Friday, June 8, 2007

...a Bedtime Story.

Ok, when "2001: A Space Odyssey" showed up in 1969, it had amazing predictions for the future - most of which happened right when the movie predicted they would happen. (See the homicidal robot story, right below this one.) But remember those cool rolled up display screens that Dave Bowman was carrying around? He'd just unroll it on a table and read the newspaper or watch a video broadcast while he ate his pasty-nasty spaceman food. Well, that thing was cool - its 2007, so were the eff is it??

It's here...almost. Late last year, Sony released the "eReader" - one of a couple of products in the market that uses a technology called "digital paper." (Sony, Phillips and E-Ink each brought similar technology to market around the same time.) Unlike LCD screens, digital paper technology uses reflected light (light from, say, a lamp) to show its pixels - in other words, a digital paper screen does not need to consume power for you to read it. In fact, the eReader only uses power when you move to a new page - the power is used to rearrange tiny charged beads suspended in a liquid crystal solution. The beads fall into a pit which represents a pixel, and stays there until ordered to move by a new flow of current. This, my friends, is an electronic etch-a-sketch.

The benefit of digital paper, aside from low power consumption (the eReader can go 7500 "page turns" between charges, and stay "on" indefinitely) is eye strain...or, rather, the lack of eye strain. Before digital paper, electronic books were displayed on computer screens, PDAs, cell phones and other glowing display devices. You basically were required to stare into a light bulb while you were trying to read the latest Grissom novel. In the case of digital paper, since it requires reflected light, the eye strain is the same you would receive while reading a book.

In fact, looking at a page on the eReader is eerily like reading a sheet of paper. Its an illusion that is hard to escape, even after hours of reading.

Books are loaded into this thing a number of ways - the eReader understands PDF files (big deal), plain text files, and Sony's proprietary format (any surprise there?). The Sony format files are available through Sony's Connect store. The list of books there is in the 1000's, and Sony is rapidly adding more and more publishers. (There is also talks of Sony working with other online digital publishers to expand their format.) Buying from Sony Connect is exactly the same experience as purchasing music from iTunes. Search for a book, read an excerpt, purchase the book (most books are 50%-70% the cost of the print edition), and download it to the eReader.

In a clever, un-Sony move, the eReader also understands the open source format supported by endeavors like Project Guttenberg, a 20,000 book "library" of literature that is no longer covered by copyrights. (My beloved "Moby Dick" is nicely loaded on my eReader.)

I've lived with the eReader now for 6 months - I have been leery of eBooks for awhile now, because of bad experiences in the past. (I read Bill Clinton's 1B word biography, "My Life," on a PDA screen. Kill me.) So, my initial toe-dips into the eReader involved me starting a book in the physical world (specifically, "Thunderstruck") and then finishing it on the eReader. But after that, I was hooked.

Only a fraction (I'm guessing here, but it feels like 10%) of new book releases are available on the eReader, but when faced with a choice - I now put the title on the eReader. It's a hell of a lot easier to carry this thing when traveling around the country than its physical equivalents. Since December, I have read the following titles on this thing:

  • The Foundation Trilogy (yes, again) - Isaac Asimov
  • The Iraq Study Group Report - James Baker, et al
  • The Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
  • Next - Michael Crichton
  • The Audacity of Hope - Barack Obama
  • House of Bush, House of Saud - Craig Unger
  • Thunderstruck - Erik Larson
  • Vanguard - David Mack
Ok, it doesn't roll up and slip into Dave Bowman's pocket, and it isn't in color and it doesn't play video...but, fear not, that's coming soon. The homicidal computer thing, though? That can stay in the movies only, please.

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