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Sony Reader: The future of electronic books?

With the recent release of the Sony Reader, are we any closer to an electronic pager-turner, or is this just another gadget destined for a post-Christmas car-boot sale near you?

an image of the new Sony ReaderRight now, there’s little doubt that the technology is in place for a small, portable device with a long battery life that can fit in a hand bag or a satchel just as good – or even better than – a conventional book.

So why am I not burning with ‘kit fever’ over the Sony Reader? Well, first of all, I’m not a very keen reader. But I’ll discount that fact. But here’s a sample of current thinking on the matter of electronic books:

“Nick Bogaty, executive director of the International Digital Publishers Forum, says: ‘I’ve always said that four factors need to be in place for the market to take off. You need a device that makes reading pleasurable, content at the right price, a great selection of content and e-books that are easy to use. We’re definitely getting closer to these goals.’”

So far, the Sony Reader is not that product.

Right now, the content is there. What with the likes of Apple’s iTunes Store with a great selection of electronic books, the content isn’t the issue, it’s the device. And here’s why these things just won’t make it:

“On the face of it, an e-book is an attractive proposition, not least because it can offer features difficult or impossible to find in a printed book, such as hyperlinks, multimedia content, cut and paste, high degrees of interactivity and updated content.”

Are we reading a book or working on researching a thesis?

Hyperlinks, multimedia content, cut and paste? Eh?

Now, the multimedia content I can see working, albeit sparingly and used judiciously. But as for the other two, it looks to me like someone let the marketing people loose again!

Let’s go right back to the process of reading: you want to read a book from page to page. You want to be able to move backwards and forwards between pages. You want to be able to save where you’re at so that you can come back to that point later on.

What you don’t want to be doing is linking off a word or a phrase and going somewhere else. What you definitely don’t want to be doing is cutting (did they mean copying?) & pasting.

Then there’s the issue of price: a retail price between $299 and $399 depending on bundles accessories.

That’s about £155, which isn’t a good price point, when all the thing does is render electronic pages. You can get your hands on a PDA that will do much the same and more besides for the same price.

I don’t want this to be an assassination of the Sony Reader, because that would be unfair. However, if this the best that the likes of Sony can produce, then the situation isn’t good for electronic books.

As an industrial designer, the design of Sony Reader – based purely on publicity photography – isn’t exactly inspiring. The controls look too small, too many and too close.

There’s just not that simplicity and depth of ergonomic prowess you’d expect from Sony.

In addition, I don’t think that there’s a long-term market for these things, given the proximity to full-blown electronic paper, which is a far more appealing medium for the delivery of a content.

My feeling is that while there’s certainly a short-to-medium-term market for electronic books, there’s a lot that can be done in the meantime to improve on the likes of the Sony Reader and give people a good bedtime story with a happier ending…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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