The Battle of the eBook Readers

For a couple years now the Amazon Kindle has been the standard for ebook reading, even though the Sony Reader has been around longer and many people find it just as good. Now, the Barnes & Noble Nook has come out – so we have the Big Three of ebook readers, even though there are other ebook readers available, and more being planned.  I have no intention of trying to review them, or compare their technology, PC World does a good job here.  I’ve owned a number of ebook readers, including the Kindle, but I’ve sold or given them away.  So far they haven’t quite lived up to my expectations.  The trouble is, I again want to own an ebook reader.

My first impulse is to buy a Kindle 2 because I’d like to have its text-to-speech feature, and because I buy a lot of books from Amazon.  Then I happened to read, “Sony rolls out EPUB content, makes B&N nook transition easy and international.”   By using the EPUB standard, Barnes & Noble and Sony have made Amazon look like Apple promoting it’s proprietary AAC song format over the standard MP3 song.  Amazon created a nice music business attacking Apple by marketing MP3 songs and this is what Sony and B&N are doing to Amazon by promoting the open EPUB format.  Sony is even abandoning its proprietary format and switching to EPUB which makes it compete better against the B&N and Amazon at the same time.  Great strategic move.

If you bought an ebook reader, you’d want buy books from any bookstore, right?  Televisions can tune any channel, but imagine having to buy a different TV set for each station in town.  That’s sort of how ebook readers work now.  For each online ebook store, there’s an ebook reader they promote.  Another sign that the open EPUB format is really the emerging standard is some public libraries are now lending books in this format.  

Look at eReader.com, an online store that only sells ebooks, they promote the eSlick Reader.  Oddly enough, this site is owned by Barnes & Noble, so it appears B&N are promoting two competing ebook readers – I bet that will change soon!  This site has been around for awhile and also provides the free eReader software for a bunch of existing computing devices to let folks read ebooks on any digital devices they already own, like computers, laptops, PDAs, cell phones, including the popular iPhone.

If you visit the Sony Reader Store you won’t see any mention that the B&N Nook can read their books for sale, nor does the B&N Nook site promote selling their books to Sony Reader owners.  Behind the scenes, EPUB ebook users are finding ways to load books from both stores on their favorite device.  This leaves the Kindle kind of lonely by itself.  Fictionwise, another general ebook online storefront, promotes the eSlick reader too, but works to get their books on any device they legally can.  When you purchase a book it goes into your library, but when you go to download it, you are given a long list of supported file formats, including the Kindle and EPUB.  Fictionwise even has a Fictionwise Kindle eBookstore.  So even though the Kindle is proprietary, being the horse out front of the pack means it gets a lot of support.

See how confusing it is to decide which ebook reader to buy?  To make the issue even more complicated, go read David Pogue’s “Should e-Books Be Copy Protected?”  The MP3 song is very easy to steal and share, but there are now plenty of legal sites selling the unprotected MP3 song.  Would it be possible for all online bookstores to sell the same unprotected EPUB formatted book that could be read on any ebook reader?  Maybe in a few years, but right now book publishers are too scared to sell unprotected ebook files, so the protected EPUB format is emerging as the standard now.

Deciding which ebook reader to buy now means aligning with a particular bookstore, or finding one that works with many different bookstores.  Some ebook readers are expensive because they come with broadband cell phones built into them to easily purchase books from the proprietary bookstore that markets them.  I’d rather have a cheaper ebook reader that works like a MP3 player and use my computer to buy books and be my file librarian.  That way I wouldn’t be tied to any bookstore. 

I have an iPod Nano and touch, Microsoft Zune and Sansa Clip all loaded with audiobooks that I buy from Audible.com.  I never feel the need to buy an audiobook when I’m away from home.  I always run out of battery juice before books.  I’ve never run out of books away from home because my devices all hold so many.  Ebook readers can hold thousands of books, so I don’t see the need to spend money for instant access.  Besides, it’s just a way to tie the device to one bookseller.

If there was a Kindle 3 for $150 without the wireless, I buy it because of the text-to-speech feature.  Otherwise, I’d probably like the Sony Reader Pocket Edition, that uses EPUB, but it costs a little too much right now, even at Amazon’s $189 price.  I also wished the Sony Reader Pocket Edition had a 6” screen.  It would still be much smaller than Kindle and full size Sony Reader.  The smaller screen means more page turning, but many reviewers love it because it’s so easy to carry around.  I was always afraid to carry my Kindle 1 away from home.  That brings up another factor.  It hurts far less to lose a $150 reader than one that costs $300.

The reason why I want to get another ebook reader is because I want to read science fiction magazines.  The top four print magazines have been available for a couple years now for ebook readers, and I’m hoping the emerging online magazines will start offering EPUB editions too.  The ebook reader might increase readership for the dying short story market. 

One plus to the ebook readers that have wireless/broadband connections is they make provisions for reading blogs.  I bought a netbook hoping it would be a great portable RSS reader, but it hasn’t worked out.  The form factor isn’t very book like.  I’m hoping that RSS software for reading blogs will migrate onto ebook readers too.  iTunes manages podcasts for iPods, so why can’t software manage blogs for ebook readers?

However, what’s really emerging is bookworms love ebook readers for consuming books.  Ebook readers are really perfect for fiction reading, and especially for people who love to read fiction in quantity on the cheap.  And this is great – it saves trees and the environment.  Because libraries are starting to lend EPUB books, and because there are about a million out of print books available for ebook readers, and because there are many online stores selling ebooks cheaper than print books, bookworms really benefit from owning an ebook reader.  I think the time for ebook readers have finally arrived and I have to get back in the game again.

JWH – 12/19/9

Toshiba NB205 Netbook

I finally made the plunge and bought a netbook, a Toshiba NB205.  I had been wanting one since the Asus Eee PC 2G Surf was announced.  I kept waiting for better battery life, better keyboard, better screens, and finally decided I’d buy either the Asus Eee PC 1005HA or the Toshiba NB205 because of reviews in Laptop Magazine. 

The extensive review in Laptop Magazine practically gushed about the Toshiba, giving the Toshiba 4.5 stars, .5 more than any review that I had seen for a netbook, but the magazine was also was quite fond of the 1005HA, which it gave 4 stars, a rating many netbooks had achieved there.  And the Asus 1005HA had some features I really wanted more, like wireless-N, a better webcam, slightly better battery life, and not having a weird battery butt hanging out.  However, the Toshiba got rave comments from an Amazon customer reviewer who owned a Macbook Pro and claimed the Toshiba was the first netbook that had Apple-like build quality – that swayed me a good bit.  Plus everyone said the touch typing on the Toshiba was fantastic, and I had always found typing on any the netbooks I had used so far as being yucky at best.  Typing on the Toshiba is surprisingly great, at least for me.

I highly recommend using the netbook you are thinking about buying at a store before you purchase one.  Don’t just order one from Amazon, sight unseen.  Sales are staggering for netbooks, and I think a lot of people aren’t ready for this new computer size. 

The whole concept of a netbook is a compromise.  I paid $399 for my netbook.  When people hear they can get a laptop for $399 they think its a bargain they can’t pass up.  Buyer beware, netbooks use an Intel Atom processor that is far slower than your standard Centrino.  They use smaller and cheaper components.  10” screens are tiny, and the keyboards are very different.

Too many people I’ve met wanted a netbook because they are cheaper than a laptop.  Netbooks represent a functional design to meet specialized tasks.  Don’t go by price.  Buy one because you want to carry a computer to more places than you do now.  Or because you want a small form factor for a specialized reason.  I bought mine because I want to make it into a multimedia ebook to use in my La-Z-Boy.  A guy on Amazon said he bought one because he was afraid to take his expensive MacBook Pro on trips, but wasn’t afraid to risk a $400 machine.

Think of a netbook as a device that fits between an iPhone and laptop in finding a purpose for existence.  Smart phones allow users to take the Internet everywhere, but at a cost $70-$100 per month, and limiting their users to seeing the web on a 3.5” screen and typing with one finger.  A netbook requires no monthly fee, but getting the Internet means mooching Wi-Fi connections or buying a broadband subscription, but you get to see the web through a 10” window and type with all your fingers.  Netbooks originally came with 7” screens and tiny keyboards, but it was soon realized those dimensions were not practical unless you were a child with tiny fingers.

Unpacking and Setting Up

I bought my Toshiba at Office Depot, and they tried to pass off an opened machine as unopened, so I had to take it back and get an unopened box.  That annoyed me, but the actual experience of opening a new NB205 was very nice.  I was up and running very quickly.  Boot-up was fast.  There wasn’t much crapware on the machine, just a 30-day trial of Norton Internet Security 2009 and Microsoft Works with a bunch of custom Toshiba utilities for improving netbook living.  There were a handful of promotional short cuts on the desktop that I immediately deleted.

Netbooks don’t have CD/DVD drives for installing software, so anything you want needs to come from USB or over the net.  A very useful utility for owners of netbooks is a ISO image mounter, that allows you to treat an .iso image file like it was a CD/DVD drive.  I got a free program called Virtual CloneDrive from Slysoft.  This allowed me to install programs from work on my machine.  I downloaded the .iso file, clicked on it, and I had a virtual H: drive to install the program.  Very cool.

Like most computers I set up at work, wired connections are a snap, but wireless ones are annoying.  The Toshiba comes with the wireless and Bluetooth turned off.  I quickly spotted the FN + F8 key combination that would turn it on, but many people will miss that.  The Toshiba comes with damn little documentation.  Mostly a warranty and little pamphlet about Safety and Comfort.  Plus the standard Quick Start Guide.  It does not come with an install CD/DVD, but it does have a hidden partition to reinstall itself and provisions to make your own install DVD.  But you’ll need a USB DVD burner. 

On the Quick Start Guide they tell you to launch the User’s Guide on the computer.  It’s an Acrobat file.  Although the little NB205 screen is very nice and bright, I sent the User’s Guide to my desktop so I could read it on a 22” monitor.  The manual is okay, but like most, they have to have all kinds of wordy warnings, and exceptions depending on which country you are living in.  It’s hard to zero in on just the stuff you need to know immediately. 

Computer makers should put out two manuals – one that their lawyers would approve, and a second, that readers will like.  Better yet, put out a training video, or put a link to the web, and offer a better multimedia experience.

[Update:  At work, on a .11b network I’m getting 4.85 Mbps downloads, so the problem discussed below is a conflict with my home wireless-N router.  I’m leaving the original content below to be illustrative of the kinds of problems people face with new computers.  I’ll post further updates when I find the fix to my home network problem.]

[Update 2:  I contacted Toshiba’s 1-800 tech support, but got little help.  The guy tried, but it’s obvious that the Atheros wireless doesn’t like my Linksys router and he had no previous problem reports to help him.  The support guy was all to ready to get rid of me and showed no real interest in helping me solve my problem.  Bad sign.  I could take the Toshiba back, but I hate taking things back.  I really like the keyboard on this dingus.  My next step is to contact Linksys.  I’ve already checked and there is no firmware upgrade to try.  The wireless works well enough for web browsing, just not good enough for streaming videos.  Since the Toshiba’s wireless uploads plenty fast, I’m wonder if the problem is in the download encyrption routines.  To test that would require taking all my other wireless devices off encyrption and that would be a pain.  So for now I’m going to take my chances hoping an update will show up that fixes things.  Like I said, the Toshiba works fine with other routers.  Another wireless problem has shown up, though.  Neither Moblin or Ubuntu Netbook Remix will recognize my wireless card.  That’s not uncommon for Linux distros, but it makes me wonder how common Atheros is used.]

I’ve been spending hours trying to find a way to make the wireless work correctly.  This is a bad first experience bump in the road.  I don’t know if it’s Toshiba’s fault, or something with my Linksys Router.  But my other wireless devices work fine.  I hope it’s just a miscommunication setting. 

Wireless Speed

Laptop Magazine reported that the Toshiba NB205 got faster than average transfer speeds with the built-in wireless connection, getting 21.30 Mbps download speeds at 10 feet from the router.  At ten feet from my router I’m getting .4 – .7 Mbps downloading speeds, which is significantly wrong.  I average around 2.2 Mbps upload speeds, which is great, but bizarre since upload speed are usually a fraction of downloading speeds.

Like most laptops today, the Toshiba came with wireless software that tries to wrestle control from Windows to manage the wireless connection.  The NB205 ships with Atheros, which does have a nice little utility to give back control to Windows.  Under Windows my download speed sucks, under Atheros, I can’t even make a connection, even though both systems tell me I have an excellent wireless connection.

Using a wired connection I can go to http://www.speedtest.net and achieve 22 Mbps download speeds.  Switching to wireless and I get .5 usually.  Where’s the problem?  So far I haven’t figured this out myself, and I may have to wait till after the holidays to contact Toshiba.  Carrying around my netbook in the house I can use the net, but it’s very slow, and unsuitable for streaming video, a feature many netbook users like.  I did check Hulu and YouTube under the wired connection, and the videos look great on the Toshiba’s little screen.

Battery Life

Laptop Magazine reported the NB205 got 8 hours and 33 minutes of battery life on their tests.  I used my machine over over 4 hours today and had 55% left on the battery meter, so that seems to pan out.  Not only that, the screen shows nice brightness with the power connector pulled.  I hate laptops that go all dim just to save battery life.

The reason why I wanted either the 1005HA or NB205 is because they got between 8-9 hours of useful battery life.  You can carry your machine around all day and not need to bring the power brick and cord.

LED LCD Screen

The LED backlit screen is lovely.  Bright and sharp.  I got TweakUI and removed the Recycle Bin from my desktop and set my taskbar to auto hide, so my desktop is completely clear of all icons and menus.  I always install Webshots, a desktop photo gallery program.  I want my desktop to be my art gallery, not an ugly collection of icons. 

If you pay Webshots a $19.99 annual fee, you can download unlimited photos from their archives and get wide screen crops.  I don’t know what Webshots does to the battery life, but I like seeing a slideshow of great nature photos for ten minutes now and then.  Having the outdoors as part of my indoor life is restful and contemplative.  People who come to my office at work often get mesmerized by my Webshot slideshows.  I’m used to visitors not looking at me when they are talking to me, but looking over my shoulder to my image gallery.  Some photos are dazzling.

I’ve set up Dell Mini netbooks that had higher resolution than the Toshiba, but the fonts are just too tiny.  1024 by 600 is a decent size, and the Toshiba’s desktop doesn’t looked squashed or stretched like I’ve seen on some netbook screen settings.  It’s a perfect little XP window.  I’ve very happy with the screen.

Keyboard and Track Pad

The keyboard is excellent for touch typing.  I like the island style keys, because the design does feel right.  Often on other keyboards I hit two keys at once, but not on this one.

The track pad also feels good, and has multi-touch features.  I keep doing something wrong though, with my fingering, because I keep causing the browser window go back a page.  That’s annoying, but probably my fault for unintentionally giving it the wrong command.

Plans for the Toshiba NB205 Netbook

I don’t want my little netbook to be a pint-size version of my desktop computer.  I want to find apps that take advantage of it’s size and on-the-go potential.  Take for instance Safari on the iPhone and iPod touch.  It’s very cool to have a browser that works so well on a 3.5” screen, but in reality I never use Safari to browse the web on my iPod touch.  But I don’t consider that a failure.  What Apple developers have done is bypass the browser with custom apps.

There are web pages that sense Safari on the iPhone and show a cut-down web page for better viewing.  And that’s great.  Instead I prefer a custom app for each task I routinely need.

For example, instead of using Safari to browse the web for movies and show times, I use an app called Now Playing.  It looks great on the 3.5” screen.  When I launch it, I’m shown a list of nearby theaters.  I pick one and I’m shown a list of movies playing at the theater with show times and Rotten Tomato ratings.  If I select a movie I’m given a paragraph about the movie and buttons to a video of the trailer, reviews and links to several web sites that offer more reviews.  I can even add the movie to my Netflix queue or send the movie times as an email.

In other words, several sites I’d normally browse to research going out to a movie, are combined into one app and formatted perfectly for the 3.5” screen.  What I want to find for the netbook is an app that does the same thing formatted for the 10” screen.  See the distinction.  Understand why I don’t want my netbook to be a tiny desktop?

Now I might have to get away from Windows to achieve this goal.  Jolicloud and Moblin are two alternative operating systems that make a  button menu system like on the iPhone for netbook computers.  But that’s just the start.  They also need to reformat the web applications so they are designed to be perfect on a 10” screen.  Right now they just call up desktop applications and browser applications for regular computers.

For example, most people who create magazines and newsletters to be distributed in acrobat reader, format them for 8.5 x 11 inch paper.  On rare occasions, I’v seen magazines formatted for acrobat to fit a full size computer screen.  This makes a stunning difference.  I wished I had a link to illustrate this.  iPhone apps are great because developers format for their screen.  Web apps on desktop computers often look odd because they were designed for the developer’s monitor and not yours.  How often have you gone to a web page with teeny tiny fonts and an extremely busy layout.  I bet it looks wonderful on the developer’s 24” Macintosh display.

I don’t know if developers will develop applications specific to 10” netbook displays, but I’m hoping.  Although I have Office 2007 running on my little machine, and it’s very usable, it’s not pleasurable to use.  Now I might be able to put Word in full screen mode and be happy, but I’d rather have a word processor designed for a 10” screen.

I did downloaded Microsoft Reader and eReader to see how they looked on the Toshiba.  They are okay for reading ebooks on the 10” screen, especially eReader, because that program can be configured for a two page layout that makes the screen look like I’m reading from an open book.  I’ll have to explore more later, especially my old account at Fictionwise.com.  I’ve been trying to find a comfortable and practical ebook reader for years and years.  I have to admit the Kindle was very close.

I’ll return to the subject of the NB205 in the future, as I find more applications and tasks suited for what I want.  It’s a very nice little mini laptop.  I’ll need to buy a purse or some kind of messenger bag to carry my netbook.  It can’t be an on-the-go computer if I don’t take it everywhere I go.

JWH – 7/4/9

Kindle DX versus Netbook as Textbook

The holy grail of ebook visionaries is the electronic textbook.  Textbooks are huge, heavy and expensive and some poor school kids carry more weight on their backs than soldiers on a march.  It’s as common to see backpack humps on college kids backs as seeing cell phones in their hands.  Ebook promoters see dollar signs whenever they spot one of those humpback students lugging around all that printed matter.

And those ebook promoters are right.  Why carry forty pounds of paper when you can carry 1 pound of electronics?  But is the Kindle DX the answer?  I don’t think so.  First, let me give you a little story.  Years ago, before audio books were even common on cassette tape, I took a two semester Shakespeare course.  We covered almost 20 plays, each tested with a very detailed 10 question quiz.  I remember how I faithfully read and studied the first play and was shocked when I only got six of the ten questions.  The professor had a pattern.  Half of the questions could be easily answered with a fair reading of the play.  One question was always about a very obscure detail that kept most people from getting a perfect 10, and the other four questions divided the class between those who really got into the play and those who didn’t.

I realized a quick reading the night before class wasn’t going to cut it, so I went to the library and got each play on LP.  They came in boxed sets of 3-4 discs.  The records were old and scratchy, but usable.  This was in the early 1980s.  I’d play the records while reading the play – it took hours.  After that I always got perfect 10s on those quizzes.  Now my magic retention rate only worked if I faithfully followed the words on the page while listening to the same words spoken.  Reading or listening by itself didn’t work.  Other than these two Shakespeare courses I never used this learning technique again in school.

However, when I started using my ears as my main sensory input for reading back in 2002, I started playing around, experimenting with each form of input.  I paid attention to what I noticed when just reading with my eyes.  Then I paid attention to what I noticed, just from listening with my ears.   I would then read something I had just listened to, or vice versa.  Each time I’d found details I had missed with the opposite method.  I discovered what the eyes learned was different from what the ears remembered.

One book I did this experiment on was Emma by Jane Austen, a book I was reading for a book club.  I listened for an hour.  Then I reread that hour with my eyes.  Listening was great for getting a sense of character and dramatic action, but it was poor on retaining words.  Austen immediately introduced too many characters – that made the story confusing.   Each character live in a house with a name, often set in a different village, with another name to remember, so I was overwhelmed by people and place names.  Seeing all those names in print helped clear up many issues. 

Again, I concluded that to study a piece of writing for academic purposes, I needed to see it with my eyes if I wanted to memorize words and spellings.  However, by listening, I experienced the nuances of conflict, characterization and plot better.  Hearing stories helped me to to imagine 3D action and settings.  I saw color and details better when I heard the words rather than read them. 

Listening, which is far slower than reading, forced me to concentrate on the subject, and that was especially reinforced when I watched the words while also listening to them.  Seeing a word and hearing it made me think about it’s pronunciation and spelling more than when I just read it with my eyes.  But listening alone is terrible for learning spelling.  There are many books I’ve only heard that I have no idea how to spell the character’s names. 

I think these observations are key to the success of future etextbooks.  Strangely enough, the Kindle now offers to read books to their owners, but they also allow Kindle users to play MP3 or Audible.com audio books while reading, although I think few people take advantage of this feature.  I sold my Kindle 1.0 to my friend who prefers to read with her eyes and loves to travel, but I do have the Kindle reader software on my iPod touch and do some reading with it.  However, iPods can’t multitask, so I have to play the audio book on my Zune and read it on the iPod touch.

From this one anecdote you might surmise that the Kindle DX will make a great etextbook, but I’m not so sure.  I found the e-ink technology clumsy for random reading, which is often what people do when they study.  Also, kids studying will be taking notes for writing papers or passing tests, so I think the future of etextbooks will be on netbooks, and those little devices are great at multitasking, allow reading and note taking and even cutting and pasting of quotes.

To really memorize details for a studied subject, I think you need to see it, hear it, and then write about it.  iPhones and Kindles don’t help here.  When I write this blog I keep a browser window open, with tabs to Google, Wikipedia and OneLook (a dictionary gateway site).

The computer literacy movement of the 1980s promised so much but delivered so damn little.  I’ve always wondered why programmers couldn’t write programs that taught math.  Kids will play video games for hours, games that mesmerize them into deep rapt attention, tricking them into learning a myriad of details from game play.  Teaching mathematics via interactive computer animation should be a no brainer, but most software that attempted the job came up with dull drills and tedious flash cards.  That doesn’t mean the concept of computer aided learning is a bust.  Anyone who has played with Mathematica should shout they’ve seen the light.

What’s needed is a synthesis of many learning techniques and technologies.  First, I think etextbooks won’t be ebooks.  That’s way too lame.  Etextbooks should combine video lectures, film clips, audio, computer CGI, and photos to go with old fashion black on white text, plus add tests, quizzes, puzzles, word problems, virtual worlds, games and any other interactive method to get kids to practice math.

If I had the money and resources to create etextbook on mathematics I would build my course around the history of math.  I’d take it from anthropological ancient history to theoretical here and now.  But I’d build it as a suite of components, usable on different platforms in different study environments.  So if the user only wanted voice, in iPod mode, they could spin through the centuries to find MP3 podcasts about the history of math.  If they were in a mood to play with their Nintendo DS, they could load up a mathematical game, or install a challenging game app on their iPhone.  If they were in the mood for a documentary, I’d let them stream video to their television sets.  Hell, I’d even offer to print puzzles for when they have to sit on the pot.

I’d also find some way to create a scoring system, especially one that could be tied to a Elo type rating system, like they use in chess, so students would feel challenged to compete.  It would be great if the American Mathematical Society had a way to rank people’s knowledge of the various Mathematics Subject Classifications.   Kids love video games because they enjoy beating friends with a specialized skill, and they also love competing against a computer too.  Traditional schooling is so boring and passive. Etextbooks need the challenge of competition, but it would be so tired if all they did was offer time competitions on who could finish solving ten equations first.

What if a Civilization type game required various mathematical skills to play, so if a student wanted to build a pyramid in the game he’d need to know geometry, or if she wanted her little Sims to sail across an ocean, she’d have to use celestial navigation to advance the game.

In other words, if publishers are only going to take the text from their printed books and put it in an ebook, that’s not going to work.  Even if the Kindle had full color and resolution to match the printed page, so a Kindle book could contain all the photos and illustrations of the real textbook, I still don’t think it will be equal to using paper volumes.  Modern textbooks are gorgeous compared to what I remember I had to use as a kid.  If I had the choice between 5 books, weighing 40 pounds, and 1 Kindle weighing less than a single pound, I’m afraid I’d shoulder the burden, because real textbooks are far easier to use, and much more spectacular to look at.  I kid you not.  If you haven’t seen a text in forty years, go find a kid and look at theirs.

When I owned my Kindle and subscribed to Time magazine, I found it easiest to read from page one to page last, and endure the time it took to page past articles I didn’t want to read.  There were navigation links, but between flipping back to the table of contents and to an article to see if I wanted to read it, it was just easier to stay in linear mode of page, page, page, page….

Etextbooks will only be better if they offer a variety of ways to study.  Ultimately, I don’t think individual etextbooks will be the answer.  I think students will subscribe to an online textbook service, and pay $4.99-$19.99 a month per course, and access a myriad of multimedia features, paying about the same as buying a textbook for a one semester course.

The old way to going to college involved scheduling a class with a professor and studying a book together in a room with other students for a few months.  Online instruction means studying on your own with a professor you might never meet who shepherds unseen students through a system of requirements.  Wouldn’t you prefer a textbook service that gave you podcasts to listen to at the gym or grocery store or while doing the dishes, and video lectures to watch before bedtime, and online games to play against your classmates, and ebooks to read on your iPhone at break at work.  Local college professors may stop lecturing, and end up becoming educational gurus who help their students find their way to enlightenment in the subjects they paid to master.

The textbook of the future will have to be very flexible.  I don’t even go to school, but I study all the time.  I just finished the audio book The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg about cosmology of the early universe just after the big bang.  I’m about to read the hardback and listen to the audio book of The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, which will go deeper into many documentaries I’ve been watching lately on The Science Channel and PBS, but I also want something more systematic, so I’m going to get a DVD set or two from The Teaching Company.  Their great DVD courses would be fantastic to keep on a netbook.

The more I study cosmology and physics, the more I feel the need to study mathematics.  I wish I could find something like the RosettaStone language courses to help me.  I also wish I had something that tested and rated my knowledge.  I don’t feel the need to go back to college and major in physics, but if an astronomical association offered online testing, with amateur rankings, I might be tempted by their challenge.  Our K-12 upbringing made most of us to hate learning, mainly because they made gaining knowledge all about passing crappy tests.  Video games are a form of test taking, a fun kind, that addict kids.

It’s a shame that most adults study new subjects like snacking on potato chips.  We constantly nibble on information but are never challenged to do anything with our empty data calories.  People will spend 60 hours a week playing online video games that require an amazing amount of study just to slay imaginary dragons or build pretend lives in Second Life.  Why not set up servers and let players build an historically accurate virtual Tudor England, so they could apply their hobby history scholarship to a challenge.  What if teachers told their students, “Your homework for this week is to create a virtual Mayflower, and show why the Puritans came to America.  Each of you must flesh out one historical character and show that person in twenty scenes from their life interacting with the characters your classmates create.  Please tell you’re parents they aren’t allowed to play this week.”

See why I think existing invention of the textbook shouldn’t be converted into a gadget that only displays electronic words and images on an electronic page because it’s lighter than a bulky book?  Modern textbooks are already bursting their bindings trying to become multimedia experiences.  E-ink would be a huge step backwards.  Go find a 2009 textbook, and flip through it.  What I’m saying will be obvious.  It will also be obvious that the weight of all the knowledge within that tome won’t be easily consumed by your darling rug rat.  Today’s kids chow down on HD video and 1080p Xbox games.  The Sirens of virtual worlds call to kids and the printed black letter on white paper, or gray e-ink, just won’t charm them.

JWH – 7/3/9   

Further Adventures with eReader on the iPod touch

For some reason I’m getting more hits on the iPod touch eReader eBook post than anything else I’ve written lately, so I must assume that the iPod touch and eReader are a hit combination.  Since I wrote that post, eReader has come out with version 1.2 that offers many nifty new features and they’re promising 1.3 real soon now.  Also, the eReader.com site, a spin-off from fictionwise.com, seems to be expanding daily, which implies another kind of success.  eReader software isn’t just for the iPod, there’s also versions for Palm, PocketPC, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Windows, Macintosh and OQO systems.

When the Kindle came out stories about it on the blogosphere were more common than stories about Sarah Palin today.  Using the iPod touch and iPhone for an ebook reader hasn’t garnered that much notice.  I prefer the larger screen of the Kindle, but never wanted to carry it around.  The touch/iPhone is designed to commute wherever you go, and wherever you go you can now read your book when you get there.  That’s pretty cool.

The screen of the touch/iPhone is better than PDAs and most other smart phones, so for a portable reading device it does very well in the visual department.  The screen is physically about one fourth to one third the size of a paperback book page, but the number of words varies because you have several font size settings.  Even though the screen is smaller than the Kindle, it’s brighter and sharper.  Overall though, the Kindle’s screen is much nicer to read from because of it’s perfect size.

Flipping pages is much nicer with eReader on the touch/iPhone than with the Kindle or the eBookman I used to have.  You can set eReader to swipe or tap for page turning.  I set mine to tap, so I just touch the right side of the screen to page forward, and the left to go back.  Having a touch screen greatly reduces the need for buttons.

My 1st generation touch has 2 buttons, and the newly released 2nd generation touch has three, adding a volume control and tiny speaker, something I wanted.  I’m quite anxious for another button though, an on/off switch for the Wi-Fi for the iPod touch.  The wireless system drains the battery fast.  My touch will drain in 1-2 days even doing nothing if the wireless is on.  I now have to go through several taps to turn the wireless on or off.  An even more sophisticated solution would be software that turned the wireless on when I sent a request out on the Internet and turned it off after a set period of time.

The iPod touch is about four times heavier than a Nano, and much bigger, so it’s more of an effort to carry around, but still just 4 ounces, or 120 grams.  It fits in my shirt pocket like the Nano, but its very noticeable there, whereas the Nano is unfelt.  I’ve started carrying my touch some, but I’ve got to admit I’d rather carry the Nano.  Whether I carry the touch all the time will depend if I get completely hooked on it.  99% of my use is for listening to audio books, so unless I start using the touch more, I might go back to my Nano.  I think I’ll need several months to grow into the iPod touch, to know if I regularly need all of its features.

The frequent low battery message is what keeps me switching back to the Nano.  I can get a lot more time if I shut off the Wi-Fi, but that’s annoying to keep up with.  Another way to improve battery life is shut off the screen.  This is only good for listening to music and audio books, but eReader does have a feature for showing white text on a black background.  I wonder if that saves energy.  The claimed battery life improvements in the 2nd Generation iPod touch makes me wished I had waited a month to buy a new iPod.  I certainly wouldn’t buy a 1st generation touch now unless it was very cheap.

One way to adapt to the touch’s battery weakness is to buy a cradle and leave it on it whenever I’m not using it, but with the battery supposedly only good for 400-500 full cycles of charging, would that be good for it?   The iPod touch loses it’s charge so fast when the Wi-Fi is on that I’m thinking mine is either defective or it has a serious flaw.  The Kindle, even with the broadband on lasts four or five days.

The iPod touch also does not seem as robust as the Nano.  Upgrading to iTunes 8.0 crashed it completely and I had to do a restore, which took a bit of fiddling to get done.  I kept wondering why the touch was always backing itself up, well now I’m glad it had.  The restore loaded my upgrades, settings, eReader books, and extra applications, but not my music and audio books.

I bought the iPod touch because I wanted walk-around access to the Internet.  I was also thinking of buying the Asus Eee PC for the same reason.  After a few weeks of ownership I’ve learned that I don’t actually need to access the Internet that often when I’m away from my work or home computer.  It is fun to play with the touch while reclining in my La-Z-Boy, but weirdly the best function I’ve found for those idle moments is cleaning out old email.  Browsing the web on the touch’s 3.5″ screen is the coolest I’ve seen on a small device, but it’s not any fun in practicality.  Good for emergency searches.

When it comes down to it, the real use I have for an iPod is audio books.  I spend hours and hours every week listening to audio books, and the Nano is far superior for that task.  The best thing I love about eReader is getting free classic books, but not to read.  When you listen to books you never know how many names and words are spelled.  Having the text on eReader makes a great supplement to audio books.  It’s not something I use often, but it’s very nice.

Audio books have ruined me for reading printed books, so when I do read with my eyes it’s mainly email, RSS feeds and the web pages.  That makes the touch good for email and RSS feeds if they are nearly all text.  HTML email is better read on a big screen.

The iPod touch is a novelty that I may or may not get addicted to carrying around.  Buying it made me glad I didn’t rush out and buy the iPhone.  I love the Internet as seen through my 22″ Samsung LCD.  But anyone who grew up carrying a Gameboy around will probably find the touch a fantastic device.

Jim