What Do You Want From Your E-reader?

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.

Sony Reader (Finally) Launches in Australia

Sony’s line of ereader devices have been around since 2006, but for the first time the company has made them available for sale in Australia. Sony has done a content deal with the Kobo / Borders ebook store so owners will be able to load up ePub books from those stores. They’ll be making two models available, the Sony Pocket ($229) and the Sony Touch ($299), but sadly don’t have any plans for now to release the Sony Daily Edition, a model that uses 3G wireless technology so that readers can download books on the fly.

So is this too little, too late? These latest models of Sony readers have been around for a year, and have already been superseded by the cheaper and some would say superior Kindle 3. There are some things about the Sony readers that are unique, but more importantly than that, Sony’s move into Australia is evidence that the rest of the English-speaking world is finally taking us seriously as an ebook market.

So is the Sony worth buying? Your answer depends largely on your philosophy. For the most part, the Sony readers are considered technologically inferior to the Kindle, but more open. The screen technology is a little more advanced on the Kindle, particularly noticeable in the Sony Touch, whose touchscreen layer detracts from the screen contrast, making the text seem a little less sharp and a bit greyer on the vaguely grey background. Nonetheless, it is an e-ink device, so that means you can read it full sunlight and the battery life is long (in comparison to something like a laptop or an iPad). The touchscreen itself is kind of fun, but to those who are used to using iPads or even an iPhone, they do feel a bit old hat and unnecessary. The Kindle just has buttons, but they work just fine. The touchscreen does enable you to take notes on the pages of the book you’re reading with the stylus, but there’s no way to export these notes, so the editors among my readers won’t really get much use out of this function. Additionally, the Kindle ebook library, via Amazon, is massive in comparison to what you can buy for the Sony readers via Kobo or Borders.

So in that case, why would you buy a Sony? The benefits of these devices are accessibility. Unlike the Kindle, which exists in an entirely closed environment, managed completely by Amazon, Sony readers can access almost every kind of DRM (except Amazon’s), and read multiple file types, including PDFs, Word files and rich text – without having to be converted for use. These features make the Sony readers a great choice for those of us who desire interoperability above all else. The Sony Readers will also be available in physical stores in Australia, unlike other readers, giving them an edge when it comes to selling in.

Having said that, for my money, the Kindle 3 is still the best e-ink reader out there for now. It’s far cheaper, and the process of buying books, annotating and checking words in the dictionary – not to mention the access to your books you’ll have through your PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad or Android phone through Kindle software there – is worth the trade-off of being stuck in the Amazon ecosystem. For now. I’m happy to see a Kindle competitor launched in Australia, but I’m looking forward to something a bit meatier from Sony in the future – if they manage to hold on against the Kindle juggernaut for long enough.