From the issue dated December 15, 2006
Even With Improved Screens, e-Book Devices Not Ready for College
Campus librarians say new gadgets show promise but have a long way to go
By JEFFREY R. YOUNG
A new generation of e-book devices recently hit the market, hoping to do for electronic books what the iPod has done for digital music — offer an easy-to-use, portable machine that can store vast libraries of material and make it accessible anytime and anywhere.
The screen is the big innovation in the new e-book devices, the most prominent example of which is the Sony Reader. (Another example is the iLiad, by iRex.) The displays rival ink-on-paper in their clarity and readability, thanks to an innovative technology called E Ink that was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory. Unlike a typical computer-screen display, E Ink does not light up or use illuminated pixels on a grid. Instead, the devices apply a complicated series of electric charges to millions of microcapsules that each turn either black or white, to spell out the proper letters, each time they draw a new page. The result is black text on a gray background, with about the same resolution as your daily newspaper — nearly 700 dots per inch.
"I am a 49-year-old woman who cannot read stuff on the dang computer screen," says Diane J. Graves, university librarian at Trinity University, in San Antonio. She recently bought a Sony Reader and raves about its display. "The ability to read that screen was — pardon the pun — like night and day compared to even a flat-screen monitor," she says. "That's the big breakthrough."
But will the new type of screen help the devices succeed where previous gadgets have failed? If you don't remember the Rocket eBook, the SoftBook, and other attempts at creating a machine that would make printed books obsolete, you're not alone. Hardly anyone bought them when they hit the shelves about five years ago. And while plenty of people have predicted over the years that laptops or tablet PC's would kill print, students still carry around textbooks.
When it comes to delivering long streams of text, the printed book is tough to beat.
Several college librarians who have used the Sony Reader told The Chronicle that the device is interesting but not ready for college-level work. And even Sony officials admit their new device is not ideal for the campus environment, since it cannot search texts or highlight passages a student might want to review right before a test. In fact, the machine has no input device, though users can press a "mark" button to electronically dog-ear a page of text for later reference.
"The Reader was designed for more the type of reader who just reads a book on vacation and less as an academic tool," says David Seperson, a product manager at Sony who works on the Reader device. It will take more research to develop a device suitable for college work, he adds. "We are looking into what's the best way to approach the higher-education market."
But the new screen technology does show promise, several college officials say, and it points to a future in which computers will be far easier on the eyes. And with huge digitization projects under way, such as Google's effort to scan millions of books from university libraries, more people may soon want to curl up with e-books in their favorite reading chairs.
$350 Price Tag
The Sony Reader could be called a book simulator. It looks like a book, measuring about 7 inches tall, about 5 inches wide, and half an inch thick. It weighs about nine ounces, as much as a thin hardback novel. And it has a leather cover flap that opens just like a book cover.
The retail price is about $350, which for now includes $50 in e-books from the Sony Connect store. Each book costs between $3 and $16, and the store boasts more than 10,000 titles, though academics are quick to point out that most are best sellers and not the kind of works that are on most college reading lists.
It is possible to load content onto the device from sources besides Sony's store, as long as the texts are in the popular portable document format (PDF), in plain text format, or in rich text format, which can be created using Microsoft Word. Some PDF's do not seem to work on the device, however. For instance, the Reader failed to display a couple of books downloaded from Google Book Search, which has a feature allowing some public-domain texts to be saved to a computer in PDF form.
The main benefit of the device is that it can pack the texts of more than 80 books into the space of one slim volume. "Students carry around a lot of heavy books, and they don't like that," says Saul Levmore, dean and professor at the University of Chicago's Law School, who recently went to a Sony store to check out the device firsthand.
He says he was impressed by the screen, but thinks that the device probably won't catch on until models that offer more features are released. "I think it's the thing of the future," he says.
Charlotte Johnson, director of user services at the Lovejoy Library at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, bought a Sony Reader in October and says she has read 20 to 30 books on it.
She says she originally thought that her library might buy a few of the devices and lend them to students as a pilot project. But she has nixed that idea.
"I would say it's probably not ready for prime time," she says, noting that the library might instead buy iPods or other devices to lend out so that students could listen to podcasts of lectures. "For that same amount of money, I think what our students would rather have is some kind of media player" that could play music and videos.
Ms. Johnson does praise the Reader's battery, which she hasn't had to recharge yet, despite frequent use. That is a big improvement over previous devices, she says, noting that she has owned "most every other e-book reading device" made in the past as well.
James G. Milles, associate dean for legal-information services at the State University of New York at Buffalo's law library, says he too bought a Sony Reader to test it out, and judged it overall "quite nice."
"The biggest problem I see with it right now is the limited selection for it in their bookstore," he says. He had hoped to load it up with a set of books for a professor studying terrorism and the war in Iraq, he says, but none of the books the professor wanted were available, even though the books were popular titles rather than academic ones.
Mr. Seperson, of Sony, says that its e-book store will grow, but that some publishers and authors are still wary. Some in the publishing world fear that they might lose control of books the way musicians and record companies lost control of recordings in the file-sharing era.
"I hate to pass the buck, but it's not our fault," Mr. Seperson says, noting that in some cases the company is asking publishers for digital copies but the publishers are refusing. Even some popular authors, like J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, refuse to allow their works to be distributed in electronic form, he says.
"There is definite interest in the textbook market," though, Mr. Seperson says. "The publishers there are very interested."
Some academic publishers say that they hope future versions of the e-book devices support more of the functions that make digital publishing so exciting — like hyperlinks and multimedia.
"If the piece of electronic equipment doesn't add any value to the reader's experience, then what's the incentive to use it?" asks Kate Wittenberg, director of EPIC, the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia. "The interesting question is what is the value added."
But even if someone produced the perfect e-book machine, she says, she is not sure that scholarly publishers are ready to put significant amounts of content on it.
"It's hard to say which has to come first — is the scholarly community waiting for a perfect piece of technology in order to move forward, or are the technology people waiting for the publishers to come forward with an extraordinary level and amount of content first?" she says.
Mr. Seperson says the company is interested in working with colleges on potential pilot projects involving the Sony Reader, but that no such projects are yet under way.
"The current device would work well for English students needing to pore through a stack of novels," he says.
"There's tons of public-domain and classical literature available both on our store and on Gutenberg.org that students can read," he adds, referring to the Web site of Project Gutenberg, a nonprofit effort that has long converted public-domain books to digital form.
Some observers, however, say that the Sony Reader's relatively small screen size and its lack of color capability are major limitations in many fields — such as science and medicine — where illustrations are important.
The device allows most texts to be displayed in three sizes, which can be especially helpful to students or professors with dyslexia or bad eyesight. But the feature makes it difficult for a scholar to cite a specific page of the text, since the number of pages in any given book changes depending on which size text is selected.
Others ask why on earth colleges would switch to electronic readers, when printed books have served academics so well for so long.
"Print books work really well," says Ben Vershbow, a researcher at the Institute for the Future of the Book. "They're a really good technology. They're not broken."
He says he has heard many companies talk about creating an iPodlike device for e-books, but he says a music player is not analogous to an e-book reader.
"The iPod was fixing a very real problem — portable music didn't work that well," Mr. Vershbow says, noting that it was a pain to carry around collections of CD's. "The iPod solved the problem. It's not so clear that the e-book reader really solves a problem."
Although some people do need to carry around large numbers of books at once, many others are happy to read one novel at a time. "I can't imagine how this will succeed," he says of the Sony Reader.
That said, the new screen technology will very likely be improved and used in other types of devices. "E Ink will continue to develop," he says, "and it will get better and it will do great things a little further down the road."
Section: Information Technology
Volume 53, Issue 17, Page A33