Last summer I purchased a Sony Reader. In the months since I have watched with a mixture of vested speculation and early-adopter frustration as e-reader technology leapt forward. Since August, Sony have discontinued my PRS-505 and launched a version with a touch-screen, Amazon have released the international version of the Kindle and announced a DX newspaper-sized version of the device, and Barnes and Noble has unveiled the Nook. Now the interwebs are a-twitching with rumours of the iSlate/iPad/Apple Tablet which is reportedly to be announced at a press conference next Wednesday. Gizmodo in particular is foaming at the metaphorical mouth: every other post seems to be about the as-yet-unannounced device.
Though ebook advocates and Apple aficionados are treating the device as the Second Coming, actual facts are hard to come by. All we have to go off are mock-up images (above) depicting the prophesied device which, if even halfway accurate, will leave my poor Sony Reader looking like a primary-school chalkboard. The images tend to present a device like a flattened, oversized iPhone: a handheld backlit touch-screen with full colour display. If accurate, this would eschew the traditional E-Ink display and the electronic paper look of current e-readers. Unless Steve Job’s army of engineers have created either a new kind of a screen or a new kind of Li-ion battery, this would suck down power far quicker than is convenient for an ebook reader.
Despite the lack of facts, speculators argue that the iSlate could do for ebooks what the iPod did for digital music: make the medium functional and bring it into the mainstream. I have been using my e-reader for some months now and though I enjoy the convenience of it, there are a couple of things about books that it simply cannot mimic.
First, reading from it can become tiresome. Every printed book is different: different size, different paper, different font, different shade of text, different weight. E-readers standardise text so that reading one book feels the same as reading any other. PDF books have the advantage of retaining unique formatting but the size of PDF pages makes them more inconvenient for the e-reader screen than formats like ePub and LRF – formats which improve readability but make text homogenised and dull. E-readers therefore eliminate the excitement that comes from putting one book aside and opening a brand new one. Every book looks similar: every book looks grey.
Second, academic texts don’t work on an e-reader. The reading of an academic book is very different from the reading of a narrative book. Academic books require flicking: from index to text; from contents to chapter. E-readers flow nicely when reading a book cover to cover but cannot approximate the ‘flick through’.
I like my e-reader but I don’t love it. Since August, my diet has been split between paper books and books off my Reader. It hasn’t been indispensable in the same way as my iPod is. That’s what I’m so interested to see what Apple brings to table on Wednesday (if anything): whether their ebook reader can offer the blend of form and function that Apple are known for; whether it will revolutionise the electronic publishing industry; whether I’ll ever be able to afford it.