Spoutin' Off: Technology can't replace paperbacks

By Michael Rau

February 17, 2009

Sometimes being a responsible technology columnist can be a lonely lot in life.

Such may be the case this week because I'm compelled to speak out negatively about what's actually a pretty cool device.

I'm referring to Amazon's “Kindle” eBook reader, the second generation of which was recently introduced.

It's been talked about a lot by media types, and has gotten generally positive reviews.

For those of you unfamiliar with them, exactly what is an eBook reader?

In a nutshell, they're self-powered, self-contained electronic devices into which you can load an eBook file, purchasable by download from Amazon and others, and on which you can read an entire book.

You can read eBooks through other methods, such as Adobe Reader, on your computer desktop. And most smartphone manufacturers, including Apple, are looking at apps that will allow you to read eBooks on your phone.

But eBook readers are different. They use an LCD screen system commonly known as “electronic paper” that draws virtually no power. The resolution of the text on the screen is superb, and the quality of the display is unaffected by variance in ambient light. They actually only draw power when you “turn the page” (which changes screens). No power is drawn when the page is static.

Sony was the first to introduce such a device, called the “Reader”, back in 2006 and is now in it's third generation. Amazon followed with the Kindle in late 2007. There are also eReaders available from other lesser known manufacturers.

The devices are pricey – from $300 - $500. But the manufacturers seem to sell enough of them to warrant ongoing development.

Which, at least from my perspective, begs the question: “Why?”.

I love technology, but over the course of my two-score plus years, I've seen many things pop up in the marketplace that baffled me.

In this case, why in the world would anyone spend this kind of money for an electronic device to read books instead of just buying books?

I don't get it.

From the time I was 12 or 13, it wasn't unusual to find me toting around a dog-eared paperback book of some kind (usually science-fiction), often jammed in a pocket.

As I sit in my office writing this, I look around on my bookshelves at my meager library, and thank the stars that I bought these instead of eBooks. After all, what would be on my shelves otherwise?

$300 would buy about 10 hard-cover books, or over 30 paperbacks. And even after you buy the reader, you still have to buy the eBook at ten bucks a pop! AAARGH!

Books have a substance that no electronic file will ever match.

Once you've read an eBook, what can you do with it?

You can't sell it or share it. It has a Digital Rights Management scheme, just like music and video downloads, to prevent sharing.

You sure can't put it on your bookshelf for future reference or perusal.

The only practical application for such a device I can come up with is as a replacement for a schoolchild's textbooks (what kid wouldn't like their backpack to be 20 pounds lighter?), or other circumstances where someone might need to have the contents of several books at their disposal at once without access to the actual books.

The problem with this idea is that reference books and textbooks aren't being encoded as eBooks -just commercially popular novels, non-fiction bestsellers, and the like.

The decline of print media has been discussed a lot lately, particularly as it relates to newspapers like this one. Some papers are talking about dropping their print versions and just publishing online editions because of the severity of economic pressures.

If this happens, I'm stockpiling canned goods and awaiting the end of civilization as we know it. I can't imagine starting my day without the crisp feel of the morning paper in my fingers.

Yet, this is a likely outcome of the transition to Internet-based journalism.

Since Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century (cutting edge technology in its day, I might add), the printed word has been at the vanguard of civilization. Books find their way into every corner of the planet, reaching people who have little concept of electricity, much less sophisticated electronic devices.

My greatest fear is that the demise of the printed word will lead to something it took humanity hundreds of years to overcome – that the cost will lead to reading once again becoming the playground of society's elite at the expense of the masses. Who can actually rationalize spending $400 for such a frivolous toy?

So, to my friends at Amazon (and Sony), I can tell you that I'm impressed with your device. It's a wonderful technological gadget.

But I cannot now or ever support anything that might so directly contribute to the demise of the printed word.

My advice is this: Buy the 30 books instead. They'll serve you and civilization much better than any electronic gizmo ever could.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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