PC Magazine has a very limited preview of a pre-production version of Sony's upcoming PRS-500 E-Book Reader, here. It has a six inch screen and is about the size of a thin paperback book. What's most intriguing about the device though is that uses the much touted, but little seen to this point, "E Ink" technology. "E Ink" essentially allows for using power ONLY when changing pages, so keeping a page displayed takes no energy. This is important, as it means battery life is not an issue with even casual recharging and any page you have up on the screen stays up on the screen, not requiring the device to go into a power saving mode or turn its screen off like current devices do. This increases its reference value/usefulness tremendously, and, along with its high resolution, places such a device in more of a competitive balance with print on paper, which of course is the ideal text display "device" to this point.
The gotchas are of course this device is black and white, it's yet another device to tote around, and it's quite expensive (or likely will be when actually released). What's worse, Apple may be thinking about entering the e-book space with their ever present iPod line and iTunes, leveraging a well established brand, form factor and service. Of course no matter what modifications are made to the iPod going forward, be they game or e-book abilities, it will not be optimized for either function. Even though iPod's have long since added photo and more recently video support, an iPod still excels primarily at music. We'll see how that evolves, of course.
If the Sony device or something like it ever reaches the sub-$100 level, comes with a backlight and is well supported by both freely available documents and purchasable books on a service or services, it might have a place on our nightstands or office desks in spite of iPod's, PDA's and cell phones having the same basic, but differently implemented, ability. It all comes down to the "E Ink" technology, which is really the heart of the issue here. The various brainy people working on it though better be working on continuously reducing costs and developing color with the same attributes real soon if the tech is really going to take off everywhere. After all, you can't just match ink and paper to start to take its place, you have to beat it...
I agree, Bill. If e-books are ever going to replace books, they've got to be better than books. What I mean by this is not so much that e-books have to beat books on their own turf, but rather that they have to offer functionality that is so valuable or desirable that people won't mind putting up with the inevitable hassles associated with any new tech (i.e., cost, change of habit, comfort, custom, tradition, etc.)
As I see it, books have numerous advantages. They're usually cheap, very high contrast, and lightweight (though, of course, some are very heavy). Naturally enough, it's the heavy, cumbersome texts that have already been usurped by electronic form--encyclopedias, comprehensive dictionaries, etc. The ones that seem to last the longest are either light-weight books (paperbacks, novels, etc.), hand-books (small dictionaries and manuals), and any sort of text that you want to have in addition to texts displayed on your computer (i.e., manuals, programmer's guides, style books, etc.) The reason for this is that you don't want to tie up screen-estate with reference materials, and also that you will likely find it useful to have the references in a separate location (rather than have to keep switching among displays).
As an English professor, I tend to chuckle when I hear people trying to simplify things by saying "Books are dead" or some such nonsense. In a very important and obvious way, some books are already dead, and good riddance. As I mentioned earlier, no one needs, and few desire to own the Oxford English Dictionary in printed, bound form. It's much easier to just subscribe to the electronic form. The same is very much true for all sorts of other references, particularly the sort of bibliographic materials like magazine archives, journal databases, and the like. In short, if your primary purpose for needing a document is research or reference, the electronic stuff wins hand-down, simply because it's so much easier to find and group relevant materials. If portability isn't an issue, e-texts have significant and hard-to-ignore advantages.
The niche where I think ebooks like Sony's would come in most nicely would be the type of reference materials we want close-at-hand, but not necessarily on the screen. Consider a textbook, for instance. They're cumbersome to carry around, yet it's nice to have them available (with or without an internet connection), and students don't always want to lug laptops around or sit in front of a computer. An e-reader seems like a good option, particularly if it was intelligently designed and easy to use, search, and sort.
On the other hand, some books are doing better than ever. Barnes & Noble and Amazon are proof of that. Indeed, the internet has helped sell books far more than it has helped destroy them. How? By helping prospective readers locate books they want to read, then offer all kinds of incentives to make them pony up. It helps also that shipping rates are pleasantly low and shipping speeds are pleasantly high.
So, in other words, I keep wondering why I would want an ebook instead of a paperback novel when it comes to reading something for pleasure. I don't have any reason to search for keyterms or the like when I'm reading a good novel. In fact, I want, as much as possible, for the physical thing I'm holding to disappear and not distract me. Having to worry about a battery running out, even if that might not happen for four hours, would probably still be enough to bother me. One reason I hate portable electronic devices is that nagging sensation that the darn thing is slowly dying.
The only reason this system would be handy would be if it could offer a method of reading that'd be easier than turning pages. Turning pages can be difficult, and it's a bit of a pain (slight, perhaps, but there). On the other hand, I don't want automatically scrolling text unless it could watch my eye movements and conduct itself accordingly. Sound effects, graphics, and animations might offer a boost, but then we start adding values that books might not need. After watching a nifty "cut-scene," who'd want to go back to boring reading? A built-in narrator might be nice, but again...Not sure how it'd be practical.
It's kind of funny, but when I got my tablet PC, I imagined that I'd spend a great deal of time with it on the couch, reading texts on it (it folds up about the size of a heavy book). However, it is too heavy to do this comfortably. Furthermore, the battery does wear down after awhile. But probably the biggest problem is that there's just too many distractions. It's hard to keep reading when you can check your email or surf to other pages with a click. And then, once you start doing that, you'll find a need to type something, and that means reverting back to PC mode. Sigh.
Book publishers are always complaining about the used book market. Well they should love these devices. Put DRM on the books and then you can't sell your used books.
Another excellent point. Though I suspect that the book-buying public won't stand for it. We're already starting to see less DRM in the online music market, with Yahoo recently taking a stand against DRM for its online music store. I think eventually content owners will discover that they actually make more profits when they don't irritate willing customers. The key is to offer sufficient incentive to discourage unauthorized distrituion. While tech-savvy folks will always find ways around having to pay for bits, the general public has neither the means nor even the desire to do so. As long as they can get what they want for a reasonable price, they'll pay it rather than having to bother with it.