The Sony Reader is a Remote Scottish Beach

Last week I bought a Sony Reader PRS-650, which Sony would like you to call the ‘Touch’ and I like to think of as my personal remote Scottish beach. Sony’s eReader devices are currently locked in competition with the Amazon Kindle, a wonderful creation with wifi and 3G Internet connectivity, and the ability to buy books direct from Amazon without connecting to a host computer. The Sony has none of these things, and currently costs £70 more, if you want an equivalent six-inch screen. So why did I buy the Sony? These two devices are both excellent, so it wasn’t an easy decision.

This is my first eReader with a reflective, e-ink screen, but for two years now I have been reading books on my iPod Touch, and before that on a Palm PDA (actually a Sony Clie running the Palm OS). I had reached a point where I wanted to spend more time reading eBooks, but the iPod’s small screen was holding me back. Past generations of the e-ink screen technology never seemed good enough to me, but reviews of the Kindle, and the little time I spent with the Sony in Waterstones, convinced me that things have changed. The new screens refresh quickly, and they are sharp, and clear. It was time for an upgrade.

I like the look of the Kindle 3. Apparently it has a great screen, and the wifi seemed, at first, to be a killer feature. Why would you not want to have some access to the Internet, after all? But there are plenty of ways in which the Kindle doesn’t suit me. For one thing, the Kindle is designed, first and foremost, to drive sales from the Amazon Kindle store. And just as in the early days of iPods and iTunes, Amazon sees fit to encumber its books with copy prevention software (DRM) that stops them being read on other devices. Certainly you can put books in other file formats on the Kindle, but crucially, so far, not the open ePub format (with and without DRM) used by all the other eReaders.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the Kindle and the Sony Reader are doing different things, and addressing different markets. Perhaps they are not really competing at all. The Kindle has the Amazon store all sewn up, so if you want easy access to recent books, and don’t mind about the DRM locking you and your ebooks into an alliance with Amazon forever, that’s the one you should go for. It’s convenient, it’s slick: it’s an iPod for books.

What Sony is doing is slightly different. Sony is a hardware company, so while it would prefer customers to buy ebooks from the Sony store, ultimately what it wants is for people to buy Sony devices. Sony doesn’t really care where you get your books from as long as you read them on a Sony Reader.

Perhaps because of this, Sony has added features that apply more to documents in general, not just books. The Reader comes with a stylus, so you can write freehand on documents like meeting agendas, or in the margins of books. You could draw a diagram, or a map, or play noughts and crosses, or hangman, with your kids. Chess and Backgammon would work well too (you listening, Sony?). If you prefer to type there is a decent on-screen keyboard, though it is a little slow, and the touch screen allows you to highlight text with your finger, or swipe to turn pages.

I’ll be using it mainly for reading out of copyright public domain books. In some cases these are the kinds of books you don’t get to take out of libraries because they are too valuable. In the past I might have had to travel to read them, but Google has brought the archive to my couch. I’ll be reading other things too: books from Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg, and I may even buy some modern ebooks. I dislike the idea of DRM, but I can see two cases where I might not care about it so much: throwaway, read it once paperbacks, and technical manuals that will go out of date quickly. Anything I might want to keep for a while, and might want to read again, I’ll buy in an open format, such as a physical book. If you buy a book, or download music, that is encumbered with DRM, you have to see the transaction as a loan. And speaking of loans, the Sony Reader allows you to borrow ebooks from a large number of public libraries, including the one here in Liverpool.

The Sony Reader has different features from the Kindle, and in some ways is it less convenient and less slick. As a piece of hardware it is beautifully designed. It is solid, and nice to hold; the touch screen is very good indeed. What clinched the deal for me though, was the lack of wifi or 3G. One of the things I love about physical books is the lack of distraction. Books offer a glorious absence of any possibility of reading a blog, searching Wikipedia, or checking for email. And that brings me back to the remote Scottish beach, one of the few places remaining on Earth where access to the Internet cannot be taken for granted. It feels good to be unhitched from email, and Google, and Twitter once in a while, and my new eReader is going to take me there.

On Ebooks, or The Future is Already Behind Us

A version of this this article appeared in The Reader magazine, issue 37 (Spring 2010). I should note here that the brief for the piece was to write an introduction to ebooks and ereaders, so my more tech-savvy readers here may find this over-simplistic. Also, it was written early in 2010 and things have changed a little since then. For one thing, I have almost completely switched to Apple’s iBooks app for reading on my iPod Touch, though the books I read haven’t come from Apple (yet). I’ve put it here, rather than making it part of my article archive, simply because it will date quickly. This version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, August 2010.

Before I begin, let me just get one thing clear: electronic books are not a new idea. They have been around since 1971, way back in the era of vinyl records, the Vietnam War, and flared trousers. That was the year Michael Hart typed up the Declaration of Independence and made it available to users of the Sigma V mainframe computer at Xerox’s Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois. The Declaration was the first ebook in what became known as Project Gutenberg, an online depository of 30,000 or more public domain ebooks typed and proofread by users and offered up free in a variety of formats. So ebooks have been around for a long time, but it is only at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century that large numbers of readers have begun to take them up.

Up to now two things have been standing in the way. It’s not only that reading devices had to become good enough and cheap enough to replace ‘dead tree’ books, but people had to be comfortable with carrying electronic gadgets around: we had to change too. Now though e-readers are good enough to replace paper books, at least in some situations, and the mobile phone long since cleared up the problem of gadget carrying for most people. The era of the ebook is upon us and since art and technology go together like beer and crisps it could prove to be an epoch-changing moment in literary history.

Currently ebook reading devices fall into three broad categories: dedicated devices such as the Kindle, Sony Reader, and Nook, whose primary purpose is reading; then the smart phones, running software such as Stanza, which organises ebooks, storing and presenting text in a format suited to the small screen; and finally the ‘Tablet’ category, represented by Apple’s iPad and a raft of similar devices from other less glamorous manufacturers.

Dedicated ebook readers, exemplified by the Kindle, and the Sony Reader, all have one thing in common: their screen. These devices seek as far as possible to replicate the experience of reading a real paper book and do so using a technology known as e-ink. Unlike a computer screen, which is backlit and projects light out at you with an intensity that can give you eyestrain, e-ink technology provides a screen that is ‘reflective’. Just like paper you need to shine light on it in order to see it. The quality of the screens varies between devices, but in decent light all give a fairly good approximation of a printed page. They allow you to place multiple bookmarks, to make short notes, and, in the case of the Kindle, to synchronize the device with ‘Kindle’ software on other devices automatically, so whatever you happen to have with you—Kindle, computer, or phone—you always open the ebook on the same page as you left it.

I can’t help feeling though that these limited devices, easy on the eyes as they are, will probably turn out to be a dead end or at best a niche. Page turning is often slow, colour is possible but still quite expensive, and there remains the problem of buying another device to have with you which does only one thing. They do have great battery life, but how often do you find yourself weeks away from the nearest power outlet? And if that happened a lot, would you buy one of these things, or a paperback copy of Moby Dick?

All the dedicated ebook readers really have to offer over the old tech paper book is their lack of bulk: they can contain hundreds, if not thousands of titles. That’s handy enough. Had the Kindle been available in the 1980s, when I was at school and university, I probably wouldn’t now have one shoulder slightly lower than the other. But it doesn’t contribute much to the future of writing. In most situations paper books are good enough, so you have to do something more than just replace them.

And that brings us neatly to ‘smart’ phones like the iPhone, Google’s Nexus One, and a myriad of other phones and handheld devices that feature relatively large touch screens and allow you to install software known as ‘apps’. My own experience with these devices is quite longstanding and mostly positive. I read books on a Palm handheld as far back as 2003 and in 2008 I began using an iPod Touch for for the same purpose. I don’t use it for all of my reading, but I am able to go away for a weekend without a bag full of books. At last reckoning I had over 300 books downloaded and ready to choose from, packed into a device that fits in the pocket of my jeans.

Software like Stanza, and the Kindle application developed by Amazon, make buying, downloading, and reading books very easy, given the limitations of a screen smaller than the palm of my hand. Where these devices really come into their own though is when books themselves are made into standalone applications, as happened with Wolf Hall not long after it won the Booker Prize. Book ‘apps’ include not only the text of the novel itself, but critical reading, biographical material, images,  video and up to date news about author tours and other events; they turn books into more than simply an engagement with text and page—though they offer that too—but a broader experience of the book and its context. For magazines and newspapers this kind of approach is even better, since the small screen is more suited to occasional and short reading sessions.

The third category of device goes some way to resolving these issues. When Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s iPad device in January 2010, he did so from beneath a graphic of a road sign, pointing to ‘Technology’ in one direction and ‘Liberal Arts’ in the other. Apple, he implied, stood at the point where the two met. Apple isn’t the only one, but the bigger screen and more book-like size and heft of the iPad makes it and other ‘tablets’ a much better prospect for reading books than their smaller smartphone cousins. The additional benefits of a device that besides books does email, calendaring, web browsing, as well as all kinds of other media, make ‘tablet’ computers an alluring prospect for readers in search of something less bulky than a bookcase and more appealing than a dog-eared paperback. Offering the possibility of books containing more than just text and still pictures, our definition of what a book or a magazine might be is also set to change.

I am enthusiastic about ebooks and optimistic for the future opening up for readers, writers and publishers, but none of this is without drawbacks. Digitization brings with it fears of copying and theft and such fears lead executives in large corporations to make stupid mistakes in their efforts to protect ‘their’ content from those who might use it without paying. We have already seen Amazon remove books from Kindle devices without informing the owners of those Kindles that they were about to do it; the irony was that it did this to copies of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, hinting at a future where history really could be rewritten or erased. And then there is Digital Rights Management, which makes life a misery for anyone hoping to play bought and paid for ‘protected’ music or films on ‘unauthorised’ devices. DRM is being applied to ebooks too and the worrying thing is that DRM usually ends up inconveniencing honest people—the best customers—more than it does the content thieves.

But all of these things are the workings out of a technology and a market in its infancy. What bothers me more are thoughts to do with the familiarity of physical books in my own life and what the world might look like with fewer of them about. Like many readers of this magazine I live in a house overflowing with books and have trouble imagining what it would be like without them. I adopted ebooks as an adult so I’ll never be entirely comfortable with them and I am a little bit older than that first ebook created in the computer lab at the University of Illinois. So naturally I worry that without physical books around children won’t be able to take one down from the shelf and ask their parents “What’s this one about?” The books will all be hidden in digital files on the parents’ book reading devices. But that’s not how it will work out. My daughter, aged 6, already makes little connection between physical media such as DVDs and the images on the television screen. She knows that the content exists ‘out there’ and has nothing much to do with what you use to get at it. She was utterly appalled when she discovered you couldn’t easily select ‘chapters’ on a VHS tape and she’ll probably be equally horrified by the idea of taking up wall space with books she will never read again.