How to improve eBook readers?

Having used a Sony eBook Reader for quite a while, I wanted to share some ideas on how to improve this device and potentially other eBook Readers. All the comments in this post are related to the PRS-505 (the device I have) with the firmware 1.1, but from what I can tell, other eBook readers don’t have these available (nor do eBook apps on the iPhone for example). And for those who will comment asking why I am not using a Kindle from Amazon, I live in Canada and it isn’t available outside of the island called USA (yet).

In a nutshell, I still prefer to read books / documents on paper, but the geek toy solution works quite nicely. The main reasons are, in no particular order: DRM, geo-specific content, no way to flip through pages and no way to annotate / highlight the text you are reading.

As previously mentioned, the reading experience is really nice with the ePaper technology as it mimics nicely how traditional paper interacts with light and the size of the device / form-factor in the hand. It is also very nice to be able to carry around only a small device with the big book you are almost done reading and the next one you absolutely want to get through, especially when traveling.

But there are a few things that I find annoying or even frustrating, that need to be addressed before I would ever consider getting an updated device or stop purchasing paper books all together (and I do buy a lot of books). So here you go:

  1. DRM: Yes, it is possible to read PDFs on my eBook device, and there are sites that offer free eBooks, but still, the vast majority of the books I am interested in are protected, locked and only compatible with one specific hardware. The fact that I can read a physical book and then lend it to a friend / family member is a huge plus for the multi-century old technology. If DRM is a requirement (not that I think it should be), then why not at least evaluate a similar option as the one for movies… you buy the DVD/Blu-Ray and you get a free DRMed Digital Copy. There is no way I am going to pay twice for the same book. Some publisher are already going in that direction. For example, I just got an email from PackPub with the option do download the previously purchased eBooks in unprotected PDF format. Let’s hope the book industry as a whole will understand this soon based on the experience of their music industry counterparts who finally gave up on DRM (on a side note, I have stopped purchasing CDs since DRM-free music being readily available and am actually buying more music now).
  2. Geo-specific content: OK, most of you might not experience this as a problem, but because the content is available in digital form and there is no shipping / storage limitation, why couldn’t I purchase European books while living in Canada (yes, I originally come from the other side of the Atlantic). I know, traditionally, there was a geographical breakdown set in place for the right holders due to the cost of distribution, but now that everything is digital, there is no reason for this… except if the book writers don’t want their works to be read and don’t want to get paid for them. This comment, just like the one above regarding DRM, is applicable for all digital contents including music and movies, not only books 😉
  3. Flipping through the pages: This is one of the biggest negatives related to the user experience of the eBook Readers in general from what I can tell. Here is a simple scenario that applies to me almost every every time I plan to read a chapter: I want to know how many pages I will read, e.g. how long it will take me, to go through this chapter. Do I have the time / am I not to tired / … to go through it? With a traditional book, it’s very easy: just flip through the pages till the next chapter, and then do a mental page count calculation. Yep, I can read through 20 pages tonight. With an eBook Reader, there is no way I can think of to get this information as flipping through the pages are really slow. Perhaps it’s just me, but I really like to finish a chapter before putting the book down. Why couldn’t there be a button on the eBook Reader that tells me how many pages are still left to the end of the section, chapter, book, …? And as this device has some memory and a built-in CPU, why couldn’t it tell me, based my average historical page reading time, how long this will take approximatively. My car can tell me how many more kilometers / miles I can still drive before I need to fill-up the gas. It sometimes feels like the device was designed by people who might not read that many books (no, programming languages reference guides don’t count).
  4. Annotation / highlighting: When reading a non-fiction book, I usually have a market / pencil with me to highlight words, sentences or paragraphs that I might want to easily find later. With the eBook Reader, there is no easy way to do so. The new Sony Reader has a touch-based display, but from all the information I can see, this is still not possible neither. And once I have highlighted the text that I am interested in, could I get a simply summary sheet of everything I highlighted with links to the corresponding page. That would be a great improvement over paper. Think of if as a way to tag parts of the book based on what I want, not the Table of Content or Index that the publisher / author decided on my behalf.

All in all, eBook Readers are great for people who travel a lot and ideally are geeks, but there is still some progress to do before there will be mass-adoption, especially considering that the competition is a technology that has improved over many centuries and that brings a lot more flexibility to the user.

Update – March 13, 2009: Looking at the Sony site, it appears that the new version of the eBook Reader (the PRS-700) had annotation / highlighting available through the touch-screen. I haven’t played with it, but intend to go to a Sony Store shortly to give it a spin. Anyone knows is some of my comments are solved with the Kindle?

Update 2 – March 21, 2009: I’ve played with the PRS-700 for a week. Annotation works really well on the device, but there is no way to get the notes off the device to use somewhere else, not even a text file with the highlights. This means it is a good first step in the right direction, but it isn’t there yet. Combined with the fact that the screen contrast is a lot worst than the previous generation of eBook Reader from Sony, I returned the 700 to the Sony Store and will continue to use my 505 until something better comes up.

Update 3 – March 21, 2009: If you didn’t notice, Google and Sony announced that you can now get all the Google books in public domain in a format that is compatible with the Sony eBook Readers and will display nicely. Really cool.

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