I had about their suitability for a person with a physical disability. You see, you get everything on this blog; humour, travel, and now in-depth product reviews. I’m spoiling you, hehe.

The technology

So what is an eBook? Well put simply it’s really nothing more than a computer file containing all the text (and possibly illustrations) contained within a book. It is the hardware required to ‘read’ that file that determines how close an experience an eBook is to a real book. In truth eBooks have been around for quite some time but it is only in recent times that technology has evolved to a point that the whole experience of reading an electronic book has begun to approximate that of a physical book. Early eBooks relied on desktop or laptop computers running proprietary software. Apart from the whole issue of equipment at that time being huge, bulky and expensive there was also the problem that conventional display technologies such as CRT monitors and LCD screens were just not suitable for prolonged reading. PDA type devices were also capable of reading eBooks but suffered from poor battery life. I dabbled with the technology myself some years ago and got caught up in the hype and promises of a new way to read and so I downloaded a few eBook novels to try out but it wasn’t long before I found that flickering and overly bright displays soon lead to eye strain. Besides that it felt like a hugely unnatural and uncomfortable way to read a novel. The big breakthrough came with E Ink. Here was a display technology that created a stable, non-flickering image that was easy on the eye. Even better, it only required power to re-configure the E Ink into another pattern, in other words to ‘change pages’. Battery life improved significantly making the new generation of portable devices much more usable.

First impressions

Okay, so much for the technical background. What are these devices actually like? I was lucky to acquire one on the day the product was launched last year so have had a fair amount of time to play around with it. First impressions are that it is a stylish, sturdily built product which is surprisingly heavy (or at least it appears that way to me). The controls are quite small and require a fair amount of effort to depress which might be a problem a bit later on as my strength fades. Switching the product on and waiting for it to boot up and display a menu takes a surprisingly long time for a device primarily designed to display text. But when it is on the screen display is very impressive with the characters clearly and sharply defined, and although the screen’s background colour is not paper white like a good quality hardback book (it is more like the colour of a paperback ‘pulp’ novel), it is very ‘restful’ on the eyes and suffers none of the eye strain problems you get when sat in front of a computer screen. I have found that I can be reading from an E Ink screen for hours without getting a headache. Another thing that I noticed straight away is how quiet the Reader is. There are no obtrusive fans whirring away like on a computer to distract from the pleasure of reading.

The Sony Reader PRS505

Once switched on the device will automatically go into a power saving standby mode after a predefined amount of time. That was a bit confusing to me at first because the big advantage of E Ink displays is that they don’t consume power except when you change pages. But like all electrical products fitted with batteries it will if left to itself discharge naturally. Switching the device off completely will minimize power loss. The battery is factory fitted which could be a concern in the long term. I’ve no idea how long the battery would last or even how much it would cost but certainly don’t like the idea of sending off the Reader complete with all my books and then being without it for several weeks. But then again in this terribly wasteful fast-changing world of ours perhaps people will just take the opportunity to upgrade to a newer model.

Setup

If eBooks are to reach a broad audience then the whole process of using them needs to be extremely simple and not something that only the technically literate feel comfortable with. Thankfully setting up the Reader to enable the purchase of eBooks over the Internet was a quick and painless process which consisted of attaching the Reader via the supplied USB cable (also used to recharge the Reader’s battery) to a computer, which in my case is a laptop, and installing the software which came on a CD. There’s two pieces of software to install. One is the library management tool which enables organisation of all the books in your collection, the other is the dreaded DRM (Digital Rights Management) software which is designed to prevent unauthorised copying or lending. Once this had been installed it was necessary to ‘authorize’ the computer that will be used for purchasing eBooks. It was also necessary to authorize the Reader itself so that it can ‘unlock’ protected (i.e. DRM’d) books that are transferred to the device. Apparently you’re allowed to authorize a maximum of six devices on the one account which is sufficient for most families but woefully short if you have ideas of sharing your books with friends and work colleagues. Special note to Sony: in future please provide the printed instructions in a small stapled booklet and not on a single broadsheet that once opened up covers half my dining table. I struggled badly with my arms to unfold the paper.

Purchasing eBooks

The library management software offers a gateway into the Waterstones website, Sony’s official eBook partner, although there is nothing to stop you from shopping elsewhere. Purchasing eBooks will feel familiar to anyone used to shopping online. Basically you make your selection, place it in the shopping basket and go to the checkout. The only difference is that after payment you’re presented with a download link. The whole process is very slick and trouble free. It takes hardly any time to download an eBook (words, compared with video or music don’t consume much space) which is then automatically loaded into Adobe Digital Editions (the DRM software). You can if you wish read the eBooks directly from within this software but it’s not the most comfortable way to do so and defeats the object. One thing that did concern me was what would happen if you lost your Internet connection half way through a download? Well fortunately Waterstones allow you to go back into your account and re-download a book a certain number of times.

A view of the books that have been purchased and downloaded into Adobe Digital Editions – the software is designed to prevent unauthorised copying. Note that disappointingly some do not even have the book cover art

It is possible to read a book directly from the software

Transferring eBooks to the Reader

Having purchased an eBook and downloaded it to the PC there remains two albeit simple steps to complete before the Reader can be used. The first is to import the eBook into the library management software and the second is to drag the imported book title onto the Reader icon. This effectively creates a copy so you end up with the eBook on both the PC and the Reader, thus creating a backup copy.

Sony’s eBook library software used for organising and transferring eBooks to the Reader

Again there is an option to read an eBook directly if required

The reading experience

No matter how clever the technology or how appealing the product looks it will stand or fall on its ability to make reading a pleasurable experience. As an early generation product it’s not without its faults but to be honest they are fairly minor gripes and I would have to say that Sony have done a very good job with this product. One nice touch is that you can change the size of the text which is very useful for those with poor eyesight. The glass screen however is prone to bright spot reflections from nearby lights so some care is needed in where it’s positioned. I first noticed this when I placed it on the dining table and sat down to read. Raising one end up about 30 degrees by supporting it on a real book cured the problem. I’ve not tried using it outdoors yet so cannot comment on what it might be like on say the garden patio. Changing pages is also a little slow although probably no more so then when turning the pages on a real book. But it becomes more noticeable and intrusive when trying to quickly flick through the pages like you might do in a reference book.

One thing that does take a little getting used to with eBooks is losing the visual cues that a physical book gives you. For instance you can visually see how big a book is to read by judging its thickness, or how many more pages there are before the end of a chapter by quickly skipping ahead. Not so with an eBook that’s hidden inside silicon. All you get is a numerical representation e.g. page 1 of 300. But because a ‘page’ can be more than one page change on the Reader (depending on magnification) it can be confusing. Perhaps a ‘progress bar’ or pictorial representation might help. It would also be helpful if there was an author/title bar at the top/bottom of the screen.

A particular problem I have is that the muscles at the back of my neck are weakening which makes bending my head down to read from a flat surface a rather uncomfortable experience in quite a short space of time. I have tried sitting on the sofa where I can support my neck and with the Reader perched on a cushion on my lap but the paralysis in my arms is making it difficult to reach the controls which is why I’ve spent more time lately sitting at the dining table. One way to alleviate this would be to place the reader on a height adjustable vertical stand (like a book stand) that could be elevated to eye level. Only problem then is that I would be unable to raise my arms to reach the controls. The ideal solution would be to supply a wired remote control that connects to the Reader via the USB socket (sort of like a cable release on a camera). Then I could sit back and turn the pages by pressing a rocker switch on the hand-held remote. Come on Mr Sony, it’s hardly rocket science and would sure make life easier for us less physically able folks.

The advantages

With the ability to store about 160 books on the internal memory (and thousands more on expansion cards) and a battery capable of around 7000 page turns before recharging, the Reader offers some clear advantages in situations such as a stay in hospital, commuting to work, a business trip or a backpacking holiday where space and weight are at a premium. But even outside of these areas eBooks offer some major advantages: they don’t degrade, there are no pages to tear, crease or go yellow with age. And they offer the appeal of instant access to new books – see a book you like on the Internet; download it and start reading in minutes!

For the physically disabled there are all the additional benefits of zero handling required such as reaching up and lifting books off a shelf, carry them around, and turning the pages.

Disadvantages

Perhaps not surprisingly for an embryonic technology there are some disadvantages and limitations. The one that becomes most apparent as soon as you pick up the device is a lack of colour which has become something of an expectation these days on consumer products. You can find it on mobile phones, on mp3 players and digital cameras. Sure, it’s in development and has been for some time, but until it arrives these devices are destined I feel to remain niche products. I suppose it could be argued that there is no need for colour if the Reader is only used as a replacement for paperback novels but even here colour could prove useful for browsing through book covers in a similar fashion to browsing album covers on an mp3 player. We assimilate pictorial information far quicker then textual information so navigation in this way would seem the natural way to go.

Just as saving shelf space could be seen as an advantage, having a home devoid of bookshelves could also be seen as a disadvantage. For booklovers such as myself part of the attraction of ownership is displaying your books. At the moment the idea of condensing an entire collection down to a portable device seems strange. But considering how quickly people have adapted to placing their entire music collection on mp3 players perhaps the advantages will outweigh such considerations.

One real limitation is the restrictions placed on what you can actually do with the eBooks once you’ve purchased them. Gone would be the days of exchanging or loaning them out to family or friends.

Pricing

As with all new technologies it’s not cheap. The Reader itself although cheaper than competing models is still expensive so you’d need to be a fairly avid reader to justify one. The real problem arises from the cost of the eBooks themselves which are often more expensive than traditional books sold at supermarkets and online retailers. Why? Digital distribution should be cheaper because there are no trees to cut down and turn into paper, no printing plants to manufacture the books, no warehouses to store them in, no transport system to move them around and no shops to add their profit. Could it be that the publishing industry like the music and film industry just wants to make a large profit for little effort? Something else to consider is that without any physical stock sitting in warehouses growing old there is little incentive for discounts to make way for new stock.

eBook choice

On the run up to the product launch there had been media articles suggesting that Waterstones would launch with 25,000 titles. Great, I thought, more than enough to choose from to start my collection. But reality turned out rather different with only about 4600 on offer on the first day. Since then I’ve learnt that a product launch isn’t necessarily the first day but a defined period of time that could stretch into months. But even now about four months later there are still less than 7500 being offered. To make matters worse the choice of eBooks available is disjointed. For instance book 3 in a trilogy might be missing even though it was available as a paperback years ago. Or worse, books in the middle of a series are missing. Many of the well known authors whose books I read are either poorly represented or absent altogether and although I have a couple of shelves full of novels I’ve yet to read I’d be hard pressed to find any of them as eBooks. Okay there are millions of novels in the world and it would be unfair to expect them all to be available at launch, nevertheless I feel that Waterstones have not done enough to ensure this product was launched in a big way by offering a far more enticing selection. Because of this limited choice I have been forced to adopt a different purchasing strategy. Instead of going to the website with the specific intention of looking for a particular book I now browse through what is actually available and make my selection from these. This has lead me to experiment with authors whose books I might not have bothered with.

A confusion of formats

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to discover that there is more than one eBook format and although the Sony Reader is capable of reading some of them it cannot read all of them. Here we go again with another version of the format wars that does nothing but confuses the public and delay widespread adoption. I do wish these consumer electronics companies would work together. Fortunately the Sony Reader is capable of reading eBooks published in the new EPUB format (a sort of PDF for books) which it is hoped will become the standard. The problem is that other formats have been around for a while and have become established with a much larger selection of books.

The future

With music and more recently movies making the first tentative steps in giving up physical media and going the way of digital downloads it was only a matter of time before the publishing industry followed in their footsteps. But for eBooks to achieve mass market appeal and anywhere near the success of music it will still require some significant developments including colour, larger screens and flexible displays. Having a text to speech synthesiser built in could prove useful for studying new languages and learning correct pronunciation or for children learning to speak. Animation could also be useful in say illustrating the workings of a piece of machinery. Of course if you add all these features in you suddenly realise that you’ve just reinvented the computer!

At the moment with the current state of technology the emphasis is on replacing novels and that will be a hard enough market to crack but the real challenge will be when non-fiction books, magazines and newspapers all make the transition. Imagine an entire library of reading material on a flexible device offering high resolution colour. It will surely come but not quick enough for me.

Summing up

There’s a lot of hype surrounding eBooks at the moment and it’s all too easy to get carried away. There is however no denying some of the clear cut advantages they offer both for able and disabled people. But high prices, a confusion of formats and limited choice will I believe delay widespread adoption. For eBooks to truly succeed the technology needs to be completely transparent. Either have one format or equip all readers to read all formats. Books the world over are universally the same tech, eBooks need to be simple enough for everyone from children to old people.

One area of concern though is the regionalisation taking place. For some strange reason there are limitations on where you are allowed to purchase your eBooks. For instance it is not possible for a citizen living in the UK to purchase an eBook from the Sony US website which is very frustrating as their site offers a much wider choice. And yet I can buy a physical book from anywhere in the world!

Another concern is longevity. A paperback bought as a child can still be read by that same person when they have grown old. What chance is there that any electronic format will survive more than a decade or two? Will a library of expensive eBooks even be readable in years to come? Can they be passed on to future generations?

The Sony/Waterstones partnership has the market pretty much to itself at the moment so it will be interesting to see if it manages to obtain a strong foothold before the US invasion in the form of the Amazon Kindle arrives on our shores. They will only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t.

If it wasn’t for my disability I would be inclined to stay with paperback novels and wait for the technology to mature. It’s definitely the way forward; I’m convinced of that. But at present for all the reasons I’ve outlined above I believe it would be best to wait a while longer. But if we all take that stance then it leads to a chicken-and-egg situation; the public won’t buy the Readers so the publishers won’t invest in the market. It is being treated as a niche product like audio books when it could be so much more.

Mark

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