why eink readers haven't taken off yet

Russ continues in his vein of reviewing products that he hasn’t used based on reviews that others have done and photos from the web :-)), and explains that eink-based ebook readers like the Sony PRS-500 series haven’t taken off because they’re not pure black text on white background.


As it happens, I own -and use although less than I want to, for reasons I’ll explain later- a PRS-500 (the first generation, the photo that Russ has in his post is of the PRS-505).

Here’s a photo of the PRS-500 next to a paperback book under natural light that I just took a few minutes ago (sorry for the quality, but image sharpness is not the goal here).

Is the paperback black-on-white? No.

Is the eink display darker than the book? Yes.

But is the difference enough to “turn me off” from reading? Absolutely not.

Keep in mind this is a first-gen device, a year old (it was first shown publicly at CES on January 2006, and released in the Fall), and that the new PRS-505 has more levels of grayscale (8, vs. 4 in the original) and even higher contrast.

The difference is, in fact, negligible. Under direct light, which is how most of us read, there is basically no difference at all. In any case, books are not Black on white – the best background is a brownish-light-gray and if you pick up any book and look at the background you’ll see that they rarely have pure white background (tech and academic books being the main exception).

Another red herring that people that “use” the device for 30 seconds at a store mention is how you can see the screen “flipping” the page, which is definitely a little disconcerting at first. When you’re actually reading for extended periods, this becomes completely a non-issue.

So, if not because of the screen, why haven’t these readers taken off yet?

First, choice – there aren’t many products like this. There’s basically the Sony Reader and I think one more random manufacturer selling one (I seem to remember seeing it, but can’t really say for sure, which means I probably made it up).

This means there’s no competition in the market, and in particular lower volumes for a new technology like eInk which keep component prices high.

Second, price. $300-400 is nothing to sneeze at, but crucially the price of books for these devices is just ridiculous. They cost the same as the physical versions and they come with DRM which limits where you can use them. The book publishers are facing the same problem as the music companies and movie studios and they’re reacting the same way, trying to fight digital instead of embracing it (and the lower distribution costs it entails) instead plunging their heads in the sand and hoping that the storm will pass. Yeah, that’s not gonna work.

Finally, uploading arbitrary text content sucks. This one is a bit more subtle and in my mind perhaps the one that gets to be close to a “deal breaker”. Say I have a PDF of something that I’d like to throw into the device to read. I have to fight with the software, which in the case of Sony is a pathetic iTunes knock-off that looks as if it was put together by a bunch of 5-year olds with crayons (yeah, it’s that bad, also Windows-only), but more importantly, the reader is not smart enough to do the right thing with arbitrary PDF. It scales the PDF down until the whole page is visible, margins and all, which means, in 99% of the cases, that a PDF created for letter-sized paper gets shrunk down to paperback. Not very usable. Exporting the thing as text and then uploading that works marginally better, but you end up with sentences broken in the wrong places as well as a lot of extraneous content such as page headers showing up in the middle of a page (lots of Project Gutenberg files are like this). Similarly, converting webpages, etc, is a massive pain. Ideally I’d just take web content and drop it on the device for reading later, but that’s not how it works, and it completely gets in the way of me using it more often. (As an aside, being able to take notes is something I find myself wanting to do all the time, I do that with post-its on real books, so a solution for that would be nice as well).

If books where cheaper, and I mean significantly, than they are today, and if taking web/other content to the device was a no-brainer, then we’d be much closer to seeing these portable readers become accepted and used by many more users.