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The eBook eVolution

Let’s talk about eBook readers. I’m sure you’ve seen one by now. Rectangular pieces of plastic capable of storing thousands of books to be read anytime, anywhere. Now equipped with screens employing the latest “electronic ink” technology that mimics the lighting qualities of real paper, they are fast supplanting the "traditional" portable media player as the tech to talk about. 

 
Digitization is an unavoidable result of our ballooning integration of computer technology in our everyday lives. If information of any kind is capable of being converted to an electronic format, it will be. All forms of entertainment are, I hate to say “falling prey to,” but maybe "giving in" to what seems like the now almost natural inevitability of computerization.  
 
And it’s happening fast. 
 
I mean, really, really fast. 
 
In the late nineties and this entire decade, it was music in the form of MP3s and the accompanying iPod or other similar players. In the middle of the decade we witnessed an explosion in online streaming and downloadable video which brought about a new round of hardware capable of letting us watch '24' and 'House' anywhere we like. And now, as much as the librarian in me cringes at the thought, books are going digital as well. 
  
People’s reactions are mixed. eBooks are loved, loathed, looked upon with trepidation, and, as all technologies rising to dominance tend to do, raising more than a little ruckus. And I do believe with very few doubts that in time they will come to dominate the popular book publishing industry, leaving behind them the rubble of former retail and printing powerhouses. 
 
eBook readers have been around for a while now.  However, it was Sony’s introduction of the electronic ink technology in its 2006 Sony Reader that piqued many people’s curiosity, as its display was far easier to view for prolonged periods than the traditional LCD screens found in earlier eBook readers. In 2007, Amazon released its own eBook reader, the Kindle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon_Kindle). The Kindle sported the same electronic ink technology as Sony, while including a free cellular data connection and built-in bookstore, enabling people to purchase and download books instantly no matter where they are. A software version of the Kindle was released later for the iPhone and iPod Touch, enabling those users to read Kindle books without purchasing Amazon’s hardware; a version of this software is also coming soon to touch-enabled Windows 7 computers.  
 
Things seem to have taken off from there. Barnes and Noble now has a sizeable eBook store with software for your PC, Mac, Blackberry or iPhone and  has just released their own portable eBook reader, the nook (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnes_%26_Noble_nook).  Companies like LG and Samsung have also announced their intentions to roll out eBook hardware.  And though Google has traditionally stuck to producing software, it wouldn't surprise me to see them release a reader of their own to accompany their flourishing Google Books site. This surge in the popularity of the technology is exciting, as the competition between manufacturers inevitably leads to innovation and evolution of the hardware. 
 
The bad thing, however, is, as always with downloadable media, digital rights management, DRM, or as you might also know it, copy protection. 
 
You know what the great thing about pulped-and-printed books is? You can just pick them up and read them!  Really!  Even at the bookstore before you buy them! There is no barrier to entry beyond knowing how to read.  You’ll never have to worry about going to the bookstore and finding that their text is incompatible with your eyeballs. And when you’re done with the book, you can keep it, secure in the knowledge that the technology to read it will not have changed to the point that the text is no longer accessible.  You can even sell it to a used bookstore, donate it to your library, or give it to a friend!
 
eBooks purchased from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other e-retailers, on the other hand, are locked down with copy protection so that only the person who bought the book can read it.  Amazon requires you to register your Kindle or iPhone/iPod Touch on their site so that the book is delivered only to those devices associated with your account; Barnes and Noble requires you to input the credit card number associated with your account before downloaded books will unlock on the device you wish to read them with. 
 
Of course there are a large number of free (and legal) eBook sites available on the Internet: 
You won’t run across the latest Dan Brown or James Patterson on these sites, but they do offer quality titles for those willing to browse their massive virtual shelves. The only problem with these books is the number of formats in which they are available. A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for eBook formats (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_e-book_formats) should be enough to illustrate that eBooks are a long way off from being as easy to read as their physical progenitors.
 
All these issues are just growing pains, however. Despite all of my misgivings, I have a strong sense that eBooks are the future of reading, or perhaps just the popular book market. eBook formats need to be consolidated and digital protections unified (or, more ideally for the consumer, eliminated completely) so that all eBooks, no matter where they are purchased, can be read on any device. After all, DVDs can be purchased and played on thousands of different devices without having to worry about compatibility; it is absolutely ridiculous that the same ease of use is not available for a simple book.
 
As a librarian, I have a certain intrinsic love for the printed page.  I still scoff at the notion of a completely paperless society and I don’t think paper books will ever go away entirely (he said, eyes slanted toward certain boarding school headmasters: http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6695214.html). They had better not – our lives are based around written communication and scary though the thought is, the infrastructure may not always exist to power our digital dependency and the massive, ubiquitous storage of information it now houses.
 
But I also enjoy the iPod touch I carry around with eBooks from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Project Gutenberg.  Having a small portable device I can carry anywhere and use to read practically anything is really quite delightful and always makes me think of "The World of Tomorrow" type technologies I was promised as a child would be here by the 21st century.  
 
So.  Where's my flying car?