The Sony Reader, some have said, is a solution in search of a problem â€“ that there's no apparent need for this technology and it is, at best, a benefit to a very narrow audience. I would argue, however, that this is the case with most progressive consumer electronics, and that the Reader stands to be one of the more influential new pieces of technology in the market today.
Consider Apple's six-year-old iPod: there were a handful of early adopters of the first-generation device despite its clunkiness, short battery life, and limited music selection. But then there were the rest of us, many of whom denounced it as superfluous. Countless nay-sayers questioned the practicality of a hand-held device that would let you sort through hundreds of albums. Who, we wondered, has hundreds of albums, anyway? And do you really need access to all of them, all of the time?
And we all know how that played out: Apple not only helped a floundering music industry reshape its business model for the digital age, but the company also spawned an entire industry of iPod holders, speakers, headphones, and other accessories.
I'm not saying the Reader is the next iPod â€“ it would be naÃ¯ve to think that a device for books would be as widely embraced as one for music, which is a decidedly more immediate and passive medium. First, the Reader isn't nearly as hip â€“ neither in style nor function â€“ so it doesn't have the same tipping-point potential to break into the youth and urban markets. And with most ebooks priced between $7.00 and $14.00, I don't see it having a major impact on revenues in the commercial book industry.
This is not to say, however, that the Reader will have no effect at all. I see it being used on college campuses, where students are currently forced to lug around backpacks full of heavy text books â€“ each of which has a six-month shelf-life and no resale value. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who need quick access to copyrighted information and resources may someday turn to the latest generation of the Reader for quick reference. And since the Reader is supported by Adobe, any text in PDF form â€“ such as newspapers, magazines, short stories, and other paper-based content â€“ will be downloadable to the device.
At the nuts-and-bolts of it, the Reader is quite obviously a first-gen product. Sony clearly put some effort into the ergonomics of the device, with very easy and accessible one-finger page turning, and straighforward navigation through your library. But those buttons are more reminiscent of a Discman than an iPod â€“ the hard plastic that protrudes slightly from the periphery of the device are not touch-sensitive, but "clicky." While the frame around the screen is of a more stable matter, the sides are faux-chrome plastic that add to the outdated feel of the Reader. There are 10 plastic buttons that run along the bottom of the screen (numbered zero through nine), but their usefulness is debatable. They function in the menus, but are not used (as I first assumed) to type in the page you want to access â€“ instead, they jump to the next tenth of the book, making it frustrating to get back to your page without thumbing through. There's a cool bookmark feature that lets you mark pages for future access (and lists them in the book's main menu), and the size of the text can be changed from magnifying-glass tiny, to medium, to pretty big (about 12-point font) for people like me who always forget their glasses. The power chord is a bit cumbersome for a handheld device, but it uses virtually no battery power -- I've been actively using it for more than a month and I haven't had to plug it back in yet.
There are additional features like photos and music that I haven't felt the need to use â€“ the navigation isn't very smooth, and there's that page-flashing issue that makes rapid page turns a bit annoying, so I've been using it exclusively for ebooks at this point. It's more of a sign of good things to come than a decent function on the current iteration.
The feel of the Reader reminds me very much of Sony's first exploration into digital music with the MiniDisc; though not widely accepted, it was the first step in popularizing MP3 files, which enabled the aforementioned iPod industry to flourish. This time, however, Sony will have to create the industry themselves, instead of inspiring it â€“ and ultimately taking a very distant third in the market share, like with digital music.
The online interface, however, leaves a bit more to be desired. The Connect platform â€“ which is a poor manâ€™s iTunes clone â€“ is clunky and ugly, with a pretty weak user interface and ineffective search. The books available online are limited to bestsellers, and there's no working recommendation engine that I could find. There are some business texts in there (I downloaded bestsellers by Malcolm Gladwell and Jack Welch), but most books (like the Harlequin romances) seem to target a mass-market paperback audience. Call me crazy, but I donâ€™t see anyone taking the Reader in the tub for a bubble bath (especially with a $350 initial cost), so the title selection seems a bit mismanaged.
The screen is far and away the device's most redeeming quality. Built using the fascinating eInk technology (http://www.eink.com/), the high-resolution matte finish makes the text incredibly easy to read. It is not back-lit like a cell phone, PDA, or iPod â€“ in fact, there's no light at all â€“ so thereâ€™s really no eye strain, even after long periods of time (I tested that with a marathon read of the new Christopher Buckley novel). Because it's not lit, the screen needs to refresh before bringing up new text, so it quickly flashes black between page turns (a very minor setback â€“ I got over it pretty quickly).
There are a few notable absences in the Reader that, I believe, would make for a much more pleasant experience. First, a simple date-time display; it sounds superfluous, but every hand-held device I own has a clock on it, and I hate having to close an e-book and dig up my BlackJack to find out that my train's running late. With respect to navigation, the Reader needs a better way of skipping through pages, chapters, and sections â€“ this can be done simply by allowing the user to type in page numbers, or by creating a multi-page display from which the user can choose a page or section to jump to. In the more advanced spectrum of functions would be a comprehensive search â€“ both within the book you're currently reading, and a search throughout all the ebooks on your Reader. This would of course require some sort of keyboard, or a touch screen, which is the next obvious step for the Reader. Finally, it's not Mac-compatible, which will make it very difficult to break into that hip, young, urban market now infiltrated by the iPod.
So while I wouldnâ€™t suggest running out and buying one right away (it's hard to justify the $350 for a first-gen device), I would strongly urge you to keep your eye on future iterations of this product â€“ and the competing products it spawns. Even for a voracious reader like myself, I find it to be a nice addition to my library but by no means as necessary as other personal electronics like my BlackJack, Canon SD, or iPod. Though overall it's a pretty good user experience, I'm inclined to see the Reader as a very small (but ultimately very important) first step in what will someday be a ubiquitous personal electronic device.
Chris Steib is a digital media entrepreneur and the editor in chief of VoidMagazine.com.