Sony Reader Multi-Part Report Index

October 26, 2006

Part 1 – At Digital Life

Part 2 – At SonyStyle

Part 3 – My Personal Enthusiasm

Part 4 – Grokking the Sony Reader

Sony Reader: Part 4 (of 4)

October 26, 2006

Grokking the Sony Reader

As a prelude to my own epiphany about the Sony Reader — about why I think it is the “iPod of books” and Sony is the first one to do an ebook reader right — it’s necessary first to sample some of the comments that have been published thus far:

Ars Technica
[…] the main differences between [the Librié] and the [Sony Reader] look to be the increased memory capacity, a rechargable Lithium ion battery, an expanded list of supported formats, and the ability to play music.

Future of the Book
So, to sum up, the Sony Reader is really only intended for straight-ahead reading. Browsing, flipping and note-taking, which, if you ask me, are pretty important parts of reading a book, are disadvantaged.

Sub Ubi
The distinction here is that the Sony Reader is likely going to be a closed product; Sony has a horrible track record regarding their support for end-user modification. The iLiad, on the other hand, is based on the open-source operating system Linux. They are required by law to release much of the source code for the device, and they fully intend to. End-users will be able to write new software for the iLiad, and this is a Very Good Thing. The end result is that new and interesting software for the iLiad will be written for years to come, while the Sony Reader will only run software that Sony has written or deemed worthy to run on the device.

Wired News
But I love the feel, heft and smell of books, the tangible touch of the page, seeing their spines on the shelves.

Daily Telegraph
And yet, for all this, there is something depressing about the thought of an electronic book. What about the visceral pleasure of reading an old-fashioned paper one: smelling the thing, holding it, feeling its weight?

— and —

And what if people thought you were playing a computer game? Then you really would look dumb.

USA Today
You handle those turns with buttons to the left and bottom of the display. My natural tendency was to also try to flip pages by manipulating a nub to the bottom right of the screen, but that only frustrated me when I could not do so.

Time magazine
For instance, there’s no way to turn the page with your right hand. Owing to its origins in right-to-left-reading Japan, the two sets of page-turning buttons have been located on the left hand side; reflexively, readers of Roman script want to turn the page on the right. It takes some getting used to. Still, because there is a directional pad on the right, my guess is that this could be fixed with a simple software update.

Slate magazine
You can store books on it and read them. But that’s it. It doesn’t extend or amplify the capabilities of the book in any meaningful way.

* The unit could look slicker. If you compare the industrial design of the Reader with something like the Mylo, VAIO UMPC, or the PSP it almost doesnt look like it comes from the same company.

New York Times (David Pogue)
Sony has dreamed up some fairly baffling controls, too — not an easy feat on what should be a very simple machine. For example, the next/previous page buttons are at 2 and 8 o’clock on a dime-size desk. A circular control might make sense if it had buttons at all four points of the compass — but only two?

When I consider that some of these people had a Reader in their hands for several days, some of the above comments are just shocking in their (inadvertent) admission of not being able to grasp the obvious.

I’ll admit my ignorance too. When I first saw the Reader at Digital Life, I poked at it as if it was a PDA. I was “baffled” by the controls too. But in less than two hours (OK, so I’m a slow learner!) of fondling it at SonyStyle, I grokked it.

I asked: What is Sony trying to accomplish here? Why is this device so different than past ones? What is its function?

It all became clear.

1) It’s a book.
2) It’s for general readers.
3) It’s as simple as it needs to be and no less.

Getting into the head of Sony’s designers, they had to have started with these questions: How do people generally hold books? And what advantages can an electronic book offer to that audience?

When they found out, they designed for that.

Hold it like a book.

The two common ways of holding a book — with one hand — are:

1) To place the thumb in the groove of the open spine with the remaining fingers behind.

2) When possible, wrap the cover behind the book and hold it with thumb on the curve of the fold with the fingers behind. (Don’t look at me! I think this method is just barbaric!)

These two common positions are key to grokking the Reader.

The left-bottom button is where the left-hand thumb naturally falls. Twitch, page forward; twitch, page backward. So simple! (And the rocking motion is actually on a diagonal, not parallel to the Reader’s bottom, left/right.)

The two wee buttons arranged vertically on the left side are also where the thumb naturally falls when holding a book by its side. (Here I can quibble with the designers and wonder why they didn’t go for a rocker switch instead of the two wee circular buttons. But perhaps focus groups revealed these were preferred by testers. Or maybe engineering overruled it.)

When you have a Reader in hand, hold it like a book and the design falls into place.

People will also need to navigate through vertical menus, move back from links (footnotes, notes, index items), as well as make selections. This is why there’s a control on the far right bottom. This is the non-book-like part of the Reader. This joystick is 4-way, with push-in for select (hence, 5-way).

That joystick bugged me, however. I had to think deeply about why Sony’s designers chose that over, say, a roller (which was the preferred method in latter CLIEs). I’m pretty sure I’ve come to the correct conclusion about it: with that joystick, they’ve built-in the future.

Critics have mentioned the lack of Find in Reader 1.0. That joystick is what makes me confident Find is coming to a future firmware upgrade.

Consider the latest iPod: version 5.5. It now offers a Find function. It’s not pretty, but it works: Scroll through letters and numbers to build a search term.

I think that is what’s coming to Reader 1.5/2.0 too.

No, it won’t be pretty. No, it won’t be handwriting recognition. And no, it won’t be like quickly typing a search term on a keyboard. But it will be there and it will work and for the general audience of readers, it will be sufficient.

The eBook Advantage

Another aspect of Sony’s design choices is the advantage that an electronic book brings. The key is this: only one page is necessary.

Think about that.

I’ve seen ebook reader designs with twin screens that fold out like a conventional book. That’s just wasteful. Screens are (still) expensive (especially E Ink!). Twin screens also require more electricity. And they add bulk and weight.

And what if just one of the screens break?

Well, then you’d be left with the simplest — and most elegant — design possible: the Sony Reader.

It’s a book that is made to be read using just one hand.

As for the critics yearning for paper: Until I saw the Sony Reader, I was like that too. In Part 3 I recounted my experiences with ebooks. I still read books primarily on paper — but, in the past ten years or so, it’s become very rare for the me to actually buy a paper book — specifically for the very reasons stated by the pro-paper critics: bulk and weight.

I don’t know about anybody else — especially the critics — but from time to time, I’ve had to move house. Packing books is not fun. Having to carry boxed books is just hell. Unpacking is fun, but it’s a joy I’ll sacrifice!

I’ll also sacrifice the pleasure of looking at a wall full of bookcases. I’ll swap that fleeting egocentric pleasure for knowing that, in a disaster (Southern California seasonal wildfire, earthquake, terror attack, another Katrina), I can just grab a handful of DVDs that contain my entire library. Or, even better, know that I can simply re-download them later!

So, there are good, valid reasons for the Sony Reader being the way it is. Personally, I think it’s a brilliant — if not ingenious — design.

As for past efforts? The Librié was a “book” designed by engineers. It, deservedly, flopped. The iLiad is, in my opinion, a deformity, with hardly anything in common with a book. And the leaked Kindle from amazon is only slightly less a monstrosity than the Librie.

Of all entrants, past and present, into the ebook fray, only Sony has started from the point of view of a book and designed from there.

This is why I believe it is the “iPod of books” and why, despite the confusion and prejudices of the critics, five years from now it will be seen around even more widely than the five-years-old iPod is seen now.