The Evolution of the e-Readers

To make sure that we are “on the same page” (pardon the pun) during our discourse in this blog, let’s define a few of the key words.
The “e-Reader” is an electronic device (hardware) by which digitized content is read, while the “e-Book” is the digitized content (file) that is actually being read. It follows, then, that an e-Book file can be read either in the form of an e-Reader, or a traditional bound book. In many instances these definitions are transposed. The confusion that ensues is the fault of the vendors’ in their efforts to replicate the reading experience of a traditional book. For our purposes, the iPad is defined as an e-Reader as well, despite the fact that it has several additional functions. In a nutshell, due to technological advancements, eventually reading a book will become possible via the tablet, micro-tablet, notebook, smart phone – or whatever we choose to call it – by the integration of specific functionalities into a single personal device.

It all began with Apple’s first effort, the illustrious Newton PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). The primary impetus behind this PDA was the “Architect Scenario”: Visualization of residential architect interactively sketching the changes of a two-dimensional blueprint. The result became the template for future PDAs.

The Newton PDA was launched in 1993, but since sales failed to meet Apple’s expectations, production came to a halt. In 1995 a less expensive version of the Newton PDA, called the Palm Pilot was released and became an instant success. Compact and budget-friendly, the Palm Pilot also perfectly synchronized with the PC; and featured advanced handwriting recognition. This was the brainchild that effectively restored the PDA market’s credibility. Although the PDA did not offer a book reading feature, it paved the way for the future e-Reader – a device designed with book reading in mind.

In the interim the Franklin eBookMan made its début; a now defunct handheld device specifically designed as a means by which to read e-Books. This piece of equipment was in production from 1999 until 2002, with standard PDA functionality it could also play and record sounds. Also in 1999, NuvoMedia launched their version of the device and called it the Rocket e-Reader. After only a year, NuvoMedia was bought-out by Gemstar who released the updated RCA eBook Reader. Soon to follow in 2004 Sony released the Librié, the first e-Book reader to implement e-Ink (electronic ink) technology. At last, the annoying glare from backlit screens, and eye strain caused by earlier e-book readers and PDAs was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, copyright, legal issues and pricing complications stood in the way of rapid market expansion. Consequently there is a high-level of dissatisfaction among consumers due to the random availability of the most popular e-Book titles.
And then came Amazon and spun the world on its ear. In 2007 Amazon released the Kindle, designed exclusively for the American market. The initial Kindle inventory sold out in 5.5 hours. Not missing a beat, Amazon flexed its marketing and e-store distribution muscles, as they had exclusive access to numerous popular, on-demand book titles. The effect was tornadic. Sales increased at an incredible rate and continued to double until 2011, when Amazon revenues reached over 6 million. Amazon’s Kindle success was the model for its competitors: Barnes & Nobel’s e-Reader NOOK, KOBO, and Sony‘s “Daily Edition” to name a few. Each of the aforementioned is similar in quality where the only difference is in price.

Not to be forgotten, in 2010 Apple launched the multi-functional iPad whose many bells and whistles include a built-in e-Book app called iBooks, and the iBooks Store. The icing on the cake was that Apple had also acquired distribution rights from five out of six major book publishers.

The e-Reader provided a reading experience like none other; the virtual turning of pages, selecting a specific chapter; and allowed the reader to enlarge or change fonts. Additional features included text-to-speech software; key term and word search features – and it given one the option of taking notes. Additional advantages of the e-Reader over traditional printed books are that via a single device, one is able to access a dictionary, Twitter and Facebook.

On the other hand, the e-Reader seems to lack the sentimental value that is often associated with a traditional book. For example, had Bill Clinton presented Hillary with an electronic version of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass would it have evoked the same starry-eyed, warm-fuzziness response of the paper bound version? I doubt it: Where on an e-Reader is there a place for him to sign in his own hand, “…with all my love, Bill”? Further, there is nothing like the smell and feel of a book that has been passed down through generations; knowing one’s ancestors had touched and pondered its pages just as you are doing. Due to copyright regulations and restricted formatting e-Reader customers are prohibited from selling or sharing their eBook titles.

The e-Reader’s claim to fame is its screen clarity, which greatly improves the readability and functions as a virtual paperless page. The latest technological advancements employ e-Ink and Skiff’s innovative flexible screen, thus creating an even higher quality reading experience. There is a variety of electronic paper on the market. For instance, Pixel Qi is a modification of LCD technology and Qualcomm is in the midst of creating a state-of-the-art display based on biomimetics (biologically inspired design): imagine the sunlight illuminating the wings of a butterfly.

Hence, the conundrum of the e-Reader is:  to stay a luxury book-reading device of greatest screen clarity, or integration into a multifunctional device that does not replicate the current book-reading experience.

It is anyone’s guess from which tree the apple will fall.