Kindle DX – Go flight!

Amazon is currently unveiling the Kindle DX. Larger screen. More features. Three particularly interesting tidbits:

1) Partnerships with textbook publishers
2) Partnerships with higher ed: Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, Princeton University, Reed College, University of Virginia
3) Partnerships with newspapers: The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post

Check Engadget’s report for more details.

Another One Bites the Dust

It was announced yesterday that today’s edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will be the final print version of this 146-year-old paper. One can’t help reading the story without hearing the “Print is dead” cries echoing in one’s ears. Amidst all the talk about new business models and transitioning to a new online format, I can’t help thinking that “20 news gatherers and Web producers,” “20 newly hired advertising sales staff,” and “150 citizen bloggers” will never be able to cover the news like an experienced news staff.

We know that the Kindle can deliver content from major U.S. newspapers. Is the SPI “major” enough to merit some Kindle attention? Even if does, you still won’t be able to read it on the plane during takeoff and landing. And therein lies part of my concern with the whole “print is dead” movement. Now don’t get me wrong – I like electronic books. I’ve been through many, and I have about 50 on my Palm Treo now. But there are some places/times where/when my device is not allowed. Beyond that, traditional print books and newspapers never need to be recharged, they never need a network connection, and they never have to be migrated to a new hardware/software platform. I can easily loan my print book to a friend, but I’m certainly not going to loan them my Treo!

I hope that the various facets of the publishing industry can find a comfortable balance before the pendulum swings too far.

(For the record, I first read this story on my Palm Treo when it was delivered through Pocket Express. I read follow-up material on various web sites.)

Seattle P-I to publish last edition Tuesday
Seattle Post-Intelligencer prints final edition in online transition
First big US newspaper goes web only

Kindle 2

After the obligatory period of speculation, Amazon’s Kindle 2 has arrived. It was announced a couple of weeks ago amid much fanfare and hoopla. Initial reviews give it good marks, but time in the hands of actual end-users will tell the tale. It looks like the design has seen some improvements, and I’m glad to see any type of e-book technology make a little headway. Engadget enjoyed a grand unboxing yesterday, so we’re off to the races.

In thinking about e-books, e-book readers, and how libraries might approach this technology, a number of questions come to mind. One question, however, stands out above all others: How do we free licensed e-books from the tethers of vendor web sites? Most of our e-books are viewed through the Adobe Acrobat reader or through some other proprietary format that depends on having a plug-in installed on a desktop computer. While this is sometimes okay for searching technical manuals in the office, this is completely unacceptable for extended reading. Many vendors who peddle e-books to libraries kind of miss the point that THE REST OF OUR BOOKS ARE PORTABLE. If the e-book is tied to a vendor’s server, then users are also tied to that server. That means that the users must have a computer and a persistent network connection to access the content. Even the tiny netbooks out on the market don’t match the portability of a book.

If we can’t get past that question, then the other questions become even more difficult. I’ve read of a number of libraries asking whether they should offer specific devices for accessing their e-book collections. Assuming that they could work out appropriate licensing with a vendor, do libraries really need to get involved in supporting another exotic technology? Maybe – maybe not. Depends on the library, its resources, collections, and the needs of the patron base. Not all patrons will even want to read electronic books, but for those who do, libraries would probably be better served by letting patrons pick their own reading devices. The Kindle 2 and Sony’s Reader are both viable options, but so is the iPhone. As smartphones become smarter, there will be even more options for both hardware and software.

Libraries have enough to do just trying to make sense of the formats. Take a look at NetLibrary’s Full-Text eContent FAQ. In trying to support NetLibrary, libraries are looking at three different plug-ins: Adode Reader (Windows), Schubert-It PDF Viewer (Mac), and DJvu Reader (Windows/Mac). Go to ebrary, and it doesn’t get any better. They have three different versions of a proprietary book reader. Amazon’s Kindle supports Mobipocket books, plain text files, and – you guessed it – Amazon’s own proprietary format. Sony Reader supports PDF, TXT, RTF, SecurePDF, and ePub. Few organizations have the time, inclination, or resources to support so many competing formats.

In spite of all that though, there is a growing market for e-book content. If the publishers could just get together on standards for formatting and server-free licensing, that could do a lot to really help the market take off.

Of iPhones and e-books

There are a number of posts floating around that try to compare Apple’s iPhone to Amazon’s Kindle as an e-book platform. The first one I happened across was on a CNET blog. Links to others are listed below.

As a frequent e-book user myself, I have a few opinions on the concept. Over the years I’ve seen several devices and listened to a number of programs that explored the options and applications for electronic books. I’ve seen small, medium, and large dedicated handheld devices that do nothing but e-books. I’ve seen library vendors who offer online e-books in HTML and PDF format for viewing on a regular computer screen. I’ve played with a number of e-book readers that run on Palm PDAs.

One of the most important aspects of any book (electronic or otherwise) is portability. You can easily carry it around with you. You can toss it in a backpack. You can easily carry it on a plane. For me this immediately rules out vendors that expect you to read their content on a desktop or even a laptop computer. (NetLibrary and ebrary, this means you!) For my use, these vendors just miss the point. I don’t care how good their search tools are, how good their annotation tools are, or what utilities they offer for researching within their collections. I. Just. Don’t. Care. If I can’t take it with me, they’ve lost me. That being said, I MIGHT be willing to use a proprietary reader with their collections if I can load that reader on my portable device of choice, but ultimately, if I can’t take the book with me, then just go away.

That turns the conversation to portable devices like the Kindle, Sony’s Reader Digital Book, or any of a host of smartphones. Now we’re getting somewhere. Portability.

For many users screen size (and more importantly, font size) are the deciding factors in whether they can even get comfortable with e-books. I’m currently reading my books on a Treo with a screen that measures 2.5″ diagonally. (That’s just a shade over 1.75″ wide and high, or320 x 320 pixels). This is fine for me. I have an e-book reader I truly enjoy, and I’ve read many, many books on this device. However, that just won’t get it for some people. The screen is simply too small for them to be able to read comfortably. Apple’s iPhone offers a nice improvement over the Treo. This phone’s 3.5″ (diagonal widescreen) design gives more space to screen real estate, and therefore more reading room. Again though, this just may not cut it for some users. Jumping up to the Kindle, users get a 6″ (diagonal) screen that probably jumps more into the realm of readability for a lot of users.

So if you really, really, REALLY want to read e-books, chances are you can find a reader somewhere out there that will suit your style. Great for the end-users, but what about libraries? If libraries want to offer e-books to their patrons, which technology do they go with? Do they use a vendor that offers books that are online viewable online? Do they invest in dedicated readers? Or will the growing smartphone market presage a new wave of readers and e-book formats?

I’m not sure, but I’m holding out for new readers on smartphones. Increasingly people are doing more and more with their phones, and the more they can do, the more they WANT to do. For awhile I carried both a cell phone and a PDA, and I was glad to reach the point where I could carry a single device that combine both functions. (That being said, I do still have three e-book readers on my device, or four if you count a PDF reader. Yeah, I REALLY like e-books). If this is the emerging model, then libraries need new options from vendors in terms of both readers and formats. Or better yet, why not standardize on some of the formats that are already out there? A number of readers already support standard HTML files. Whatever the solution, vendors would do well to make it as easy as possible for libraries to purchase and provide access to e-books. Likewise, vendors should pay attention to smartphone users and find out just how they want to read content on their portable devices.

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