BitDepth 695 - September 01

Amazon's Kindle isn't the only electronic book reader around and some of the alternatives may already be in your pocket.
Books after paper

Apart from water, fire and silverfish, nothing’s actually wrong with books, but that hasn’t stopped developers from creating new ways to read on the iPhone. From left; eReader bookshelf and page screen, ComiXology’s bookshelf, comics as individual iPhone applications and Instapaper web extracts.

The buzz around the rumoured Apple tablet device is becoming deafening. Steve Jobs is said to have undertaken it as his personal project upon returning to work after his liver transplant. Stunning 3D imaginings of the device abound on the Internet. Big debates have erupted over whether it will use a scaled up version of the MacOS that runs on the iPhone or a slimmed down version of the version that runs on its computer hardware.
If Apple is working on a tablet device, and the company notoriously won’t confirm such rumours until it unveils a product, here are some things we can expect. It won’t compete with the company’s portables, which are doing extremely well in the market. It won’t compete with the iPhone, which is equally successful.

Logically then, it should fit in somewhere between, attempting to compete in the netbook space where Apple has no market presence, fitting in between the cheapest Macbook US$999 and the true price of an iPhone, US$600. Such a device, then, might be between eight and ten inches on its longest side and no more than half an inch thick. It would offer wireless connectivity (Bluetooth, WiFi & 3G?) removable media access and include at least two USB ports.
With a decent onscreen keyboard, ten hours of battery life and an option for an external wireless/wired input option, it could be a real alternative to PC netbooks. More than that, it would be, at the size of a small paperback, an almost perfect e-Book reader. It would also be the device I’ve been awaiting for almost ten years now.

High cellulose consumption
I read a truly obscene number of books, web pages and magazines. The mound of paper that trails me is an ongoing memoriam to large tracts of forest. Most of this material, however, is doomed. I would love to be able to copy and paste the stuff I need to reference, but without the ease of onscreen tools, I never get around to doing it with the paper versions. So the paper stacks up until it becomes unwieldy, and then I either give it away or dump it.
In parallel with all this pulp, I’ve also been eagerly devouring words in pure digital form. Along with web pages, I read audiobooks (, e-Books (Fictionwise) and PDFs aplenty. I have listened to more works of fiction in this decade than I read in the last two.

All these words have been consumed on a succession of iPods and smart phones using eReader, now a product from Barnes and Noble. The free eReader software runs on the Mac and Windows, and more usefully on Windows Mobile, Blackberry Pocket PC, Palm, iPhone and Symbian devices.
I’d never read a book or short story on my laptop’s screen, but I devour them on my phones and have for years. Even when the screen has been a keyhole (oh, Nokia), it’s been a blessing in long lines and waiting rooms.

Digital ink on LCDs
Barnes & Noble’s purchase of eReader and its companion company, Fictionwise, Sony’s new Reader device and Amazon’s enthusiastic championing of its Kindle are just the most obvious moves in a migration of reading to digital devices. Magazines have been available as specially formatted PDFs from services like QMags for some time, but the most exciting development in reading has been the surprising surge in comics available on the iPhone.

iVerse media, a packager of a number of titles for the iPhone recently announced that it had passed one million downloads of comics for the device. Offered as self-contained applications that deliver the comics formatted panel by panel, iVerse’s offerings are typical of comics for the iPhone and iPod Touch. The company plans to migrate to the model used by ComiXology for its iPhone application, which downloads purchased comics into a database on the phone for future reading.

It’s hardly a perfect system. Simple layouts and comics designed to be read on a small screen work best, downloads are best done over WiFi, the challenging rules governing purchase are the same as the iTunes Store’s and the big two, Marvel and DC are conspicuously absent on the platform. There are, however, lots of free titles to get you started.
My current fetish in mobile device reading is the surprisingly useful Instapaper, a system that futurist speaker Gerd Leonhard suggested to me a year ago. Sign up for a free account on the website, install the “bookmarklet” a special web browser link that sends a web page to the Instapaper site and it pops up as a text stream in the iPhone Instapaper application. Very smart, useful stuff.
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