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Science, Maths & Technology

Has Sony killed the book as we know it?

Updated Thursday 11th September 2008

Mike Richards suggests that eBooks have some way to go before the printed page is doomed

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Last week Sony UK released the somewhat awkwardly named PRS-505 electronic book reader; a handheld device about the size of a paperback novel that can store and display thousands of documents (so-called eBooks). Some of you may have previously read eBooks on your personal digital assistant (PDA), mobile phone or laptop and will be wondering what all the fuss is about.

The key difference with the Sony Reader lies with its 6” screen. Until recently, portable devices relied on energy-gobbling liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Most PDAs, mobile phones, portable games consoles and the like use LCD technology which is capable of producing detailed, richly-coloured images at extremely high resolution. However, LCDs require a constant trickle of electricity, both to maintain the displayed image, but also to and drive a light that makes them visible. The efficiency of LCDs has gradually improved, and the replacement of fluorescent backlights with white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have made them much more frugal; but the useful battery life of any device using an LCD is measured in hours rather than days or weeks.

The Sony Reader and its kindred us an alternative technology known as an electrophoretic display, better known as electronic paper. These displays differ from LCDs in that they do not need a constant supply of electricity; rather, they only consume power when they change. Turn off the power, and, in theory, electronic paper will retain an image for decades. Electronic paper has been a long time coming. The first practical electronic paper, called Gyricon, was developed by the Xerox Corporation in the 1990s. The Reader uses a related technology called E Ink created by the E Ink Corporation, a subsidiary of the Dutch electronics giant Philips.  E Ink displays can be thought of as a sandwich. The front of the display is a transparent sheet facing the user. It is divided into hundreds of thousands of pixels, each of which can hold an electrical charge. The back of the display is designed in a very similar way although it does not need to be transparent. The sandwich is filled with hundreds of thousands of hollow plastic capsules each about half the diameter of a human hair. The capsules are filled with a dark oily chemical and thousands of microscopic particles of titanium dioxide; a chemical so blindingly white that it is used to brighten everything from paint to toothpaste.

Crucially, titanium dioxide is attracted to a negative electrical charge. If a pixel on the front of the display is given a negative charge, the titanium dioxide in the capsules behind that pixel move towards the front of the display turning it white. If the same front pixel is given a positive charge, the titanium dioxide flees to the rear of the display revealing the dark oil and turning the pixel black. Electronic paper does not need a backlight; it relies solely on the light falling on the display; unlike an LCD that becomes increasingly hard to read in brighter conditions, electronic paper performs best in bright sunlight. (Of course, without a backlight, it is impossible to read electronic paper in darkness)

The most obvious drawback to electronic paper is that it is currently restricted to displaying black and white images (or to be strictly accurate very dark grey and very light grey images). Colour electronic paper is theoretically possible, but no practical demonstrations have yet been made. The second drawback, and the most serious, is that electronic paper is a relatively sluggish technology. It takes between half and one second to completely redraw a screen created on electronic paper – in comparison the latest LCDs can refresh an image in a few hundreds of a second. Electronic paper is not suited to displaying animated images such as movies and games, so it is unlikely to find a home on your computer or screen any time soon.

However, a screen holding an eBooks doesn’t need constant refreshing, it only needs to be changed when the reader goes to the next page. Rather than measure battery life in hours, E Ink displays measure their charge in page turns. A device the size of the Sony Reader can hold enough power to turn over 9000 pages! Which means a fully charged reader might not need recharging for weeks. If you’re like me, and liable to carry kilos of books on a trip, the prospect of replacing all that weight with one small device that doesn’t need power adaptors and cables must be very attractive. As well as Sony, E Ink has been adopted by a number of other manufacturers for devices such as the CyBook Reader and the iRex iLiad. In the UK, it is likely the Sony Reader will come to dominate the market. It is made by a well-known brand with enormous financial muscle and a tie-in to the Waterstones bookshop chain.

However, it would be unwise for Sony to be complacent as there is a superior product available in the United States. The Amazon Kindle uses the same E Ink technology as the Sony Reader, but its designers have chosen to design a stand-alone device rather than one that plugs into a PC. To accomplish this, the Kindle has a built-in wireless connection that allows the reader to connect to the Amazon online store and obtain books in a few seconds. Kindle users can buy books wherever they are without needing to spend time trying to find a computer with a network connection, web browser and necessary software.

The Kindle’s WhisperNet wireless technology is known as EVDO and runs on the older American CDMA mobile phone network that has never found favour in the UK and Europe. For this reason, the current Kindle cannot be used to buy eBooks outside the United States. However, there is no reason why a future Kindle could not support one of the more common 2G or 3G telephone networks that can be found on both sides of the Atlantic.

Even more advanced than the Kindle is a prototype device from a Cambridge start-up called Plastic Logic. Their eBook reader uses the same E Ink technology as other readers, but has sandwiched the display between two sheets of electronically conductive plastic. The change in material means that Plastic Logic’s displays are cheaper and larger than rival displays using fragile glass. Even more remarkably, there is no reason why the Plastic Logic display could not be made flexible, raising the possibility of screens that can be rolled up into cylinders or wrapped into watch bands, jewellery or clothes. Plastic Logic is promising to release their first consumer product in early 2009 and you can see a video of the extraordinarily thin device on the company’s home page.

So is the paper book doomed? Not entirely, and there are two reasons not to expect bookshops to die just yet.

The first reason is that eBooks are currently available in a multitude of formats, some of which are proprietary and restricted to certain devices. Amongst others there are the familiar TXT (plain text), RTF (a document interchange format used by many word-processors), DOC (Microsoft Word’s native format), HTML (the format used by the World Wide Web and understood by all browsers) and PDF (the Adobe Acrobat format). Less common formats are MOBI (Amazon’s MobiPocket format), LIT (for Microsoft’s Reader program), eReader (designed for Palm’s Digital Media electronic books), AZW (for the Amazon Kindle) and BBeB (Sony’s proprietary format). It is all too common to find an eBook, but to then discover you can’t read that format - a situation that has been called The Tower of eBabel! Fortunately, this situation is improving; a number of publishers and technology companies have collaborated to create the Open eBook platform; a document format that anyone is free to use. In theory any device or program that can understand Open eBook documents will be able to read any document published in that format. The format, known to users as ePub, OeBPS or IDPF is gradually gaining acceptance and may well soon come to dominate the market for eBooks.

The more serious problem lies with a topic I’ve mentioned previously – Digital Rights Management (DRM). Since eBooks are comprised of digital data, they could be copied a thousands of times in a fraction of a second and these copies distributed over the Internet for free. To protect against this, many commercial eBooks are protected by DRM that ties each book to a strictly limited number of devices. In some cases, the DRM ties are even more severe – you may be limited to the number of times you can download a book, you may be prevented from printing the book, it might even have a limited lifetime.

Compare this approach to a traditional book with which you can do almost anything; write marginal notes, tear out pages, add PostIt notes, lend it to a friend, sell it on… Current DRMed eBooks allow almost none of these – if you love a book and want someone else to enjoy it, you have to persuade them to buy their own copy. Worse still, if you upgrade your computer or have it stolen, then there’s a chance the DRM won’t allow you to read titles on your new computer. Some of the DRM schemes don’t even allow you to make backups of the titles you’ve purchased.

There’s no doubt that authors and publishers need to protect their incomes, but the current implementations of DRM do not respect paying customers. It should be mandatory that I can always download another copy of a book from a retailer; likewise I must be able to back up valuable eBooks in case of disaster. But why not go further - going back to the original paper book, if I lend a book to a friend and they like it, they may go on to buy their own copy. Even if they don’t, no sale has been lost. Why can’t I do the same with an eBook? Let me send a number of time-limited copies to friends. If they like it and buy the book, give me a discount on my next purchase; if they don’t, the book vanishes and no one is hurt.

If you want to start reading eBooks, you don’t need to buy a dedicated reader; your PC, laptop, PDA or mobile phone is almost certainly capable of running one or more eBook reader programs. You don’t even need to spend money on eBooks to get your hands on legitimate copies. A number of sites such as Project Gutenberg and have huge collections of free titles made up from out-of-copyright books and those books where the author has chosen to make freely available.

So, have Sony killed the book? Not yet - eBooks and eBook readers are too expensive, too fragile and too restrictive to threaten the paperback; the technology behind them does show us what a future computer might look like - one that runs for weeks without charge, one that can be slipped into a pocket - perhaps even be part of your clothes, and one that is never out of touch with the rest of the world.

Mind you, that last point - never being out of touch with the rest of the world, makes me think of one of my favourite short stories - E.M. Forster's 1909 story 'The Machine Stops' - and coincidentally that's a free eBook!


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