What Do You Want From Your E-reader?


by - February 24th, 2011


Has the focus on reading – and reading anything you want – been swept aside in order to make it easier to buy content? Until very recently, relatively speaking, e-reading was all about what digital text you could get your hands on. Most of it was free, out-of-copyright stuff from the web. Some of it came via longform journalism (also on the web). And some of it, yes, came from piracy. Although nowadays content can be purchased easily from multiple sources, I would argue the e-reading experience as a whole has not improved as much as Apple, Amazon, Google and their ilk would have us believe.

I first started reading ebooks and other digital content on a Palm Zire in 2003. It had a tiny screen, no wireless capabilities, and the only two stores you could buy content from were Mobipocket and eReader (both of which have since been bought out and absorbed by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, respectively). At the time there were virtually no books available on these stores that I actually wanted to read, so my reading was heavily supplemented by free material from elsewhere. To add my own reading material, I had to convert the files manually, plug the device into my computer and transfer them across. Although wireless and screen technology are light years ahead of my old Palm Zire, the process of reading non-standard material  has not really changed dramatically since then.

At the time I owned the Zire, I also had a first generation iPod, which seemed to me to be the most amazing piece of technology ever. Just plug it in and fill it up with music. Conversion and transfer was all handled through iTunes, which could also organise your music library and play your music for you when you were at your computer. People have had their share of complaints about iTunes, and I certainly have issues with it in its current incarnation, but to begin with it was an incredibly freeing experience. The iPod was portable digital music. To your iPod, the music you got from a CD (or free off the web) was no different to the stuff you could buy (much later) from iTunes itself.

So where was the iPod moment for e-reading? It has never come. Although the Kindle ecosystem has come the closest to recreating the ease of use of the iPod it’s still not there yet, and may never be. Primarily it is a device intended to be used with purchased content – and that content has to come from the Kindle store. Can you imagine if you were only able to load songs onto your iPod if you’d bought it from Apple first? The iPod would never have achieved such a dominant position with such a narrow focus.

Where is the device out there that puts the act of reading at the centre of the experience? Where is the device that doesn’t care where your text comes from, but just wants you to read? My list of demands is not unachievable. Completely wireless loading and conversion of any piece of text I’d like to read; a built-in dictionary; highlighting and annotation (and wireless export of these annotations); Bookmark syncing between devices; and, of course, the sharing of passages and annotations through social networks. Most of these features are available to readers if you buy your books through Amazon or Apple and only read on a Kindle or an iPad – but what about other content? Reading has never been just about blindly buying what’s served up to you in a store – it’s an organic, social experience. And none of the major reading platforms cater to that.

My ideal reading platform has not been created yet. All the major players are far more interested in locking you into the device they make and the content they provide than wanting you to have an ideal reading experience. But I suspect that when that platform comes along, there will be another iPod moment. And the way things are going I very much doubt it’s going to be Apple or Amazon.

What do you think? What do you want from your e-reader? Are you happy with what’s already out there? Or do you think I’m just being a giant early-adopting whiner? Sound off in the comments.


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Joel Naoum (113 Posts)

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24 Responses to “What Do You Want From Your E-reader?”

  1. Sally Evans Says:

    I feel the same way–that the device that suits my needs doesn’t exist, and that any of the currently available (and, importantly, economical) options aren’t making digital reading as appealing or easy as it could be. Cross-pollination of formats is a big issue, given how much pressure has been put on the music industry by the consumer’s desire to transfer products between devices and media.
    I was briefly excited recently by a rumour of an Asus e-reader, which seemed to have a good combination of open formats and annotation/reference tools, but I didn’t keep up with the information about it. I suspect you’re right, that neither Amazon nor Apple have any reason to diverge from their current formula and innovate in any significant way.

  2. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Yes, there’s obviously a much earlier divergence of formats in the e-publishing world. Sadly, I think the format issue will not be sorted out until we see the back of DRM, which may not be for years. I think what I’m actually hoping for is a platform, rather than a device – a device independent content reading service. But all the existing models are predicated on selling content in order to price the hardware attractively – so I’m not sure how it will ever happen as things stand.

  3. Sally Evans Says:

    I feel the same way–that the device that suits my needs doesn’t exist, and that any of the currently available (and, importantly, economical) options aren’t making digital reading as appealing or easy as it could be. Cross-pollination of formats is a big issue, given how much pressure has been put on the music industry by the consumer’s desire to transfer products between devices and media.
    I was briefly excited recently by a rumour of an Asus e-reader, which seemed to have a good combination of open formats and annotation/reference tools, but I didn’t keep up with the information about it. I suspect you’re right, that neither Amazon nor Apple have any reason to diverge from their current formula and innovate in any significant way.

  4. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Yes, there’s obviously a much earlier divergence of formats in the e-publishing world. Sadly, I think the format issue will not be sorted out until we see the back of DRM, which may not be for years. I think what I’m actually hoping for is a platform, rather than a device – a device independent content reading service. But all the existing models are predicated on selling content in order to price the hardware attractively – so I’m not sure how it will ever happen as things stand.

  5. Andrew Farrell Says:

    For me the standout amongst the ‘new wave’ of reading apps/platforms/programs is actually one of the oldest, Lexcycle’s Stanza. It has had greater flexibility and more features almost from day one than many of the newcomers have in their ‘latest and greatest’ versions. My only reservation is that it may find itself shelved as far as future development is concerned now that Amazon has bought it (poor mobipocket)
    It has one of the wider selection of bookstores already built in, including a mix of both new releases (both for sale and free) and old public domain; you can upload your own stuff to read; it syncs with iTunes as well; bookmarks and annotations are solid and sync from iPhone to desktop version (all I can currently test)… and most of this has been available for some time.
    I still haven’t committed to a single device/reader, but if you forced me to choose only one right now, it would be Stanza without a doubt.

  6. Andrew Farrell Says:

    For me the standout amongst the ‘new wave’ of reading apps/platforms/programs is actually one of the oldest, Lexcycle’s Stanza. It has had greater flexibility and more features almost from day one than many of the newcomers have in their ‘latest and greatest’ versions. My only reservation is that it may find itself shelved as far as future development is concerned now that Amazon has bought it (poor mobipocket)
    It has one of the wider selection of bookstores already built in, including a mix of both new releases (both for sale and free) and old public domain; you can upload your own stuff to read; it syncs with iTunes as well; bookmarks and annotations are solid and sync from iPhone to desktop version (all I can currently test)… and most of this has been available for some time.
    I still haven’t committed to a single device/reader, but if you forced me to choose only one right now, it would be Stanza without a doubt.

  7. Andrew Farrell Says:

    Darn… forgot to mention its excellent customisable text features, one of the most fully-featured selections available to allow you to tweak your reading experience to your particular taste, from fonts (colour, size, typeface) to backgrounds (colours or textures), justification, kerning, inter-line and inter-paragraph spacing etc, and the very cool backlight control built in simply by swiping your finger up/down the screen (on the iPhone version at least (oh, and of course text is also resizable by touch-screen pinchy/stretchy stuff)

  8. Joel Blacklock Says:

    I used Stanza reader when I first got an iPhone, but have since drifted away from it for a few reasons. The main thing that deters me from most of the iOS reading apps is that they use ePub (or eReader) format but offer no way of converting documents to either format on the device itself – as I mention in the post above, we’re still all tethered to our computers for conversion. Amazon, for all its faults, allows you to email almost any file to their servers for conversion to their AZW format, which you can then open directly in the Kindle app on the iPhone, iPad or the Kindle reader. I’m an unusual case, as I have to read so many manuscripts (sent to me mostly in Word format), and I need to be able to take notes and then export them. I don’t want to have to scurry back to a desktop computer every time I need to read something.

  9. Andrew Farrell Says:

    Darn… forgot to mention its excellent customisable text features, one of the most fully-featured selections available to allow you to tweak your reading experience to your particular taste, from fonts (colour, size, typeface) to backgrounds (colours or textures), justification, kerning, inter-line and inter-paragraph spacing etc, and the very cool backlight control built in simply by swiping your finger up/down the screen (on the iPhone version at least (oh, and of course text is also resizable by touch-screen pinchy/stretchy stuff)

  10. Joel Blacklock Says:

    I used Stanza reader when I first got an iPhone, but have since drifted away from it for a few reasons. The main thing that deters me from most of the iOS reading apps is that they use ePub (or eReader) format but offer no way of converting documents to either format on the device itself – as I mention in the post above, we’re still all tethered to our computers for conversion. Amazon, for all its faults, allows you to email almost any file to their servers for conversion to their AZW format, which you can then open directly in the Kindle app on the iPhone, iPad or the Kindle reader. I’m an unusual case, as I have to read so many manuscripts (sent to me mostly in Word format), and I need to be able to take notes and then export them. I don’t want to have to scurry back to a desktop computer every time I need to read something.

  11. Bernadette Says:

    I bought a Sony last year but not the one with wifi. As far as form factor goes it was the perfect device for me (I tested a lot for work). I just wanted a reader – nothing else – I have other devices for web surfing and ringing people and writing emails etc. But I mainly bought my eReader so I could reduce the number of physical books I have to find space for (or find ways to dispose of). I read a fair amount (150+ books a year) and I just don’t have room.

    The Sony wasn’t cheap (but I had some vouchers to cover half the price) but it was the nicest device I tried – I like the touch screen, I can take notes, I can manage my books on it. I don’t mind having to hook up to a computer to load books on it (like I’m ever THAT desperate for a book that i can’t wait until I get home).

    I don’t like the DRM of Adobe Digital Editions but an increasing number of the books I’m buying don’t have that (all my Smashwords books can be used on any device or platform I have now or might have in the future) – and maybe with Google eBooks coming to Oz this year we might see even more of this??

    Now all I want is to be able to buy whatever English language eBook I want regardless of whether it has been published in Oz or not.

  12. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Glad to hear you’re liking your Sony. I’ve heard good things about it, but am yet to try it out for any significant length of time. I think it still suffers from the basic problem of readers, however. If it exists only to reduce your load of books then I’m sure it does an admirable job – but it’s an expensive piece of hardware if that’s the case – and with a small market of potential buyers. If e-reader manufacturers want to increase their market, they need to start looking at them as general purpose reading devices – not just for books.

    Also, unfortunately, Google eBooks will be using Adobe Digital Editions DRM for e-readers without web connections (like the Sony), so I’m afraid you’ll be stuck with DRM for a while to come.

  13. Bernadette Says:

    I bought a Sony last year but not the one with wifi. As far as form factor goes it was the perfect device for me (I tested a lot for work). I just wanted a reader – nothing else – I have other devices for web surfing and ringing people and writing emails etc. But I mainly bought my eReader so I could reduce the number of physical books I have to find space for (or find ways to dispose of). I read a fair amount (150+ books a year) and I just don’t have room.

    The Sony wasn’t cheap (but I had some vouchers to cover half the price) but it was the nicest device I tried – I like the touch screen, I can take notes, I can manage my books on it. I don’t mind having to hook up to a computer to load books on it (like I’m ever THAT desperate for a book that i can’t wait until I get home).

    I don’t like the DRM of Adobe Digital Editions but an increasing number of the books I’m buying don’t have that (all my Smashwords books can be used on any device or platform I have now or might have in the future) – and maybe with Google eBooks coming to Oz this year we might see even more of this??

    Now all I want is to be able to buy whatever English language eBook I want regardless of whether it has been published in Oz or not.

  14. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Glad to hear you’re liking your Sony. I’ve heard good things about it, but am yet to try it out for any significant length of time. I think it still suffers from the basic problem of readers, however. If it exists only to reduce your load of books then I’m sure it does an admirable job – but it’s an expensive piece of hardware if that’s the case – and with a small market of potential buyers. If e-reader manufacturers want to increase their market, they need to start looking at them as general purpose reading devices – not just for books.

    Also, unfortunately, Google eBooks will be using Adobe Digital Editions DRM for e-readers without web connections (like the Sony), so I’m afraid you’ll be stuck with DRM for a while to come.

  15. Rene Says:

    Rumour no longer:
    http://campuslife.asus.com/news/index/117

  16. Joel Blacklock Says:

    That looks pretty good. No word there about supported formats or DRM, or about exporting notes and annotations. Would be excellent if it exported PDFs as annotated PDFs, or Word documents with Track Changes compatible markup. But I think that’s hoping for too much.

    UPDATE: Or price, for that matter … Can’t imagine it’ll be cheap!

  17. Rene Says:

    Rumour no longer:
    http://campuslife.asus.com/news/index/117

  18. Joel Blacklock Says:

    That looks pretty good. No word there about supported formats or DRM, or about exporting notes and annotations. Would be excellent if it exported PDFs as annotated PDFs, or Word documents with Track Changes compatible markup. But I think that’s hoping for too much.

    UPDATE: Or price, for that matter … Can’t imagine it’ll be cheap!

  19. Bernadette Says:

    That’s annoying (about the Google/DRM I mean) but not entirely unexpected. You’d think a girl would learn not to dream.

    Another reason I like the Sony is that it has prompted me to buy books in Australia again, I knew the Kindle wouldn’t do that which was one of the reasons I didn’t go down that route. Last year most of my books were bought from book depository (sorry) until I got my eReader – then I started using Read Without Paper (which is based in Oz as far as I can work out) and Borders (I know I know – but their eBook prices, especially for backlist items, are competitive). I am hoping that some local independent stores (like your good selves for example) will hook into the Google eBooks thing and then I can buy more from you (I do buy what I can locally but a girl’s budget only stretches so far).

  20. Bernadette Says:

    That’s annoying (about the Google/DRM I mean) but not entirely unexpected. You’d think a girl would learn not to dream.

    Another reason I like the Sony is that it has prompted me to buy books in Australia again, I knew the Kindle wouldn’t do that which was one of the reasons I didn’t go down that route. Last year most of my books were bought from book depository (sorry) until I got my eReader – then I started using Read Without Paper (which is based in Oz as far as I can work out) and Borders (I know I know – but their eBook prices, especially for backlist items, are competitive). I am hoping that some local independent stores (like your good selves for example) will hook into the Google eBooks thing and then I can buy more from you (I do buy what I can locally but a girl’s budget only stretches so far).

  21. Sally Evans Says:

    … on a slightly (very) tangential note, I’d like to say that, while customising the reading experience is important for a lot of readers (font size, style, colour, whatever), it’s a big barrier to effective innovation in digital poetry. If you want something more advanced and dynamic than a PDF, you lose all hope of being able to control things like line breaks and positioning on the page as the work crosses platforms. And these things are really important to some poets. Possibly because of a slight dictator complex attached to the idea of the Romantic ‘genius’. In other words: we’re control freaks. But, apparently, so are readers…
    Also, though my last point might seem flippant, I definitely think poets deserve a form that allows them to retain control over visual aspects of their work, if that’s what they want. The corollary of which is that it is also vital for everyone using digital technology to accept that digital texts are changeable, malleable, and unfixed (for better or for worse).

    I’m glad I wasn’t imagining the Asus e-reader. Some part of me feels better about buying an e-reader made by a computer hardware company, rather than Google or Amazon.

  22. Sally Evans Says:

    … on a slightly (very) tangential note, I’d like to say that, while customising the reading experience is important for a lot of readers (font size, style, colour, whatever), it’s a big barrier to effective innovation in digital poetry. If you want something more advanced and dynamic than a PDF, you lose all hope of being able to control things like line breaks and positioning on the page as the work crosses platforms. And these things are really important to some poets. Possibly because of a slight dictator complex attached to the idea of the Romantic ‘genius’. In other words: we’re control freaks. But, apparently, so are readers…
    Also, though my last point might seem flippant, I definitely think poets deserve a form that allows them to retain control over visual aspects of their work, if that’s what they want. The corollary of which is that it is also vital for everyone using digital technology to accept that digital texts are changeable, malleable, and unfixed (for better or for worse).

    I’m glad I wasn’t imagining the Asus e-reader. Some part of me feels better about buying an e-reader made by a computer hardware company, rather than Google or Amazon.

  23. ChrisC Says:

    I’d say that modern ereaders like the Kindle and Sony come pretty close.

    You say “…and that content has to come from the Kindle store.”

    In fact it can come from anywhere, as long as there’s no DRM. I’ve bought books from a dozen different places for my Kindle.

    So the holdup isn’t waiting for the ebook manufacturers designing the perfect device. It’s the majority of publishers who are unwilling to forgo DRM that’s holding us back.

  24. ChrisC Says:

    I’d say that modern ereaders like the Kindle and Sony come pretty close.

    You say “…and that content has to come from the Kindle store.”

    In fact it can come from anywhere, as long as there’s no DRM. I’ve bought books from a dozen different places for my Kindle.

    So the holdup isn’t waiting for the ebook manufacturers designing the perfect device. It’s the majority of publishers who are unwilling to forgo DRM that’s holding us back.