Technology: December 2009 Archives

Normally, when the subject of e-readers comes up in conversation, I point to the display as the main roadblock. Everything else in the design of the product is pretty well-understood and a lot cheaper than you expect. The key is how good the display is - not just in resolution and contrast but how it hits the battery.

Mike Banach of Plastic Logic demonstrating a prototype e-reader in late 2006

The one thing I normally leave out is how the books themselves get onto the e-reader, something that Kat Hannaford has (rightly) slammed at Gizmodo. However, none of these problems are technological: they are purely about the way in which the publishing industry works and what level of protection they will attempt to impose to maximise revenue and lock out competitors.

The display, which is the key component in an e-reader after all, is critical. How that technology evolves will determine how big the e-reader market, what the devices will look like and how they will behave. The first thing to get across is that the e-book market is not synonymous with the e-reader market. The success of the e-book market is, despite the draconian DRM measures publishers and distributors have imposed, assured. Give people a light, long-lasting, high-resolution display, they will read books on an electronic device.

Take the CrunchPad/JooJoo, for example. If you show someone a colour tablet, they will probably agree that it's something they'd happily sit on a couch reading – although they would be right to worry about eyestrain with today's displays. Tell them it costs $500, barely lasts a single evening on one charge and isn't very flexible, and their interest will quickly wane. They will make do with a laptop. They probably already have one and, although it's a bit heavier, the overall experience of web-surfing on one is about the same.

Protection racket

12 December 2009

The Nineteen Eighty-Four debacle, when Amazon thought it was a good idea to retrospectively delete a title from users' hardware, is just one illustration of the psychosis that overtakes corporations when they realise what they can do with DRM - and they couldn't have alighted on a better title. Why yes, you can absolutely do that. But what the technologists didn't underline to the suits was that it wasn't necessarily a good idea to do it.

Because of the DRM lock-up, the only e-reader I'd consider buying right now is the Irex Technologies device (although I'm not going to get one because this stuff just isn't ready yet). It's more expensive but it's not made by Sony and not tied to a single bookstore. The Plastic Logic e-reader is aimed at the same market: professional users who need to be able to download any PDF and not just stuff bought from an online bookstore. It's possible to get regular PDFs onto the consumer readers, but it involves a bit of work with software such as Calibre.

For a product that nobody wants, the JooJoo tablet launched yesterday by Fusion Garage has done pretty well. There cannot be many technology blogs and news outlets that have not given the video demonstration a once-over, if not a quick caress of the product itself, which is supposed to go on sale on Friday. But they did not come to praise it.

tegratab.jpg

One day, something that looks like a JooJoo will sell in its millions. Probably billions. But not today. Why? Because, frankly, the technology needed to make it workable just isn't ready yet.

When Fusion Garage says it cannot sell the JooJoo tablet for less than $500 I have little doubt the company is not joking. Whatever it is, it's the wrong price. Even at $200, the original CrunchPad was probably a bit on the expensive side for what was basically a web reader and nothing else. The cost is only one of its problems.

If you could make enough, then it should be possible to get a basic ARM-based processor module, WiFi and 12in display to retail for $200. But you need to be darn sure it will sell in the millions at the very least. That's the only way you can put together the custom chips and tooling for the case that lets a high-volume production slam these things out like plastic toys for Christmas.