Paperless? Maybe not. Less paper? Definitely.

by Francis Wooby on May 31, 2009

In recent weeks there’s been a lot of talk about Amazon’s Kindle DX reader, and electronic readers in general. The DX is set apart by its larger size, which is supposed to make it good for reading newspapers and magazines. But all of these devices, regardless of size, are being touted by some as revolution-bringers to the book, newspaper and magazine industries.

The basic arguments are that these devices will allow us to store dozens, hundreds or maybe even thousands of titles on a single device; buy and subscribe to them quickly and easily as we do music via iTunes; and save millions of trees in the process. Good points, all.

So what’s the difference between these devices and your laptop or smartphone?

The key is the screen, which is not backlit like most of our current gadgets. The text appears over a soft white background that won’t burn your retinas after looking at it for a few hours. Nor does it suffer from external lighting like regular computer screens/monitors do. Readers don’t need to be tilted and read at strange angles to fend off glare. It might seem simple, but the screen was a huge technological hurdle keeping a lot of us from even thinking about dropping our various paper publications.

Size matters too. These devices are small, thin and light enough to be portable—truly portable; not laptop portable, which often means only slightly less cumbersome than dragging around a full-out desktop computer around. But they’re not too small, like smartphones, which chop text jarringly and force us to scroll so much it distracts from whatever we’re trying to read.

Is this enough to save newspapers and change the face of book publishing? No.

Mind you, it’s a good start.

I’d definitely consider buying the Kindle if I were in school again, rather than plunk down $500 + a year for textbooks that are out of date by the time I graduate. Not only could I carry around one light device as opposed to five or six door-stoppers, but my text could be updated automatically, so it’s actually relevant when I consult it.

I also love the idea of receiving my magazines and newspapers electronically. Yes, it absolutely sucks for the printers and delivery people, but honestly I’d prefer the publications I buy to spend their money on reporters and editors, rather than logistics. And let’s face it, how much nicer would it be to have this convenient little tablet at the breakfast table instead of a big, unwieldy newspaper flopping into your corn flakes?

But even with this potential, I don’t think e-readers are there yet. So far as I know, those currently available don’t even display in colour, which is fine for plain text books, but pretty useless when you need graphics . Plus there’s going to have to be a lot of improvement in battery life and durability in order for e-readers to be used like books, which we don’t use only when we’re within a reasonable distance from a power outlet. And for as small as they are, they could stand to be thinner and maybe even flexible/foldable.

All of these technological advancements are just around the corner, of course. Perhaps Apple will repeat in the print industry with an e-reader, what it accomplished in the music industry with iTunes and the iPod. There’s already plenty of speculation about this. To my mind, it’s simply a matter of time (and not that much of it at that) before electronic readers become a major, if not dominant force in the production and consumption of all publications. What that’s going to look like exactly? I don’t know.

What are your thoughts?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Gordon May 31, 2009 at 3:34 pm

The biggest challenge will be interoperability. Readers won’t go for two or more parallel systems only to find that the gadget they need to read the New York Times won’t allow them to read the Economist. If media companies are truly serious about this then we should encourage any device maker that wants in to design the machines, but have a common (or open source) OS that will ensure that you can get all the publications you want.

These devices would also require a “clip” function that would allow readers to retain certain articles, photos, etc. for personal use. As it would be a digital copy how do you police the copyright on it? Posting a link to an online version of a story is one thing, but if you essentially copy and paste a formatted version onto your web page/blog (especially if you are making money from it) then you are stealing. On a technical level, you could make such a thing difficult (how many people do you know scan articles and then post them online) but then you’d risk losing the personal use “clip” function which I believe is very important.

Sandy June 1, 2009 at 11:48 am

I agree with Gordon that interoperability is a challenge, but from a slightly different point of view. Here in Europe we couldn’t even use the Kindle if it were available. Whispernet, which is the network the reader uses to download books, newspapers and other publications, is not at all compatible with the mobile phone networks here.

European e-readers exist, but if I were to buy one over here – they cost slightly more than the Kindle – they would suffer similar problems going back to North America. Besides, the last I heard Kindle isn’t available for use in Canada precisely because there’s no access to Whispernet outside the US. Agreements haven’t been set up with companies who manage or control mobile masts in Canada.

wooby June 2, 2009 at 9:34 am

Sandy and Gordon,

Excellent, excellent, excellent points!

I agree that e-reader files should be interchangeable with different devices, regardless of the manufacturer.

Unfortunately, I suspect companies are trying to repeat Apple’s revolutionary, and subsequently dominant performance with the iPod. They want to create the device everyone will want and use for their e-reading even if the technology is proprietary and inoperable with competitor’s devices and files.

The precedent has been set for being an a-hole and succeeding in the technology sector. Microsoft doesn’t play nice with others, Apple doesn’t play nice with others, and who knows how much longer Google’s “Don’t be evil.” mentality will last.

What motivation is there for e-reader makers to break with tradition and create content that works with whatever device the consumer wants to buy?

I wonder if e-readers won’t catch on anyway, regardless of the competitive acrimony. I wonder if we won’t just have another BETA vs. VHS, Blu Ray vs. HD DVD or even PC vs. Mac situation in the market.

Terry Fallis June 4, 2009 at 12:55 pm

I’ve owned a Sony e-Reader for about a year now and I really like mine. I don’t read all my books on it but I certainly have found that when I do use, the technology in no way interferes with the reading experience. I wrote a post about it here:

wooby June 4, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Thanks Terry! Excellent post about the comfort and convenience you’ve experienced with your eReader.

What do you think about the idea of reading your newspapers and/or magazines with a standard or larger size e-reader?

Terry Fallis June 4, 2009 at 2:24 pm

While I use mine exclusively for reading, I can see using an e-reader for daily newspaper reading provided the screen size were larger than my Sony’s. I wouldn’t want it to be like browsing the internet on my older BlackBerry. It would be nice to read an entire newspaper without staining my fingers…

Hannah June 4, 2009 at 8:39 pm

Having never used an e-reader, I don’t feel like I’ll have much to contribute here. I’m intrigued that the screen is designed not to give me a raging case of bleeding eye, though – that’s my biggest issue with reading too much text off my laptop.

I already read the newspaper exclusively online, because I only click on the stories that interest me – thus saving the paper needed to waste page after page on dreck (bear in mind for local news it’s really The Chronicle Herald or nothing these days).

However, for me, there is something viscerally satisfying about holding a novel in my hands – especially a used one, that’s well-loved and well-worn. I love the feel of a creased old paperback and I just don’t think I’d get the same total sensory experience reading some of my favourites off a digital screen. I liken it to old long-play albums; sliding the record out of the sleeve, reading the lyric sheet, leafing through the liner notes – it’s an experience my kids will never have, because they’ll get all their music from iTunes or a similar platform. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite or possibly a crochety old woman with a lot of cats, I think some things should be left well enough alone.

wooby June 5, 2009 at 8:27 am

I agree with you to a point, Hannah.

I also enjoy the experience associated with product packaging, be it books, album covers or other. In fact, packaging design is arguably an art form. No doubt much of it will be made obsolete by advances such as iTunes and e-readers.

At the same time, though, I don’t feel this is a reason to hold back or not adopt the technology.

My take is that e-readers will be great for great paper wasting publications like text books, magazines, newspapers, and a few genres of books I’ll leave unspecified so as not to inject my personal biases.

The option to buy hard copies should never go away. However, I think it should be a lot more expensive.

Of course, I have to reiterate that we’ll begin moving this way only if and when the technology improves. Right now, I think we’re still in almost a prototype stage.

Hannah June 5, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Yes, I guess I didn’t make that 100% clear – magazines, papers, textbooks that are obsolete by Xmas, yes! stop killing trees! But novels? I sternly defend my right to have pages I can dogear and bindings I can crack. Because that’s how I roll. 😉

wooby June 5, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Interestingly enough, Harlequin is one of the leaders in releasing novels in electronic format. I think they’ll be one of the huge players in shaping the future of the e-readers.

My friend Mark Blevis blogged about it a while ago here.

You can also check out E-Harlequin.

Not that I”m accusing anyone of reading Harlequin romance novels… [*cough, cough*]

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