Electronic readers and universities

December 14, 2006

Jeffrey R. Young has written an article for The Chronicle about e-book devices. Several new readers utilize E Ink, a technology developed at MIT. The article explains how E Ink differs from the technology behind conventional computer monitors, making e-book devices much easier on the eyes (the resolution is actually similar to that of newspapers). Furthermore, students can haul readers much more easily around campus than bundles of textbooks, and text size can be altered to accommodate sight problems.

Although E Ink offers an experience similar to reading print materials, the devices remain insufficient for meeting the needs of higher education. The readers offer little “interactivity,” such as highlighting important passages, scribbling margin notes, etc.; illustrations are not easily accommodated on readers, which makes them less appealing to fields where illustrations are valuable (such as the sciences and fine arts); and the number of title offerings is slim, partially because publishers and authors worry about the potential for illegal file-sharing (as in the case of movies and music).

We have heard about prospects for e-book readers for many years, but it still seems that they have a long way to go. Other than vintage models from several years ago, I have never seen one. I would be interested in seeing the new models with E Ink, but I have a feeling that widespread use will take many years to occur.

What needs to be done to make reader devices appealing to a broader audience? Perhaps the first step is to think more broadly about what constitutes a book. As Young mentions, only 10,000 titles are available for the Sony device. Right away, anyone who knows about books will realize that it’s a small fraction of what’s available in print. A reader device might work for those who want a popular title (if the author and publisher are willing to make it available), but not for those who want something more arcane.

The developers of readers also appear to be working from a narrow definition of what constitutes a book, and we now have devices that bear a superficial resemblance to them. I can only hope the E Ink technology will develop further to accommodate the detailed illustrations that one would need in more “visual” disciplines. However, as Young points out, the current devices are rather tiny: 7” X 5” for Sony Reader, 8” X 6” for iRex iLiad. Considering those size limitations, manufacturers of readers need to figure out whether they want to market different devices for different disciplines. (Who knows? Perhaps the day will come when fine arts students lug around readers that accommodate large digital reproductions.)

One issue that the article does not address is journal articles. Granted, it generally takes less time to read an article than a book. Unfortunately, reading several articles on a conventional monitor can become a bit of a strain. It would be nice if readers could somehow include articles, but that might be some time off as well. But then, I think computer monitors could all use some kind of advanced version of E Ink technology that approximates the resolution of printed text and illustrations. As Edward Tufte points out, computer monitors remain inadequate for such a task. (The aforementioned reference may be five years old, but I think it remains relevant.)

Despite all the progress that has been made in providing access to information, reader device development remains in its infancy (I would even go so far as to opine that it’s still in the womb). In the meantime, I suppose we will have to muddle by with clunky technologies that inadequately approximate what we see in the non-digital world.


3 Responses to “Electronic readers and universities”

  1. jmnlman Says:

    Interesting considering most journal articles are available in PDF anyway it wouldn’t be too hard to be able to pull them on to a device. it may cause licensing conflicts but then again I can download an article to my desktop.

  2. Jason Says:

    “Chapter 05” of the Sony Reader website does mention that it can display PDF files, as well as online newspapers. So, I suppose it could hold PDF versions of articles as well. “Chapter 03” mentions memory sticks and cards, so PDF articles could probably be loaded just as easily on readers as they can be on desktops.

    Although reading articles could probably be done on the Sony Reader with little problem, this capability seems to get less press than the capability of reading books. At least in academia, perhaps Sony could alter its marketing strategy slightly by saying that its Reader can display articles. They could probably make a few bucks from those who read lots of articles, but who do not want to make printouts or stare at a computer monitor. (Actually, that might get me to seriously consider getting one.)

  3. Jason Says:

    For more insight, here’s an in-depth review of the Reader from Ben Vershbow from The Institute for the Future of the Book.

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