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I have been testing electronic book readers since the not-so-heady days of NuvoMedia’s Rocket eBook and Rocket Reader, and I’m happy to report that the latest generation, the $300 Sony Reader and the $400 Amazon.com Kindle, are undeniably superior. Nonetheless, the general public has received these new e-book readers with profound indifference. Even though I am both an avid reader and a serious tech junkie, after the initial thrill of testing a cutting-edge product passed, I also found these new e-book readers dull. The reason is that their makers are trying too hard to mimic old-fashioned books, when digital readers could be so much more.

Part of the disappointment is my fault, or at least the media’s fault. Since the first model rolled off the factory floor, we have compared e-book readers to books. How does it feel in the hand? Is the screen legible? Can it slip easily into a briefcase? Would you curl up on the couch with it? As a result, designers and engineers have been desperately trying to perfect these features. And they have made some progress.

The E Ink display that the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle use is very cool. The screen is filled with small capsules containing charged pigment. When the charge applied to each capsule is adjusted, the capsule appears as black, white, or one of several shades of gray. Turning pages requires power, but once a page is up, the E Ink stays in place without drawing down the battery.

The black-on-gray display looks very newspaper-like, but without the inky smears from your fingers. The screen is fine even for prolonged reading. Over a weekend, I read half of William Gibson’s Spook Country on the Kindle, and the experience was pleasant. The Kindle is probably the best e-book reader on the market right now. Yet my ambivalence remains, because as good as the display looks, simply replicating the printed page on a handheld screen lacks ambition. I want more.

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If I am going to carry around a digital device, I want to do everything–play music, download videos, surf the Web, send and receive e-mail–not just read books. The printed book is best for presenting lengthy text to the reader, so why try to reinvent a technology that has been around for thousands of years? Invent something new instead.

To be sure, e-book readers have some advantages over paperbound editions. First of all, you can store hundreds of books in a single device, whereas paper is pretty much limited to one copy per, well, copy. You can adjust the size of text on the fly. (For those of us with failing eyesight, this alone could justify the purchase of an -e-book reader.) They are also much greener than traditional books. After all, it takes a lot more gasoline to ship a book across the country than it does to download it. Of course, e-books cost less, too, but don’t expect publishers to pass much of the savings on to you anytime soon. Fundamentally, these latest e-book readers are digital devices acting like dead trees.

There is a long and tragic history of new technologies and media merely imitating what came before. Early television programming consisted of radio programs with pictures. It took years for the television industry to explore the possibilities of broadcast media and learn how to tell stories visually. It succeeded when it stopped trying to be radio and learned just what broadcast video could do. This is why a new medium rarely kills off the old one. TV didn’t kill radio. The Web didn’t kill newspapers. They do different things.

Limited Reading Material

E-book readers primarily give you access to limited reading material. The Sony Reader takes you to its Connect service, where you can buy books. The Kindle takes you to the Amazon store. Both services let you upload unrestricted PDFs, but they don’t make it easy.

A real digital reader would be an open-access device for all sorts of content. Web pages. RSS feeds. E-mail. It would also play video and audios. Why not? Flash memory is cheap enough. All the content you can get online needs to be accessible from that device. And if you can get it free online, it needs to be free on the device.

There are some positive signs. The Kindle comes with a built-in EV-DO modem.And Amazon has gone beyond books, offering select blogs and even The New York Times. Unfortunately, if you read the Times on the Kindle, it will cost you $14 a month. If you read it online, it is free. Amazon also charges for blogs. Bad idea, guys.

The Nokia N800 Internet Tablet comes closest to being a real media reader. It has a conventional LCD display, so it has only about four hours of battery life. Even so, it gets you online. For that matter, why not just make your laptop your e-book reader? When I talk to e-book publishers, they say that by far, most e-books are read on PCs , not on dedicated readers.

The Kindle is a great e-book reader, but until its capability grows beyond the book, my digital reader will still be my laptop.


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