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thoughts on ebooks and ebook readers

05 January 2010

I love to read books, but I travel a lot and I don’t like to carry so many books with me, hence I recently acquired an ebook reader (Sony reader pocket edition) in September 2009. I’ve only used this ebook reader, but I’ve also played around with the kindle a few times ( although I have never read a complete book on one). I’ve collected my thoughts on the current state of ebook readers and how I see them moving forward. Ebooks and dedicated ebook redears have been out for many decades now. You would think that by now they would be wonderful ubiquitous devices, but they still have low adoption, poor usability, slow, just plain unenjoyable. Fortunately, I believe that we are at the turning point where ebook readers will become enjoyable devices to read on. Here are the hurdles I see the industry needs to overcome:

Page rendering speeds

I know I don’t have the fastest ebook reader, but its definitely not slowest on the market. Page rendering/turning on ebook readers is horrendously slow. Depending on the book, it takes anywhere from 2-5 seconds to change pages. It makes trying to find specific sections in a book almost impossible. When reading on my ebook reader, I will try to time it so when I am on the last 2 sentences of a page, I hit the turn page button and by the time I finish the page it will turn so I don’t waste any time. This works sometimes, but occasionally I miss the last few words on the page which can be extremely annoying. This is the biggest reason why I hate reading on ebook readers. I just can’t enjoy reading books on an ebook reader until this becomes a problem of the past.

Fast and Easy navigation

One of the great things about having a physical book is the speed in which you can read or browse a book, the pace is up to you. I can jump to any page or chapter very fast, but I can’t do that on an ebook. This is a user interface issue. Many ebook devices don’t have a keyboard so you can’t navigate by searching for text leaving devices with only the ability Ebook readers must be easy fast and easy to navigate if they are to become more useful. When I bookmark a page on my reader, it takes several seconds to complete, the same for un-bookmarking. This should happen instantly

Able to render charts and graphics

I have tried to read a bunch of technical books on my ebook reader and have found it extremely frustrating when most of the graphics and charts do not appear. Often pages that are supposed to have a graphic will just appear with one sentence and the rest of the page is blank where the graphic was originally supposed to appear. I don’t know how to fix this in a reasonable way, but it needs to be fixed.

Consolidation of formats

There are currently too many formats for different ebooks, this confuses the consumer. Why are there so many ebook formats? Which ebook format is fastest to render? I don’t know what the tradeoffs between the different formats are, but I want the format that renders the fastest and that is also able to display graphics. This problem is already partially solved by the big ebook stores only having support for 1 or 2 formats.

Opening up the platform for other developers

Currently out of all the ebook readers I have seen, none of them allow developers to develop applications for them. There is so much potential for applications to be developed for ebook readers. Just some wonderful ideas that I would like to try developing:

A social notes application that gets layered over your book as you are reading it. So for example if you are studying for a class, you could see all the notes that other people wrote about particular problems. You could also filter who’s notes you see, maybe you only want to see your classmates’ notes or friends’ notes. A net enabled foreign language dictionary. So when you are reading a book in a foreign language, you could highlight a word and its meaning and sample sentence usage of the word. You could then also save the word into your vocabulary list where you could review the word at a later time. An app that when you highlight a word, it allows you to jump to the previous or next occurrence of that word. Not very practical, but could be useful when studying. Interactive books where you could do madlibs or choose your own adventure. This is the same as a web application, but the different is this is an actual book that can be downloaded and used without a net connection. I’m sure there are more awesome application ideas that I haven’t though of, but the point is, the platform needs to be opened up to other developers so that we can get these applications because the device makers don’t have the resources to provide them.

Ability to turn on/off everything else

It is inevitable with the integration and simplification of all the devices we have that all future generations of ebook readers will have integrated net access, music players, etc. This will be help us reduce the amount of physical items we carry with us, but adding in all these features will clutter the interface and add physical buttons that we rarely use. One of the reasons I love reading physical books is because it allows me to escape from all distractions such as the internet. Sometimes when I am reading online, I end up at very different pages then from where I started because of all the different links I followed. Future ebook readers must be able to hide everything else when in “deep reading” mode. In this way I can be in browse mode when I don’t care where I end up or I can be in reading mode where all I want to do is read. This also means that most ebook readers in the future will have very few physical buttons and instead use virtual buttons ala the iphone. Currently I have about 10 buttons on my ebook reader now and I rarely use any of them. They just take away space while providing little value.

Tight integration with personal computers

I only know how sony’s integration is, and let me tell you it is horrible. The software just plain sucks, its made from Sony, need I say more? It would be great if I could be reading from my computer and be able to switch to my ebook reader right from where I left off.

Some other things I’d like to see is to allow an easy way for anyone to publish ebooks and allow them to appear on the stores associated with the ebook readers. This would allow more people to write and make money off of mini books.
In conclusion, realistically the only company that I see this platform existing is through Apple or at least started by them. They know how to design a great product that is intuitive to users, they also know how to integration extremely well. Besides them, its the Kindle, but I haven’t been really impressed with what I have seen so far, they’ve had several years as the market leader to come up with the killer device and its just not quite there yet. I’d love to hear your thoughts.