Last time around, we identified the main problem with e-books. There are too many formats, too many e-readers, and too many FAQs you have to pore over before successfully accessing them. Say, for instance, you’re a fan of Stephanie Laurens’s Bastion Club series and you’re dying to read the latest installment, Beyond Seduction, a featured e-book on harpercollins.com. Click on the product page and you’re asked to choose a format for your e-book: Adobe eBook Reader, Gemstar eBook, Microsoft Reader, MobiPocket, Palm Reader, or Sony.
A little perplexing for e-book newbies. Fortunately, Adobe’s PDF files are on their way to becoming the industry standard for e-book formatting. The main competition came from EXE files, but the PDF’s cross-platform ability helped it quickly outstrip the EXE. The only advantage PC-exclusive EXE files have over PDFs is its lower price and rebranding abilities (which allow companies to insert their own affiliate links in e-books they distribute). The PDF is not susceptible to viruses, it automatically numbers pages, is easy to edit, and can be created from familiar applications like Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Now for a viable, convenient e-reader. There are many software programs available for free download that support PDF e-books, and many are functional, well-designed, and incorporate features like library displays, which arrange your e-books on a virtual shelf for easy perusal.
But things get really interesting when e-books jump from the desk-and-lap-shackled computer to handheld devices in an attempt to mimic paper books. E-reader hardware has been around for years, most notably in Nuvomedia’s Rocketbook and Softbook Press’s Softbook. Both flopped early in the new millennium, despite good buzz (ah, hindsight) and, as the New York Times reports, selling a good number if “Star Trek” novels. Now there’s a second wave, led by Sony, giving the old e-reader a second try. Here’s a rundown:
Sony PRS-500 Reader: Highly anticipated and released (after multiple delays) at the end of last year, the Sony Reader is a hardware device that uses electronic ink technology for portable e-book reading. A sort of iPod for e-books, the Sony reader displays PDFs, JPEGs, RSS newsfeeds, and Sony’s proprietary BBeB (Broadband eBook) format. E-books are purchased, iTunes-style, from Sony’s Connect store. Weighing nine ounces with a 166 dpi, 6 inch display, the device tries valiantly to emulate a bound book in manageability. Complaints range from sluggishness in e-page-turning to expense. (It’s normally $350, but Sony’s selling it for $279.99 at the moment. Buy before the end of September, and you get 100 free e-books from the Classics section at Connect–now’s your chance to see what all this Jane Austen fuss is about.)
Sony has announced that future models will be compatible with Adobe’s new Digital Editions, and they purportedly have their eyes on wireless capabilities and, not surprisingly, the educational market, where they hope to free students from the weighty, dog-eared tyranny of textbooks.
Sony Librie EBR-1000EP: This earlier reader from Sony is available only in a Japanese language edition. It differs from the PRS-500 in its slightly larger size and qwerty keyboard keyboard below the display screen so that users can electronically mark up a book’s margins.
iLiad: Developed by iRex technologies (good thing Apple hasn’t copyrighted that whole “i-” formula), the iLiad boasts the largest screen size of handheld e-readers (8.1 inches). it supports PDF, XHTML, and plain text formats, as well as Mobipocket e-books. It was released in July 2007, and your wallet will be a whopping $699 lighter if you want one. Great for reading Homer.
Mobipocket: Mobipocket, a French company acquired by Amazon in 2005, produces free e-reader software for use with a variety of PDA and Smartphone devices (Symbian, Windows Mobile, Palm OS, BlackBerry, and Psion). You download the reader, buy e-books, and then plug in your device via USB to load it with e-books and other documents. Amazon sells all e-books through Mobipocket, but the e-books are in a PRC format rather than PDF, and Mobipocket has been getting some bad press lately for going offline for over a week in August–without telling anyone when they;d be back up. Stephanie Chandler of PMA can tell you how to submit books for Mobipocket distribution.
The PRS-500 and the iLiad are the closest we’ve come to a reader that people might actually buy, but they’re still expensive, limited to grayscale, not widely known, and–most importantly in the age of the iPhone–unable to play YouTube videos. That may all change soon. The e-book underground is rumbling with rumors of a new device from a huge player in the game. Sadly, we can’t tell you about it at the moment, but if it’s all it’s cracked up to be, it should make a bigger splash than Sony’s first offering and then, perhaps, prompt something even better from Sony.
I’ll leave you with a cute little neologism I just learned: if you want to talk down to a friend who’s still leafing through paper pages, ask them why they have such a “p-book” fetish before giving them a get-with-the-times eyeroll and using your thumb wheel to start on the next chapter of Beyond Seduction. But should you have a p-book fetish yourself, CaféScribe is developing the world’s first scratch-n-sniff e-book to replicate that old book smell we all know and love. At long last, the missing ingredient in e-book success: a comforting, musty odor.