To celebrate the announcement of the iPad, I went out and got a Sony Reader Pocket Edition. No kidding. I know I often write with sarcasm to make fun of, say, Microsoft, but this time I’m serious. I went and got the Sony Reader primarily because of two things: E Ink, and library books.
Now, before you go all Windows on me, let me say that there’s nothing mutually exclusive about owning an E Ink reader and an iPad. But anyway, more about that later. First, let’s talk about the Sony Reader I got.
For those of you who haven’t yet seen an E Ink reader up close and personal, I urge you to. You can probably find a real demo unit at your local electronics retailer. (I’ve seen some here in the States at Target and Office Depot.) I say “real demo unit” because some of them have a faux plastic screen that simulates E Ink, but the point is for you to see E Ink in action. Preferably under sunlight.
By the way, I type E Ink with capitals because that’s actually a product brand name, from the self-named company (E Ink Corporation) and, while we’re being specific, I’m actually talking about Vizplex, which is the same E Ink display used by most e-readers, including Amazon’s updated Kindle devices. E Ink Corporation says “Vizplex is the latest generation of E Ink’s microencapsulated ink imaging film.”
(Incidentally, I’m not writing this article as a review of e-readers. I’m primarily using these examples to talk about the general state of the industry, as you’ll see.)
So, to understand how compelling E Ink is, you have to see it in person. But even if you don’t, you’ll have to just accept the popular opinion that it makes text super readable. After all, it’s the killer feature for these e-readers. Everything else pretty much sucks about all the readers, except for the E Ink part. If it weren’t for E Ink I wouldn’t even bother thinking about any of these gizmos. Ironically, the iPad doesn’t use E Ink, so that’s why I say there could be an opportunity for the market to have owners of both categories of products (i.e., iPad and an e-reader of your choice).
Reading e-books is nothing new to the world, or to me. I’ve been reading e-books since the days of Palm OS, and I’ve read a ton of them over the years. Whenever I talk to anyone about this, I often hear comments about how hard it is to read on the tiny screens. Yup, that’s true, but it still didn’t prevent me from consuming probably a hundred e-books to date (maybe more) on tiny screens.
On the iPhone, I’ve used the Kindle application to buy and read books, but Amazon’s Kindle policy has drawbacks. First, you have to pay Amazon to convert your own files (such as text or PDF), which is not only a hassle and costs extra money for a fairly trivial task (for the modern computing age) but also is a deal breaker for business confidential stuff. So, strike one for Kindle.
Strike two comes from not being able to read borrowed library books. Yup, for those of you who have access to a public library, many of them are offering DRM-protected book loans. (If your library doesn’t have this, or you find the selection meager, I encourage you to hound your library officials to get with the Internet age.)
So I have three sources of reading material now: purchased from Amazon for the Kindle platform (currently, just the Kindle application on my iPhone), my own text and PDF files, and borrowed library books (that automatically expire when the rental period is up). The library selection is relatively limited, but there are still some good books I can borrow. Where justified, I’d buy Kindle books. And when I do get an iPad, I’ll hopefully be able to use the Kindle application on the iPad and view the books in full page format (despite not having E Ink).
This full page thing is not trivial either. A number of books are poorly formatted for the smaller readers (such as mine), and to see WYSIWYG means the font size is almost too small to read. If you increase the font size, the Sony Reader sometimes doesn’t even bother rendering the stylized fonts (even if it was only italics), so a word could be missing. Doh!
So this is where I get into the nitty gritty of the Sony platform. I write about it to illustrate how hugely different the paradigm is between Sony, a mega consumer electronics company, and Apple, another mega consumer electronics company, and state yet again how I think Apple really is just going to steamroll over these laggards. (Am I sounding like I regret my Sony Reader purchase? That’s not at all the case. I’ll explain that also, in just a moment.)
The Sony device is nice to hold. It looks fairly cool. It’s not a touch screen. To get a touch screen, I need to shell out more for the, ah, “Touch Edition.” No thanks. You see, my strategy was to spend as little money as possible to get an E Ink reader, so I can have my library books and my personal documents, and have money left over to put toward the budget for an iPad. That was the rationale all along. Kindle? I’d love a Kindle DX, but the file conversion thing and the disconnect from the library content were deal breakers.
So with the Sony Reader Pocket Edition, I have a nice-looking gizmo that I can load primarily text-based content (images are unwieldy on the small screen) and carry around town fairly easily. I can read in bed before going to sleep, or during the daytime at a coffee shop, even under direct sunlight.
Unfortunately (and here’s where it’s interesting), you’d think that a company with the resources of Sony could refine the product before release. Maybe work out the bugs. Well, no. Sony took a page (pun intended) right out of Microsoft’s playbook and released a buggy, sluggish, immature product to the market. Again, don’t forget: I bought the thing only because I found it a cheap deal to get an E Ink reader. I didn’t pay suggested retail price. I bought it at huge discount at Office Depot. Even the “cover with light” that I bought was heavily discounted. So, I feel I got a remarkable deal. Would I have bought it without the discount? No way. I’d just have waited to get an iPad and sucked it up not having E Ink, and hope I don’t miss it (but I would have).
So my whole point for this article is that, even today, even right this moment, with the industry knowing how powerful Apple is, how well it can make products and, most importantly, how well it can sell products, you still have companies such as Sony creating half-assed offerings for the market. It’s crazy.
I’m not just saying there are features I would like on my Sony Reader. I’m saying there are bugs! That poor font rendering (actually, not rendering at all) is already a huge gotcha. Another problem is that the desktop sync software (runs on both Windows and Mac) is also buggy. (It reminds me of the bad days of Palm with the lousy Mac version of Palm Desktop).
The sync software usually works, but sometimes doesn’t, and I am not even sure how to uninstall and reinstall it (or if that even helps). It’s nothing we’ve not seen before, especially when using Windows, but Sony can do better. Sony should have learned many lessons from the Palm days (when it tried to wallpaper over the Palm OS with its own user interface, to sell its Clie devices), so I don’t give them a break at all now, seeing as it had a decade to refine its R&D philosophy.
So to wrap up, you’ve got companies such as Amazon and Sony who really can do much, much better, and they still either deliberately cripple their devices (like the Kindle) so you have to jump hoops to do something (convert basic files) or they are basically lazy and offer the market a buggy product like the Sony Reader. Heck, I even had problems browsing Sony’s bookstore. Sony likes to plaster its branding over everything—such as integrating the bookstore into the desktop software, pasting crap over the Palm interface, and loading horrid add-ons to its Vaio series of Windows PCs. It’s just sad that it’s not doing a good job.
Of course, the iPad is much more than just an e-reader, which is why I’m going to get one. But just for the e-books aspect, you can already see how far behind these other industry players are. And let’s not even bother talking about the slew of Windows-based tablets that are, supposedly, coming out. It’s almost sickening how everyone waits for Apple to announce something (iPhone, iPad) and then copies it (and not even doing a good job either). Don’t these guys feel embarrassed? I do, for them.
As a tech industry observer, I’m really disappointed that quarter after quarter, it’s almost always only Apple that’s innovating. This is bad for the industry. Apple product (and stock) owners are happy, of course, but in the greater scheme of things, I’d love for more solid competition to appear. Right now, I don’t see very much of it, and it makes me afraid for Apple. One day, it might get complacent, just the same way Microsoft did.
Microsoft used to make great products, back in the 1970s. Its BASIC language implementation was sort of an industry standard. Then, after DOS, it got rather lazy when the cash started to roll in. I guess you can say the same thing about Sony and even Research In Motion. And, of course, Palm. Apple’s always innovated, since the days of the garage, all the way to iPad and the monumental A4 chip. It’s amazing, but it’s also sad.
The only thing I’ve seen that has been somewhat impressive, in the computing arena of late, is the upcoming Ubuntu version code named Lucid Lynx. It’s version 10.04 of Ubuntu Linux, and something in my gut tells me that’s actually gearing up to be a more significant threat to Apple than any of these other half-assed distractions going on in the world.
In a way, I think it’s probably a good thing.