Wednesday, November 17, 2010



THREE OR FOUR YEARS AGO, I was listening to an interview with the literary critic John Sutherland on the BBC Asian Network radio station. He observed that over the course of his lifetime, musical formats had changed with dizzying regularity, from gramophone records to MP3s.

On the other hand, the codex book format hasn’t changed in 2,000 years because it has always met the needs of readers. It is light, portable, durable, accessible and lendable. You can keep your place in it with a bookmark or folded corner of the page and you can scribble your thoughts about it in the margins.

Well, the likes of Steve Jobs would beg to differ. Since the establishment of the first digital archive in 1971, e-books have evolved via desktop prototypes, CD-Rom and PDF to become a major market force. Since the first e-book tablets came out in 1998, there’s been something of a gold rush with all the global tech brands wanting a cut of the action.

I must admit that I was an early sceptic, anxious about the headaches and radiation sickness that might come from staring at a screen boning up on Blake or catching up with Coetzee.

However, the new generation of gizmos that are set to come out this year seem to have vanquished that problem forever. Their high-definition E-ink aesthetic is easy-on-the-eye and does real justice to the written page. These devices also boast faster refresh rates, smoother operating systems, larger screens and a greater diversity of content, including your favourite newspapers and magazines alongside the literary classics.

Last year, sales of e-readers hit a new high with Amazon’s Kindle device alone moving 500,000 units globally. It is no wonder then that 2010 is predicted to be ‘The Year of the E-Reader.’ The battle to give the public the ultimate e-reading experience escalated into a price war in March when Sony slashed the cost of its most basic tablet in anticipation of the Apple iPad’s release. This prompted Amazon to start talking about a cheaper yet souped-up Kindle of the future, driven by a new improved Freescale processor that offers all the functions of other processors currently in the market, only more economically.

The iPad should hopefully hit Malaysian shores soon, although the hype around it is based more on promises for tomorrow than the capabilities of today. While the iPad impresses with its vast 16Gb memory, it is the future prospect of colour E-ink screens and greater compatibility with other ‘Apps’ that really makes the mouth water. As the iPad stands right now, its US$500 price tag and comparatively short battery life of 10 hours means that it is “not yet a killer,” in the words of tech blogger Ebook Doctor. However, given that Apple already dominates digital music and are fast expanding their e-book portfolio, the iPad allows you to buy new titles online in a matter of seconds, which is certainly more convenient than heading down to the mall.

The most competitively-priced next-generation tablet must be Kobo, due out in mid-June. You can land one of these for only US$149.99 and it comes preloaded with 100 classic titles which adds to the great value. Expectations are high, with Wired magazine going as far as calling it “the Kindle killer.” The Kobo company originally started out designing e-book software before making the step up to the tablet market. This background expertise, along with their close connection to Borders Bookstores, means that their new tablet is gifted with a first-class content delivery system, allowing cheap and easy downloads of a whole plethora of reading materials.

Presumptuously marketed as “the tablet that has everything that the iPad is missing,” the German WePad has set itself up as a direct rival to Apple’s flagship device. The company behind it, Neofonie, has begun exclusive negotiations with publishers and media providers that are less than ecstatic about Apple’s steep prices and tight restrictions. The WePad’s publicity seems to focus on its versatility: not only can you read with comfort and speed thanks to the Intel Atom Pineview-M chip but you can take pictures with its webcam, watch Flash animations and connect up to various USB devices. Expect to find this gizmo in stores around the world by late July.

Talking about the versatility of functions, a big hitter out this summer is Condor Technology Associates’ eGriver Touch, which is equipped with touchscreen, Wi-fi, directory organisation tool, web browser and integrated dictionary. Many of its competitors can boast only half of these capabilities. Such tools as text-to-speech are optional with this model. Weighing just 240g, the eGriver Touch is one of the lightest e-readers in the market. However, one drawback with this device is its lack of compatibility as only eight e-book formats (amongst them .epub and .pdb) are supported. However, the eggheads predict that the increasing standardisation of the market will soon make compatibility issues a thing of the past.

You could forgive Apple for developing a persecution complex because they too are in the sights of yet another forthcoming tablet, the HP Slate. Last month, an internal HP presentation ‘proving’ how superior the Slate will be to the iPad was leaked to the public. In the areas of screen resolution, processor power, port compatibility and webcam, the Slate appears to win out, although it’s likely that it will cost at least US$50 more than the iPad, and the buying public might well ask the question, “Why does an e-reader need a state-of-the-art camera?”

Asus is tipped to release their DR-900 e-reader in the next couple of months. Its touch screen capability has been hailed as a quantum leap in the field but, unfortunately, sneak preview sites such as have reported sensitivity and typing issues. Apparently, this is sort of compensated for by the navigation arrows provided on either side of the screen which are much easier to use. Furthermore, it is hoped that these gremlins will be fixed by the time the DR-900 is officially released. Also in the ‘pros’ column for this device is the crispness of the 1024 x 768 display and the one-to-two second refresh time.

Looking slightly further into the future, there is much excitement surrounding Google’s first tablet to be run on its revolutionary Android operating system. Although details are hazy at present and no release date has been set, information has been drip-fed from sources such as Google’s CEO Eric E. Schmidt, who has intimated that the tablet will take the appearance of a more traditional computer, be equipped with the Chrome Web Browser and offer a completely open platform, unlike the iPad. Most significantly, Google will seek to take advantage of the multilingual capability of Android, offering customers the opportunity to read e-books in whatever language they choose. This gives Google’s new gadget a clear competitive edge over all the other monolingual tablets out there in the market.

So it would seem that the brightest brains in the business might prove Professor Sutherland wrong and seriously challenge the millennia-old codex in this, the Year of the E-Reader. Who can predict?

TOM SYKES has published short fiction and journalism around the world in such publications as GoNomad, Underground Voices, Taya Literary Journal, Screaming Dreams, Jupiter SF, Ruthless Peoples, Lunar Harvest, WeBooks, The Philippine Free Press and Quill. He co-compiled and -edited No Such Thing as a Free Ride? for Cassell Illustrated which was serialised in the London Times and named the Observer’s Travel Book of the Month. The latest book he co-edited is Fog in Channel ...?, a book that explores Britain’s relationship with mainland Europe, published by Shoehorn Publishing in the U.K. He is pursuing his PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia, published by MPH Group Publishing.

Reproduced from the July-September 2010 issue of Quill magazine


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