Archive for August, 2007

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eBook Reader Technology Scorecard

August 31, 2007

reader-face-off2.jpg

I’ve been evaluating different ebook reading technologies over the last months, and I think it’s time for an interim report card on just how suitable the different technologies are for the purpose. My ratings are extrapolated a bit to try to account for the capabilities of a category as a whole rather than any specific device, but it’s obviously an inexact art. I’ll also put out the immediate disclaimer that this discussion is based on a limited sample of devices which aren’t wholly representative of the range of available gear. For fun, though, I’ll even include hypothetical ratings on a machine that doesn’t yet exist — my dream ebook machine, the mythical iTablet or iSlate. This not-so-farfetched device is like an iPhone grown up into a slick, touch-driven, Mac OS X tablet computer.

These hardware categories — desktop, laptop, tablet, dedicated reader, mobile and mythical iTablet — are rated on six criteria that affect the reading experience:

Compatibility refers to a machine’s ability to open ebook files and other documents in various formats. Are proprietary and DRM’d formats supported? Are workarounds required or even available for opening these formats?

Form Factor is a qualitative measure of how comfortable the devices are for reading. Does it pass the reading-on-the-couch test? How about the even more rigorous trial of reading in bed?

Portability is an indicator of size and weight. Is it something that I’ll want to casually carry around, or will I need to consider trade-offs to save room in my messenger bag or, more importantly, to save my back?

Display is a subjective measure of how good the screen is for the purpose of reading. This encompasses hard data like color, screen resolution and screen size, but it also is a subjective measure of how comfortable the reading experience is and how well it renders and displays text.

Battery Life is an indicator of how often the device needs to be charged on a typical usage cycle. This includes drain from other uses, so if I typically use a laptop for general computing and use up the battery, this is included in the measure. A dedicated device is, by definition, largely used for a single purpose and thus would have fewer other applications leeching from its usable batter life.

Experience is an effort to sum up all of the subjective and sometimes intangible qualities in a single number. This includes the device’s feel in-hand, negative distractions from the reading experience (such as system demands for attention — did someone say “Vista?”), interface usability and even that ultimate example of subjectivity— the fun factor.

The Scorecard

feature desktop laptop tablet reader mobile iTablet
compatibility 10 10 10 4 6 7
form factor 1 3 8 8 6 10
portability 0 5 7 9 10 8
display 9 9 9 5 3 10
battery life n/a 5 6 10 8 7
experience 1 4 6 6 5 9

Notes

Compatibility ratings are high for the general-purpose computers, since they can generally handle anything that can be thrown at them. One major exception is the lack of support for some proprietary DRM formats on the Mac.

the hypothetical iTablet displaying a comic book

The hypothetical iTablet.

The mythical iTablet would have limited initial support for these formats, but being a general-purpose and relatively open machine, software could be developed for the purpose.

The form factor for the tablet PC gains a few points for a large and flexible display, but loses them again for being somewhat bulky compared to a dedicated reader. Conversely, the dedicated reader gains points for svelteness but loses a few for the relatively small screen. These factors are a wash for me, resulting in the tie score.

Display ratings for the mythical machine are higher than the other general-purpose machines based on the assumption that it will sport a superior display like that in the iPhone.

Text display on e-ink-based dedicated readers like the Sony Reader would be a point or two higher for text read in good light. The lower score in the table reflects poorer performance in marginal lighting conditions. Displays on LCD-based dedicated readers like the iLiad are closer to the ratings for tablet devices.

The tablet would rate higher on overall experience if it were just a little lighter and more compact, and if the operating system required less care and feeding. I ding the mobile devices for overall experience because I don’t like reading on tiny screens unless I have to, even given the superior screen and great ebook potential of something like the iPhone. Your mileage on this, like everything else on this table, will vary.

A Moving Target

I’d like to make this table a living document, updating it periodically as the technologies evolve and adding additional criteria as needed. If you have suggestions for additional measures, let me know. And if you violently disagree with my ratings — or just have your own ideas — I’d love to see your version of the table and the reasoning behind it!

Related Posts

Lenovo X61T: The Reading-on-the-Couch Test
Sony Reader: Mammal or Dinosaur?
eBook Readers: Looking for Just Right
iPhone and eBooks: the Video

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Comic Book Fans Surf the Waves of Change

August 28, 2007

Comic book readers are the harbingers of a sea change in the reading world. Often of the generations born native to the digital realm, they’re well accustomed to reading on-screen and they’re pointing the way to a long-promised future where most book content is consumed digitally.

Penny and Aggie on a Lenovo X61T Tablet

Webcomic Penny & Aggie in ebook format on a Lenovo X61T Tablet PC.

Comics — whether in webcomic form or in traditional print-style formats — are generally very visual, relatively light on text and short, making them ideal for computer screens in spite of any form factor limitations. Comic art often actually looks better on a screen than in print, given the vibrant and wider-ranging colors of modern computer displays.
Lexian Chronicles on a Lenovo X61T Tablet PC

A two-page spread from print comic book Lexian Chronicles, displayed as a PDF ebook.

With a profusion of webcomics blossoming on the pixelated trail blazed by Scott McCloud, the pieces have already come together: ubiquitous hardware, pervasive broadband distribution, strong content… and a ready audience.

The result? Comics are exploding on the Web. For example, comic titles have risen to a high perch on WOWIO’s popularity charts — and the growth shows no sign of leveling off.

Extrapolating comic readers’ digital-reading habits to the population of general book readers isn’t a huge stretch. Mainstream content is increasingly available via new Web channels driven by a variety of business models. Publishers sense the impending shift and are taking steps to position themselves accordingly. On the demographics side, the same generational shift to digital natives seen among comic readers is occurring in the general reading population. Meanwhile, computers, dedicated readers and mobile devices are continuing their steady evolution, punctuated by energetic mutations with revolutionary promise. The emergence of a killer device seems inevitable.

As these factors fall into alignment, they superpose into a surge that will lift us once and for all past the fifteenth-century technologies of paper and ink… and we’ll find ourselves in a new land already pioneered and settled by folks clutching stacks of digital comics.

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BarCamp Houston Wrap-Up

August 27, 2007

Nagle presenting at BarCamp Houston

Robert Nagle discusses reading in the age of Web 2.0 (photo by Ed Schipul).

Last Saturday’s BarCamp was a dynamic affair. In addition to the sessions and workshops, the hallways and coffee room of the Houston Technology Center were packed with lively, impromptu conversations on everything from startup pointers to MS Silverlight, deep design to hardware toys.

As expected from an unconference, the prepared content ranged far and wide. In addition to Robert’s talk (in which I also introduced WOWIO and its business model), a couple of sessions particularly caught my attention. Ernie Rapp pitched an upcoming TED-style conference in Houston — a cool possibility, even if tickets are a bit steep. On the wonkier side, Steven Evatt and Ed Schipul talked SEO, providing a dabbler like me with much new fodder to chew.

As a final note, I thought it was particularly apropos that Dwight Silverman used this Web 2.0-heavy event to experiment with Twittering live, blow-by-blow coverage.

Good stuff, all around!

Update: Matthew Eernisse has posted good synopses of several of the BarCamp Houston sessions and workshops.

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BarCamp Houston

August 24, 2007

Robert Nagle of TeleRead has invited me to participate in his talk at BarCamp Houston 2 on Saturday, August 25.

Barcamp Houston logo big

Robert’s talk will focus on:

  1. Why We Need to Keep the Concept of Book
  2. Advertising and the Attention Economy
  3. RSS vs. Webpages vs. Special Reader/Software
  4. Hardware: Freedoms and Constraints
  5. Reading on the Run: The Importance of Context
  6. Creating eBooks

I’ll provide commentary and real-life examples from WOWIO.

Hope to see you there!

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Sony Reader: Mammal or Dinosaur?

August 20, 2007

Sony Reader and some competition

A branch in the evolutionary tree of digital devices will inevitably yield a machine that largely displaces the paper and ink of printed books. We clearly haven’t seen this ultimate device yet, but the Sony Reader and its dedicated-reader cousins represent one order of critters competing for this niche in the digital food chain, sandwiched between larger and more powerful general purpose computers (like the Lenovo X61T tablet) and the smaller, nimbler mobiles (like the iPhone).

In the accelerated-Darwinian world of consumer devices, the marketplace may have already decided the success of this particular Sony model (i.e., not a huge amount of traction so far) and much has already been written about its qualities. Nevertheless, I wanted to see for myself the current state of dedicated-reader evolution, especially in comparison with the other competing device types. It’s also a preview of the future, as new devices are set to emerge from Cybook and perhaps even Amazon. I’ve only had the unit for a few days, so it’s too soon to talk in-depth but I’ll cover my out-of-the-box reactions.

First Impressions

Sony Reader in its case

My first reaction was surprise — I’d forgotten just how compact this machine really is. After a few weeks of reading with the Lenovo, the difference was stark. As light as the tablet is for a laptop, the Sony — at less than a pound — is less than a quarter of the weight and a third smaller in every dimension. Sony Reader and booksIts tiny and very totable physical size put a powerful exclamation point on the portability potential of ebooks — the old notion of a shelf full of titles in a package smaller than a trade paperback is realized here, and it’s a very attractive feature. I originally thought that carrying this device in addition to a primary laptop would be excessive, but in reality, it would be a practical option with little additional stress on my overburdened messenger bag (or my back!).

Touchy Pleasures

Since the experience of reading a digital book is often compared against the tactile and visceral pleasures of handling its printed counterpart, the Sony’s physical design may have almost as much influence on the machine’s success as its book-reading functionality. In this respect, the machine is a mixed success. The fabric and leather-like folding case is pleasant to hold, with a magnetic latch that gives it a bit of substance when closed. The machine’s exterior plastics — a lightly-speckled black with chrome vertical edges — look solid and have a good feel in-hand. Unfortunately, the controls aren’t as successful. The joystick at the bottom right feels uncomfortably sharp-edged and rough to the touch. The other controls are less unpleasant, but they can be confusing in their functions and generally need polish in their appearance, positioning, and feel.

The Visuals

Sony Reader and vertical textThe display is the make-or-break part of any ebook reader, and the Sony’s e-ink screen is dramatically different from the LCD-based competition. In bright, indirect light, the display is beautiful, with a matte paper-like appearance. With a higher resolution and non-glowing surface, the page feels more comfortable and natural to the eye than a standard laptop LCD under these conditions. In less-ideal settings with dim artificial light, the screen’s apparent contrast degrades and takes on the hue of the light source, becoming harder to read. To be fair, a print book would also suffer in similar conditions but the Sony absolutely requires good light.

The photo above shows K. Eric Drexler’s The Engines of Creation 2.0 in PDF format. Some content like that in Sony’s proprietary format can be reflowed like an html page, but those in the ubiquitous PDF format typically have fixed pages limited by the hardware’s ability to zoom. Because of this, the sans-serif font in this example is legible but a bit thin and small, even in the Sony’s zoomed-in mode. However, a landscape orientation mode is available, allowing more magnification for a given page size. The photo below shows H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in this view. The increased magnification combined with a heavier serif font makes for a much more comfortable read.

Sony Reader in landscape format

Despite some compromises, the Sony is clearly optimized for text. In contrast, graphical content like the Lullaby comic below is an insurmountable challenge. The balloon text is rendered nearly illegible and the rich colored graphics are reduced to a splotchy, dithered murk in the e-ink’s four shades of gray. The display is simply not up to the task of showing this kind of content.

Sony Reader and comics

So, given this first look, is the Sony Reader a mammal or a dinosaur in the evolution of ebook-reading devices? While the current limitations of the display technology (color is expected to be available in two years or so) and design problems with this particular species, the idea of a very compact, long-lived ebook reader continues to be a competitive one which may yet spawn an ideal device in later generations. I will continue to use the Sony for a long-term test to see how well adapted it really is — and I’ll compare its qualities from a reader’s perspective with those of its tablet PC and iPhone competition. Stay tuned!

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Free Reads Feed the Curious Cat

August 18, 2007

book coversWhen I visit book stores, I typically browse the displays, picking up titles that catch my eye. I leaf through the pages to decide if my interest in the subject matter, the writing quality and the cost are in the right proportions to close the deal.

Since I started downloading books from WOWIO (disclosure: that’s my employer, though I was a customer long before I joined the company), I’ve noticed that my selection and reading patterns have changed. Free takes cost out of the equation, and I suddenly feel much more free to explore, following every piqued interest or whim of curiosity. It’s a bit like a borrowing spree at the library, but with the compelling additions of Internet immediacy and lounge-on-the-couch convenience. I can pull down a fresh read at any time (night owl that I am, that’s a big plus), I don’t have to get in the car (perfect for a lazy reading weekend) and I never have to return the books.

Take a look at the titles at right. They’re a sampling of what I’ve picked up over the last couple of months. Cat’s Cradle is one that’s long been on my list. The Vegas travel guide is for a trip that my wife and I are taking later this year. The rest are impulse “buys” that just caught my eye. Of these, many held my interest, some did not, and others, I haven’t yet started reading. But the point is, I had no constraints on my curiosity. With nothing to lose, I discovered authors and fascinating (to me) subject matter that I may not otherwise have been willing to buy. A long-lost, hallucinogenic 70s-era art installation? Sounds intriguing! The historical origins of names for food favorites like the avocado? Ha, call me goofy, but I’ve always wondered. Why isn’t Labor Day celebrated on May Day? And where do our other holidays really come from, for that matter? Hm, I have some vague notions, but I want the facts!

While the WOWIO choices don’t cover all of my reading needs, they do add a new and liberating wrinkle to some very old book-browsing habits.

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Judging a Book by its Cover

August 15, 2007

Updike cover from EsquireThe design of book covers is a new challenge for me, a task in which I’ve so far had only mixed success.

Chip Kidd, art director at Alfred A. Knopf, has been doing it very successfully for twenty years. Esquire has posted a brief interview in which Kidd discusses his cover design process for novels by Martin Amis, Cormac McCarthy and John Updike.

(via Daring Fireball)