when and whence the e book

Being a frequent long-distance traveller with a low boredom threshold, I have long had a hand-luggage problem that modern technology has only begun to address. As few as five years ago, the weight my carry-on satchel (usually a laptop carrying case minus

Being a frequent long-distance traveller with a low boredom threshold, I have long had a hand-luggage problem that modern technology has only begun to address.

As few as five years ago, the weight my carry-on satchel (usually a laptop carrying case minus the computer) would rival that of my suitcase.

I would typically have my digital camera; my portable CD player and battery-powered micro speakers; eight or 10 music CDs; a Palm Pilot for keeping track of important phone numbers; a notebook and pen for keeping track of any ideas or observations in that struck me in the course of the flight; a couple of magazines and at least two, usually three or four books.

(My checked-in luggage would typically also hold maybe a dozen more CDs, and maybe two or three more books, to replenish my carry-on supply for the return trip.)

These days, my iPod Touch, with a small, battery-powered docking station that comes with speakers, has put paid to the bulk and weight of my musical needs.

It has also replaced the Palm Pilot and the notebook as the medium by which I keep track of phone numbers, and write down notes and observations.

What it has not replaced – and, on the evidence I have seen so far, is not likely to replace – is my obsessive travelling book hoard.

Though I am both a bookworm and a techno-nerd, I have not, to date, made much use of electronic books (usually called e-books).

In the old days, I tried downloading digital copies of books onto my Palm Pilot, but I found the business of reading on the Palm IIIc distracting and unsatisfying.

There was simply too much eyestrain involved in staring at such small, indistinct text for long periods of time; and the need for continual, picky physical hand movement to scroll the text through a small display space played havoc with my ability to concentrate.

On top of all that, e-books came (and still come) in a host of often incompatible formats – TomeRaider, FictionBook, Plucker, and a host of others – that required you to clutter your Palm Pilot a number of different reader applications, none of them very space consuming, but none of them particularly good, either.

A year or so ago, I did some product research on Sony’s purpose-specific book reading device, the PRS 505, but decided against it.

Though it was attractive in terms of size and weight (about seven by five inches, about 10 ounces), and featured attractive-looking e-paper technology, there were too many drawbacks.

First, there was the price barrier: Investing $300 in a device that is really only useful for reading text seemed pretty steep, particularly considering the product’s other problems.

Problem One: It was primarily designed to display books digitized in Sony’s own, proprietary Broadband eBook (BBeB) format – books which you could buy and download from its Sony Connect e-book store, at prices ranging from 99 cents to $11.99, or higher.

A quick look at what was on offer at that site (it’s updated version on the web is at ebookstore.sony.com) showed that it did not have a particularly interesting collection, at least for my needs.

Problem Two: It required you to download a proprietary piece of software onto your computer, and that software was not supported on Mac OS X or Linux platforms.

Problem Three: It would display e-books in formats other than BBeB, but had a particular, documented problem with letter-sized PDF files (your basic 8.5 by 11-inch page size), which it could deal with only by shrinking the page down to a point where, unless it was printed in a child-sized font, it became unreadable.

The new Sony PRS-700, due to ship before the end of this month, apparently addresses a few of these problems, but, at US$400, compounds the problem of price, and adds a few new ones, like a very glossy, light-reflective display.

If I lived in the USA, and had access to Sprint’s Wi-Fi service, I could find an attractive alternative to the Sony product in Amazon.com’s freshly released Kindle2 e-book reader.

At $359 US, it is a bit cheaper than the Sony PRS-700, and, though it too uses a proprietary encoding format (AZW), it offers a much richer selection of titles for download at comparable pricing.

Basically a Wi-Fi device, the Kindle2 does not need any software downloads to operate – in fact, it doesn’t need you to use a computer at all, since all book downloads are handled by Sprint’s broadband wireless network.

The downside is, I don’t live in the USA – the only place the service is offered, right now – and the Yukon is hardly likely to ever have access to Sprint’s broadband wireless network.

The sole other large-scale e-book reader available is Google’s online Google Book Search service (books.google.com), which allows you, if you have a working internet connection, to view (not download) books in its large, but eccentric and unpredictable, stash of scanned books.

While this service works quite well on my iPod’s little web browser, and could come in useful if I am bored in a hotel room that has wireless high-speed access, it does not do much for me when I am on a 10-hour flight thousands of feet in the air.

On my next long trip, then (which is coming up very shortly, actually, as I set off on another 22-hour junket to Brazil), I will be loading up with old-fashioned, heavy, dead-tree technology to while away the hours when I’m not listening to music or watching some dumbed-down piece of Hollywood claptrap of an in-flight movie.

It’s a tough life, being an itinerant bookworm, even in this technological day and age.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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