4 February 09 | E.J. Van Lanen

One of the best technology websites around, Ars Technica, takes a look at e-books. What’s most interesting to me about this particular article is that it was written by someone, John Siracusa, who was there at the very beginning of e-books.

I honestly can’t remember the first e-book I read on its 160×160-pixel screen. Like I said, there was no blinding flash, no instant conversion. What happened instead is that I just put another e-book on it when I finished with the first. Because, again, what else was I going to do with it? (Yes, I know, it does other things!)

At a certain point, I realized I’d read my last five or six books on this thing. Without noticing, I’d gone off paper books entirely. Only then did I take the time to examine what had happened. Why was reading off of this tiny PDA not just tolerable, but (apparently) satisfying enough to keep me from returning to paper books?

Here’s what I came up with. First, I was more likely to have my Palm with me than a book. When I had an opportunity to read during the day, my Palm was there, and a paper book, had I been in the middle of one, would not have been. (Incidentally, this also lead to a vast expansion of the definition of “an opportunity to read.”) Second, I could read in the dark next to my sleeping wife without disturbing her with bright lights and page-turning noises. (The tan-on-black reader color theme was affectionally known as “wife mode” at Peanut Press.) Third, I was loathe to give up the ability to tap any word I didn’t understand and get its dictionary definition.

That’s pretty much it. Of all the virtues of e-books, these were the ones that sealed the deal for me, personally. Your list may be different. Or maybe you’ll never be satisfied by reading anything other than a paper book. All I ask is that you give it an honest try.

As someone who is inordinately interested in technology, e-books should be an easy sell for me, and yet I still have yet to read an entire book online, or on an e-book reader, or on a PDA/smartphone. I even had a Handspring Visor for a while, and I used to (if I’m remembering correctly) download articles from the NYTimes to it. I think I even put some e-books on it, but I never did read more than a few screenfuls of text on it.

While I agree with much of what Mr. Siracusa has to say (the success of the e-book is inevitable), he doesn’t seem to think the form factor from these devices is all that important, arguing that people already are accustomed to reading lots of text online in sub-optimal conditions (see the Internets).

I’ll say it again: people will read text off screens. The optical superiority of paper is still very real, but also irrelevant. The minimum quality threshold for extended reading was passed a long, long time ago.

However, I think that THE crucial issue for e-books is the form factor of the device that you’ll be reading the book from and the way the software on that device works. Once that gets sorted out, once people have access to a device that solves the problem of text-presentation as well as physical books do, the rest of the problems that surround e-books—how to make money off of them, DRM, distribution, etc.—will fall away quickly. It wasn’t the MP3, or Napster, or iTunes that spelled the end of the CD and DRM; it was the iPod.

And I’m betting that e-book device won’t be the Kindle Part Deux.

For an author’s perspective on e-books, read this


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