After Hours

Road warriors: Take your library with you

E-book readers allow you to take hundreds of books and documents along with you in a device that's not much bigger than your smart phone. Michael Kassner will look at the technology behind these products and give some opinions about two of the e-book readers using a road warrior's perspective.

Reading is everything to me. I owe my professional life to the hardworking technology writers that keep me up to date. I also owe my love of classic literature to certain college professors who patiently explained to me that there's more to literature than the latest tech manuals. Because of this, I have a problem. It can be best described by a quote I've seen on a T-shirt many years ago. The shirt proudly advertised "So many books, so little time." I can't say it any better than that. My being a road warrior exacerbates the problem, by forcing me to make decisions on what book or literature to bring along on the latest trip. So when I find anything that will help me, I'm all for it.

With that in mind, it becomes easy to see where an e-book reader could help. An e-book reader allows me to take any pertinent reference documents I may need on the field call. In fact, the amount of e-book reader memory (plus having SD flash drive readers) is sufficient for me to have all my technical manuals along at all times. For example, having Cisco's "Portable Command Guide" readily available has saved me on numerous occasions. Skeptics say that I could have all that information on my notebook, and that's true to some extent. The problem with that is many manuals and books are only available in a proprietary format, making it impossible to read on a notebook.

Having an e-book reader also allows me to simultaneously view needed reference information or documents while I'm using the full LCD screen of my notebook for a different task. Also in many situations it's just faster and easier to use the electronic reader. For example, while waiting at an airport or lobby, I find myself using my e-book reader more and more to prep for the call or spend a few minutes reading my latest science-fiction novel. Finally, road warriors are very cognizant of size and weight. Thus, they will appreciate carrying a small and lightweight e-book reader versus multiple books or documents.

ePaper is the difference

E-books aren't new, and the fact that e-books aren't more popular can be blamed on e-book readers not being ready for prime time. They used existing technology that didn't provide the user with a good reading experience. Besides, introducing anything that attempts to replace a real book isn't an easy task; it almost borders on heresy. I'd like to submit information about a technology that I feel already has or is going to change all of that. Electronic paper or ePaper has been around since 2000, but only recently has it been integrated into products that will change our perception of reading materials. ePaper is an electronic display device, but it's very unlike conventional (CRT or LCD) flat panel display technology that uses backlighting to illuminate the pixels. ePaper is electronic paper display (EPD) technology developed by E Ink and is best described as:

"An Electronic Paper Display is a display that possesses a paper-like high contrast appearance, ultra-low power consumption, and a thin, light form. It gives the viewer the experience of reading from paper, while having the power of updatable information.

EPDs are a technology enabled by electronic ink — ink that carries a charge enabling it to be updated through electronics. Electronic ink is ideally suited for EPDs as it is a reflective technology which requires no front or back light, is viewable under a wide range of lighting conditions, including direct sunlight, and requires no power to maintain an image."

The following image and quote (courtesy of E Ink)  will help explain microcapsule structure and how the E Ink process works:

"Electronic ink is a straightforward fusion of chemistry, physics and electronics to create this new material. The principal components of electronic ink are millions of tiny microcapsules, about the diameter of a human hair. In one incarnation, each microcapsule contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When a negative electric field is applied, the white particles move to the top of the microcapsule where they become visible to the user. This makes the surface appear white at that spot. At the same time, an opposite electric field pulls the black particles to the bottom of the microcapsules where they are hidden. By reversing this process, the black particles appear at the top of the capsule, which now makes the surface appear dark at that spot.

e-ink.jpg

To form an E Ink electronic display, the ink is printed onto a sheet of plastic film that is laminated to a layer of circuitry. The circuitry forms a pattern of pixels that can then be controlled by a display driver. These microcapsules are suspended in a liquid "carrier medium" allowing them to be printed using existing screen printing processes onto virtually any surface, including glass, plastic, fabric, and even paper."

While researching ePaper, I came across a very interesting concept. The people who developed ePaper are aware of what they call the "reading experience," and it's a concept that's utterly important to the success of e-book readers. To explain, at one time or another we've all been totally immersed while reading something, even to a point of being totally oblivious to what's happening around us. That's the "reading experience." If the reading device (book or electronic reader) doesn't allow you to forget about the device and concentrate on the material, the "reading experience" will not happen. E-book reader developers are very aware of this and work hard to make their reader as intuitive to use as possible.

E-book readers save the day

I've personally used two e-book readers, the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader Digital Book. Both e-book readers are similar in how they present the material to the user, as they both use E Ink technology. I'd rather not go into the details or specification of each as that's already available on the individual Web sites. What I'd like to do is describe what I consider the strengths and weaknesses of each device, so as to help you make a more informed decision on which device would be best suited for your requirements.

Sony Reader Digital Book

The Reader Digital Book by Sony was the first electronic reader using E Ink available to the public and has many features that make it a worthy choice. CNET reviewer David Carnoy has an all-encompassing review "Sony Reader Digital Book PRS505." For the most part, I agree with the well-presented article of the Reader Digital Book shown below (courtesy of Sony). Still I'd like to point out a few details that I've come across in using

the Reader Digital Book:

sony-reader-digital-book.jpg

  • It may seem trivial to most, but I found the page-turning buttons to be irritating. There are two separate button mechanisms for turning pages. One on the left side and one on the right. I understand the importance of accommodating either the left or the right-handed individual. What I didn't like was having to reach further up the device to turn the page forward with either of the page-turning buttons. Since the button to turn back a page was closer to my finger, I often accidentally did that instead. To make matters worse, that annoyance wasn't rectified as I became more familiar with the e-book reader.
  • As one can imagine, the book library for these devices is totally proprietary. Sony requires the user to publish each computer and device to Sony's online eBook library site along with credit card information. I found the whole application non-intuitive and frustrating, even to the point where I had to download a book several times before it was actually on the reader.
  • How pdf files are presented is a real problem. Everywhere I read, it mentioned that pdf files worked perfectly on the Sony Reader Digital Book. That alone was the big selling feature for me. I thought I could import all sorts of pdf files and use the device as a reference library. First pdf file I downloaded, I could barely read it. I set the text size to maximum, and even with my reading glasses on, I could barely make out what's written. Not good and is my major disappointment in Sony's electronic reader.

The Sony Reader Digital Book is a step in the right direction, and mine has been by my side for many miles now. There are some issues, and I don't feel that I'll get in the zone enough to have the "reading experience" with it. Still, it sure is nice to have that much information in such a small package.

Amazon Kindle: The next generation

kindle.jpg

The Kindle shown above (courtesy of Amazon) is now my e-book reader of choice for a host of reasons. First, to get familiar with the product, I once again defer to CNET reviewer David Carnoy, who wrote a thorough review called "Amazon Kindle." I'd like to also point out a review by Paul Thurrott named "Amazon Kindle Review" because it offers a more user-centric focus. It's easy for me to get excited about the Kindle, since it has all the features of the Sony device and then adds several more. I'd like to point out the features that I consider important:

  • The Kindle has a built-in EVDO radio that accesses Amazon's "Whispernet," which is one method of obtaining reading materials. It also allows you or associates (you're given permission) to upload documents to the Kindle via e-mail.
  • It is a great deal easier to use Amazon's book selection process, and for the most part books are cheaper than at Sony's online eBook library site.
  • It's probably personal, but I prefer the Kindle's ergonomics over the Sony e-book reader. I seldom fat-finger any button selection.
  • The Kindle has a keyboard that allows users to search for words in the document, look up words in the built-in dictionary, and add annotations to text. The ability to add text notes is one feature I like and use all the time.
  • Some may not consider access to Wikipedia a feature, but I do and use it often. It's a great place to get initial information about a subject, and the Kindle makes it easy to do so.

Amazon is offering a service called "Digital Text Platform" (DTP) that's exciting to aspiring writers like myself. DTP is basically a self-publishing platform allowing Kindle users to upload content such as manuscripts and documents to the DTP Web site. Amazon then converts the content into Kindle books. You figure out a price and the document is then up for sale in the Kindle Store. The self-publishing industry is exciting already, and it's not too hard to see how DTP may totally revolutionize the process.

Kindle issues

The Kindle has some of the issues that I've seen with the Sony Reader Digital Book. Once again they aren't showstoppers and in no uncertain terms would you get me to give up either device. The issues I have with the Kindle are:

  • Amazon doesn't allow the uploading of files directly to the Kindle. You have to go through a somewhat convoluted e-mail process to get them loaded, and the number of allowed formats is limited.
  • Displaying pdf files correctly appears to be a significant problem to e-book reader developers. The Kindle is even more disappointing when I tried to view pdf documents. First, it's clunky, because you have to upload the file to Amazon. Next Amazon converts the pdf file into a usable format, and that's where part of the problem appears to be. The returned document usually is not rendered correctly and is unusable. Even if the document is rendered correctly, the text once again is too small to read.
  • The Kindle is plastic whereas the Sony e-book reader was made from metal, which could be an issue down the road.

Final thoughts

My library of real books is now dwindling, just like my library of CDs. I see ePaper technology as revolutionizing our perception of what a book is. I can hardly wait until colored ePaper is available. I suspect that will be a tipping point for many people who are turned off by color not being available yet. I hope I was able to shed some light on a product that every road warrior should take a serious look at as a way to lighten their load.

Finally, I managed to achieve the "reading experience" while using the Kindle. Just ask my son, who says that I apparently was oblivious to his calls for help with the garbage the other night. Or at least that's what I told him.

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Michael Kassner has been involved with wireless communications for 40 plus years, starting with amateur radio (K0PBX) and now as a network field engineer and independent wireless consultant. Current certifications include Cisco ESTQ Field Engineer, CWNA, and CWSP.

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Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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