The EBook Dilemma

I love reading. What writer doesn’t? I am a bit all over the place with what I read. I love just about all genres, but my guilty pleasure reading is mostly science fiction. On top of all of this, I am a gadget geek. Almost five years ago, I discovered Palm Reader (now eReader), and found that I could purchase some of those science fiction books- as well as many other genres- in “eBook” format. Basically, eBooks are digital versions of books, existing as a file that you can read on one’s desktop or (in my case) PDA.

I suddenly found that I could hold an entire library on a tiny card. I loved it. For a few years, that is almost exclusively what I read. I read books from Star Trek to Stephen King to a biography of Pope Pius XII (and his connections to Hitler). I could read at night and not bother my wife with having the light on. I could read while waiting for doctor, or in the car waiting for my wife. I could read at work while on lunch. It is incredibly convenient to read eBooks, if you have a device. Unfortunately, there are headaches, and some of it stems from what format to use. You see, publishers want to avoid pirating of books, and one can certainly understand this. However, most of the methods that they use to prevent customers from potentially pirating books can confuse and frustrate them. There is no single eBook standard. And each eBook program uses a different method to lock down their books.

To be blunt: most of the encryption (or DRM- Digital Rights Management) methods used are cumbersome. Mobipocket, Adobe, and Microsoft require you to “activate” your device on their websites. Once you activate a device (using a unique identifier supplied through the reader program on the PC or PDA), you can download the eBook and read it only on that device. You can activate multiple devices, usually at the limit of two or three. But the eBooks can only be read on the devices that they are activated for. The method used by eReader is much more practical. The credit card you used to purchase the eBook, as well as the name on the card, act as the codes to unlock the book. This is why I have purchased just about all of my eBooks from

Their system strikes the right balance in encryption and ease-of-use. Of the actual eBook readers available, the two I find easiest to use are eReader (my preferred reader) and Mobipocket. Adobe’s reader is barely adequate on PalmOS-based devices and embarrassing on Pocket PCs. It is slow, and a chore to work with. Microsoft Reader is not much better (though, to be fair, I last used version 2.2 on a Pocket PC 2002-based device a eighteen months ago). I always found Microsoft Reader’s activation to be typical of Microsoft: intrusive and difficult. I took an HTML-formatted book and converted it to both Mobipocket and Microsoft Reader formats, using their respective publishing tools. The Microsoft Reader version was a dog in terms of performance. It would take well over fifteen to twenty seconds to first load, navigation required the patience of Job, and it was a memory hog. The Mobipocket copy, however, opened up fast, and navigation was just as quick. Performance and DRM issues aside, there is the question of portability. All the major eBook readers have versions of their applications for PCs. Microsoft (being, well, Microsoft) has their Reader also available for Pocket PCs only. Adobe, Mobipocket, and eReader have versions for both Pocket PCs and PalmOS-based devices. Mobipocket and eReader support Symbian-based devices on top of the rest, but Mobipocket trumps them all by offering support for older Windows CE devices as well as older Psion palmtops. So the lesson here is: make sure you purchase your eBooks in a format supported on your PDA if you’re going planning on taking them with you everywhere.

The final area of contention: price. Amazingly, eBooks of newly released hardcover books easily sell for over fifteen dollars. Now, considering there is little overhead in producing an eBook (no printing and shipping costs), that price is absurd to ask of consumers. Publishers will need to bite the bullet on this issue. I think it is particularly funny when an eBook is, say, twenty dollars because it is out in hardcover, but when the paperback edition comes out, the price of the eBook falls to about five or six dollars. Unbelievable.

Will eBooks replace physical books? Doubtful. There is just something about holding a book in your hands and thumbing through the pages as you look for a favorite line, scene, or chapter that eBooks may never duplicate. But for others, eBooks are the way of the future. It’s just a shame that there is no single, easy, and universal standard for eBooks. Until this happens, I can’t see them gaining widespread acceptance. And that is a shame.

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