Waiting for Godot—On My PDA

In a posting about two weeks ago, I mentioned that my daughter recommended Of Human Bondage. At this point, both of us have finished reading, and tough as it was to bear with the protagonist through it all, the book was well worth the time. Elements still come to mind at odd moments, shaping the way I perceive human behavior and civilization.

All that aside, one of the more unexpected revelations from my conversation with her was the discovery that she often reads books on her cell phone. A part of me is cheering even now to write that. Here’s why.

About eleven years ago, Write Source gave me an assignment to investigate what the future of text looked like. They even shipped me off to a brand-new convention called “eBook World” that year in New York, where I saw numerous experiments in ebook delivery: a PDF novel displayed on a Sony Picturebook (held sideways like a hardback), Franklin’s eBookMan, NuvoMedia’s RocketBook, and many others. Excitement at the show was high, but none of these devices really had the potential to compete with books. The PictureBook’s battery life was too low, and the machine was hampered by Windows ME. The eBookMan had a lot of handy features, but its screen had visibility issues in sunlight and a horrible speaker for its audiobook feature. The PictureBook was just too heavy to carry around or to hold up long while reading. Ultimately, none of these became a success, because none passed the usability test.

For a while after that, I experimented with desktop computer reading versus PDA reading. Amazon.com was trying out Adobe and Microsoft etexts, but again, neither of those software giants delivered anything very usable. Both were overly restrictive about digital rights management, and both wanted too much cash for an ebook. At the same time, neither worked very well on a small screen. In Adobe’s case, it was partly because their PDFs didn’t reflow well; but etexts by both companies were also memory intensive. So if you wanted to read an ebook provided by Adobe or Microsoft, you pretty much had to do so at your desktop (laptops were nowhere near as common back then), which is sort of like trying to read a physical book that has been chained to a desk.

Fortunately, there were plenty of smaller companies springing up with reader software that worked well on PDAs. Palm had purchased the admirable PeanutPress application, but I was even more impressed by a French company’s Mobipocket application because it worked on both Palm and PocketPC/WinCE devices. Happily, these applications made ebook installation, reading, and even bookmarking quick and easy—a true pleasure. (Eventually, by the way, Amazon.com acquired Mobipocket and coordinated the Kindle reader software with it.)

Over the years, I’ve read books on devices as small as a business card (the REX6000, which is basically just a PCMCIA card with a screen built in)—but mostly on my Ipaq 1910/1940. I’ve settled on the latter because it easily fits in my shirt pocket or jeans pocket and also coordinates with MS Word, Outlook, IE, and so on, allowing me to work while traveling. (This PDA even has a built-in voice recorder, and a media player on which I’ve watched recorded Buffy episodes and numerous PBS specials.)

What I’ve discovered is that—once you get past a person’s initial resistance (”But it’s not a book unless it’s on paper!”)—convenience convinces. Reading Heart of Darkness a paragraph per screen on that REX6000 was just as engrossing as in paperback format, and much more handy! Even better, knowing that as soon as I finished that book, House of the Seven Gables was right there waiting—not back at home on a bookshelf—increased the sense of convenience. Frankly, the thought of going anywhere without fifty to a hundred books in my pocket now is depressing. In effect, a portable device packed with ebooks is equivalent to an MP3 player packed with music.

My one remaining gripe about ebooks, however, is that they’re not transferrable the way paper books are. Given that fact—and the cheaper production costs—they ought to always be less expensive. Sadly, the big publishers and the software giants like Microsoft and Adobe still overprice them. But I’m confident that Kindle’s pricing structure will eventually make these corporations see reason, the way iTunes has with the music industry.

In the meantime, of course, there is an amazing amount of free content on the Web, especially if you’re looking for classic literature. Just type “free ebook” into a search engine and see what I mean. (For example, the Baen Free Library has about eighty free sci-fi and fantasy titles.) Or visit Gutenberg.org and download a book as a text file. Better yet, put Mobipocket’s free ebook reader on your PDA or smartphone, install their ebook creator on your desktop, download an HTML book from Gutenberg, and run it through the Mobipocket creator to make a text you can even bookmark on your portable device. Or just sign up for a chapter a day program by email, and read books on your smartphone.

Which brings me back to my daughter. She’s not the technophile I am, but like most people of her generation, her primary phone is a cell phone, and she’s comfortable using its features. Sometimes she finds herself with time on her hands, and a book or two in her cell phone. She reads and is happy—even without paper pages to turn.

—Les

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