Ebook Thoughts: What Are Ebooks And What Are They Not?

A book goes electronic. Sort of.

2010 is going to be the year of the ebook. If it wasn't obvious before, it became so overnight after Apple entered the ebook reader and distribution market big time.

I've been eying ebook and ebook reader developments for some time and decided to become an ebook early adopter: Over the holidays, I bought myself a Sony PRS-600 Ebook Reader. In this new blogging category, I'll explore a few aspects of ebooks, formats and the ecosystem while trying to figure out what's in it for you and me and the geeks in us.

Before we dive into ebook-land, it's probably useful to figure out what the point of ebooks is in the first place, what we want from them and what we should expect of them. This is useful because today's consumers, vendors, and the whole industry seem to be distracted by features, hype and old habits, sometimes missing the point.

What Is A Book?

So what is a book? Wikipedia says:

A book is a set or collection of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of paper, parchment, or other various material, usually fastened together to hinge at one side.

IMHO, this is too specific: Books come in lots of flavors: paper books, ebooks, PDF-books, picture books, audio-books etc. Therefore, "book" should be a generic definition that fits any of its subclasses. Also, this definition doesn't say anything about the purpose of a bool. Therefore, I'd propose something like:

A book is an information carrier, optimized for ease of production, replication and consumption of human fiction, knowledge and other human readable data.

There are some elements in this definition that I find important:

  • Anything can be a container of information (Paper, RAM, CDs, USB sticks), so the rest of the sentence tries to be more specific, while allowing for different old and new kinds of "books" to still fit.
  • Ease of production and replication states the goal of distributing information in a low-cost and widespread way.
  • Ease of consumption means: You can pick up a book and read it without much effort. This is where ebooks still struggle in their quest for widespread adoption.
  • Finally, anything could be carried in an information container, so my book definition tries to focus on the kind of information humans are typically after. Not computer programs, not music (at least not in its performed form), but stuff that is supposed to enter the brain as if humans communicated with each other.

I know there may be some flaws in this definition, but let's go with it for a moment. The goal of this exercise is trying to capture the essence of a "book" in its most general form, and figure out what's important about them (and what's not).

What Is An Ebook, Then?

Given the definition above, an ebook is anything that uses electronic means to achieve the goals of a book as defined above. Of course, there are shades of gray and the more an "ebook" is optimized towards getting fiction, knowledge and other interesting stuff into your brain, the more it counts as a "real" ebook to me.

Ebooks will always be compared to regular books by their users. And if they are to present a significant alternative to their paper counterparts, they need to do some things right, first.

Some Simple Questions to Ask

So, when you look at a particular ebook solution, ask yourself a few simple questions:

  • Is it really portable?
  • Does it help me get new books more easily and efficiently?
  • Can I pick it up and read it right away, no matter where I am?
  • Is this optimized for the kind of content that I expect from a book?
  • Would I like to use it to read "The Lord of the Rings", or would I still prefer the paper edition?

For example, a laptop with a bunch of PDF files could be looked at as an ebook solution. But are laptops as portable as book? Maybe netbooks, but that would still be a stretch. Do they help you get new books? Not in particular, they just rely on you to browse specific ebook websites etc. They're also quite bulky, so the "pick it up and read it" thing doesn't work as good as the good old paperback. Reading the LOTR is not really pleasant on a laptop.

This is why dedicated ebook reader are becoming interesting: Ebook readers are designed to be as portable as paper books. In fact, they tend to be lighter and even less bulky. Some come equipped with a wifi or 3G connection to a bookstore, making the process of browsing for new books and buying them easy and transparent. You can pick them up and read them wherever you are, thanks to e-ink displays even in the bright sun.

Yes, dedicated ebook reading devices make sense, they help you bridge the gap between paper books and digital media distribution and consumption. LOTR on a good ebook reader may be a better experience than the paper version: Buy it from the web and get it instantly delivered to your home, less weight, less bulk, easy on your eyes.

What Ebooks Aren't

But it's also good to keep in mind what you don't really need in an ebook. This is a matter of taste, but as ebook vendors try to differentiate with more and more features, it's good to think about what you really need, and what you don't:

  • MP3 players: You don't need yet another MP3 player. iPods, mobile phones, laptops, home stereo players are all better in some way at playing back MP3 music than ebooks readers. Even if you want to listen to music while you're reading, you probably have an iPod or a mobile phone nearby anyway that can do the job as good or better.
  • Web browsers: Some ebook readers with Wifi advertise that they also include a web browser. Again, there are laptops, even mobile phones that do a better job at browsing the web than an ebook reader could. Especially if your reader is based on e-ink technology.
  • Picture books: Most ebook readers use e-ink because it is the best display technology today for written text. It is also a black&white technology and therefore not a good technology for showing color pictures. You may be able to read a comic book on an ebook reader if necessary, but that's all there is in terms of using ebook readers for pictures.
  • Newsreaders: There are some solutions out there that gather RSS feeds and turn them into ebooks for you. I'm not sure this is really a useful feature, but I'm open on this. However, I still prefer consuming my RSS feeds on my computer or on my iPhone when on the go.
  • Dictation Devices: Another thing that other devices can do way better.

Useful Extras

But let's not be too restrictive, there are a few extras in an ebook reader that are useful, even if they're not essential to the book reading experience:

  • Annotation: Many people like to write down notes in the book when reading it, especially with textbooks or other non-fiction ones. Ebook readers sometimes offer one or two kinds of annotation: Text annotation through a physical or touchscreen keyboard, or freehand annotation with a touchscreen and your fingers or some stylus. I haven't used this feature on my Sony Reader yet, but I agree it is quite useful, if you have the habit of annotating your books.
  • Touch Screen: Touch screens add a nice touch (pun intended) to your ebook reader's user interface. They may also help with annotation. Nice if your favorite reader has it.
  • Wifi/3G Connectivity: I'm struggling with this one. Yes, it is convenient to upload new books into your device wirelessly. Yes, it is even more convenient to have a connected bookstore built right into the device. But think about it: How many books do you really buy (and read) per month? Not many in my case. So the burden of using your computer to do the browsing and buying, then uploading new books into your reader doesn't seem so hard to me, or even justify the extra bucks that wifi/3G cost.
    This may become more important if you decide to read your daily RSS newsfeeds on your ebook reader, or if you want to read your daily newspaper or magazines on an ebook reader. Then, Wifi and 3G would be really useful, but I'm not convinced ebook readers can really compete with newspapers or magazines yet (or the other way round: If you're a geek, you've probably said goodbye to newspapers and magazines and use RSS instead).

Is my Sony PRS-600 Touch Edition Reader perfect? Not quite, but to me it is a pretty good balance between the essential and some nice-to-have features listed above, and an overall good deal. Yes, I would prefer reading the LOTR on my ebook reader to the paper edition.

But I'm sure something better will come along during the rest of the year, which is the eternal curse of the technology industry...

What features are important to you in an ebook reader? What definition of "ebook" would you rather favour? Feel free to leave a comment below!

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