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July 15, 2004

Electronic Books

Why don's we have the simple technology needed for electronic books? What is needed seems rather simple, technologically:

We need a small hinged screen that looks just like a conventional book, with a slot into which the user can insert a small memory RAM card (say, 8M) containing plain ascii texts. The device would have software that would divide the text up into pages. When you reach the end of page 1, you would hit a button at the bottom right-hand corner that would refresh the left screen with page 3 while you are reading on page 2. When you get to the end of page 2, you'd hit a button that would refresh the right screen with page 4. On the cover would be other dedicated buttons that would allow you to go directly to any page number of your choice (you'd hold it down a page numbers would whiz past until you got to the one you wanted). There would be no ON/OFF button-- that would be one just by opening and closing the book, with a timer to turn off automatically if you forget. It would run on two AA batteries, or, if that isn't enough power, plug into a wall outlet for recharging.

Notice that in all respects this is as close to a conventional book as possible. The conventional book is a great design. All it lacks is the ability to add new texts to a given shell, so that currently if you want to take 20 books on vacation or into your hammock you've got too big a pile to carry.

In contrast, the WSJ ($) today tells us of a rather pitiful couple of new electronic readers:

Now the world's two biggest consumer-electronics companies -- Sony and Matsushita Electric Industrial, the maker of Panasonic devices -- are giving the digital book a whirl in Japan, though not yet anywhere else.

Both recently started selling electronic readers that let users view a variety of material downloaded from Internet sites. But despite some attractive services and compelling technology, a week of testing the Sony Librie and Panasonic SigmaBook reminded me how great paper still is.


Part of the problem is that the Librie display's response is excruciatingly slow. "Turning" a page takes a full second, and using the jog wheel to move the cursor through menus is frustrating. It's still tolerable if you're chugging through a story from start to finish, but returning to a section you've read before is a real slog unless you've had the foresight to "bookmark" the page you want.

Where the Librie really fails is in its handling of digital content. It can only view content that comes from a site run by Publishing Link, a Sony-affiliated company with investments from most of Japan's big publishers. Users download digital books to their computers from there and then transfer them to the Librie, ...

The article shows a picture of something like a tablet PC, with a zillion buttons and a single screen. Surely the geeks of Akibahara can do better than that. I suppose the problem is that they don't actually ever read books,having acquired a mistrust for them from their extensive experience with the uselessness and deception of computer manuals. Thus, they are trying to make a small computer for reading rather than trying to imitate the classic book design.

This is part of a general failing of technology geeks: the failure to realize that the best innovation is one which looks and feels almost exactly like old- fashioned technology to the user, so there is practically no learning cost and no risk in buying it. We saw this with PC's: computer people didn't realize that they were successful mainly because most people wanted to buy a glorified typewriter. We saw it with email too: that is successful because it is almost the same as writing a letter. The best technology is the technology that is invisible.

Posted by erasmuse at July 15, 2004 05:53 PM

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