Petri Wessman's weblog

On eReaders

The recent New Zealand trip was a good excuse to test something: would an e-book reader work for me in practice? Janka got herself a new-generation Kindle, and I “inherited” her older Sony PRS-505 – quite a few generations older as far as technology goes, but still a decent piece of equipment. We needed to take along a ton of stuff because of Saiga, so lugging around physical books didn’t seem like the smartest thing to do. I did take one old-fashioned paperback, just in case, but everything else was on the Sony.

Technology-wise, the screen contrast is a bit worse than Janka’s Kindle, but the difference isn’t vast. It’s significantly heavier and somewhat bigger, but still light enough to read comfortably. The base software has its limitations, but I installed a third-party OS upgrade (prs-plus) which fixes some of those. I also hacked the font a bit, since the default one isn’t all that great. Happily, that hacking was just a matter on mounting the reader as a USB disk and adding some custom CSS in the correct place. As far as formats go, ePub is native (which is nice since most of my books are in that format), and it supports various other stuff either natively or via Calibre. So all in all, it’s a decent reader despite being a bit old. In this age of insta-obsolete gadgets, that’s a point for Sony (prs-plus also helps, of course).

In practice… I was almost surprised at how handy and useful the Sony was. It provided me with a big pile of books in a tiny form factor, and due to the e-ink tech the battery charge is good enough for a long while. I didn’t do any measurements, and of course the battery on the thing isn’t brand-new – but still, I didn’t need to charge it very often.

So yes, I found e-readers to be decent substitutes for dead tree books. The contrast still isn’t what it is with traditional books (a problem in low light), and it does need charging now and then. I still like traditional books, and largely prefer them. Still, any time when I need to pack light and grab some reading to take along, the e-reader is now my first choice. It also great as “bus reading”, a way of always having a book on hand. I don’t really doubt that dead tree books will go away on some timetable. Not vanish totally, just become more “special”… stuff you buy when you want a fancy edition to sit in your bookshelf, or when the book is in some other way one that doesn’t suit the e-reader format too well. That means that “bulk” fiction will be the first to completely migrate – and we’re already seeing that happen.

As for content and ecosystem wars… well. Janka loves her Kindle. It has a working ecosystem and instant delivery of pretty much anything. She’s a fast reader, so Kindle works wonderfully for her. As for me, there are several reasons I’m avoiding the Kindle. The first is that I dislike the strong-arm tactics Amazon is using to attempt a monopoly position and crush everyone else, especially the smaller players. It’s very much what Apple is doing; both companies have very nicely integrated ecosystems (with high walls around them), and they provide devices and a service that works. I have nothing against that, as such, Amazon is largely succeeding because the other players had their heads stuck in the sand and tried to ignore e-books and the Internet in general, and are not paying the price. Still, I don’t much like their overly strong position here (neither do I like Apple’s positioning and walled garden).

Then there’s the DRM. To Kindle users, the DRM is invisible, but it’s still there. If I buy an e-book from Amazon, I don’t really own it. Amazon can revoke it at any point, and I also can’t transfer that book to another device (without using Amazon’s Kindle app). I much, much prefer buying no-DRM books (usually these are in ePub format, which is the only format Kindle doesn’t support – since it’s what the competition uses.). I already have quite a few books as no-DRM ePub, so the Sony works for me. Of course, this means that I’m very limited in buying options, and have no (legal) way to buy most books in e-book format. This doesn’t bother me much, since there are small stores which sell me what I want and in any case I have a long reading list on the traditional book side. Even with limited choice, I still have lots of books on the Sony, waiting for me to read them. I’m fine with that, though I would of course prefer more options.

We’ll see how it all develops. I don’t want to see a future where Amazon has a strong-arm lock on all e-books and where my “library” can vanish without warning if Amazon so decides. I want options, and full ownership of the e-book copy after I bought it, without this DRM crap. Will I get that? Hard to say. After millions upon millions spent in fighting music piracy, the record companies pretty much gave up; now you can buy most music in no-DRM form. The book publishers seem determined to repeat the same mistakes… though the situation is a bit different. DRM gives Amazon and Apple a way to lock customers to their own devices, so of course they are going with it. It also helps that publishers are (at the moment) buying into the “piracy” hysteria and are happy to let Amazon and Apple get the digital stranglehold (which will rebound on the publishers, it’s no secret that at least Amazon wants to sidestep the publishers completely).

Will be interesting.

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