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Ebooks are here to stay, but how will you read them?

As sales suggest, dedicated reading devices–Kindles, Nooks, etc–have begun to meet the expectations of leisure readers and business travelers. (Those expectations have been changing as well, after the socialization represented by a quarter-century of reading on screen.)

Providing fast, inexpensive and even free access to many titles, portability, adjustable type, searchable text, and a growing list of other functions, these devices meet many readers’ needs on both airplanes and nightstands.

But these dedicated devices just aren’t ready for the prime time of academic and professional use. Limitations and glitches in their annotation functions, difficulties with copying text, and even the need to mimic the paperback book experience present real issues for the scholar, student, lawyer and engineer.

Also, rather than remedy these defects: the teams developing next generations of these devices are focussed on other issues–larger screens, color display, the ability to do email, surf the web and upload other documents and media.

Where are these devices going? It seems pretty clear. Larger, a touch heavier, more functional–their competition is driving them all in the direction of becoming netbooks, the lower end of which retail in the same $200 to $300 price range that the dedicated devices are getting, but which already offer tons more functionality.

Which raises a pretty good question.

Why not just buy a netbook?

Both Amazon and Barnes and Noble offer free downloadable e-reader software that gets you access to their e-book lines, generally much lower than paperback retail. Many titles aren’t available in both–Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture isn’t offered at Barnes and Noble, for example, but Amazon doesn’t begin to match their rival’s huge line of free classic texts (all of Emile Zola!).

With the netbook you just download both free e-readers and access both lines for the price of one piece of hardware.

These e-reader programs have all the defects of the dedicated readers with respect to annotation and copying, but you can have another program running for notes (and a better keyboard).

Even for night-table reading, I find the netbook e-reader a wonderful experience: no need to disturb anyone else with a light, and supreme choice even after putting your son back to bed at 3 am. Advanced into your bifocal years? No problem–just boost that type size. Are you a speed reader? It’s easy to narrow the width of the page to accommodate those who take big gulps of text at at time.  A $300 netbook has brilliantly backlit screens and lasts nine hours on one charge.

I’m not diminishing the achievements of the codex as a technology, or the marvelous production & distribution associated with these intricate arrangements of wood pulp and chemical ink. I’ve built more bookshelves than most of my colleagues in the humanities and have never sold a book–not one!– or given one away without replacing the title. I have both e-copies and paper copies of certain books, and use the paper for the heavy-annotation work.

But if you are going to tote around a bunch of media in electronic form for professional and leisure use–and you’d prefer just one or two devices, the netbook seems a smarter addition to your phone than the Kindle or its cousins.

Another thing: academic and professional reading increasingly doesn’t need to emulate the codex experience with hypertext and embedded multimedia. The netbook works for that; Kindle doesn’t.

Of course, pretty soon the Kindle will be a brand of netbook, and this will be a moot point.

Just as with paper, the future of electronic reading will offer many options. The one I’d say is potentially the most interesting and promising of all–Plastic Logic’s one-pound, 8 1/2×11 Que, is based on a technology that could lead to computers as light and flexible as a plastic file folder.

Scheduled to ship this spring, this product is clearly at least a couple of years away from serious implementation–offers to review it didn’t get a response, even of the “we’ll get back to you in a month” variety (which tells you what kind of customer service you can expect when your piece of plastic forgets your business docs!).



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