Sony e-books going wireless

It’s the end of my first two weeks here at the University of Leicester as the new Learning Technologist on the OTTER and DUCKLING projects (I’m either a DOTTER or an OTTLING, whichever takes your fancy). It’s been a busy two weeks with plenty of information to take in but combined with lots of friendly faces and a nice, relaxed working atmosphere to help settle the first day nerves.

While I’ve been having plenty of meetings and discussions about both projects I’ve mainly been working on DUCKLING, specifically the creation of e-books for the Sony Reader.

I’ve written in more detail about the process that I’ve used for this on the DUCKLING blog. Before being appointed to this post I had limited dealings with e-readers; I’d used e-books but had read these on my computer and not found them a replacement for other online information such as tutorials.

So I came to the Sony Reader fresh and without any previous opinions on the hardware, or indeed really on the e-book software.

Getting the opportunity to get my hands on any new technology and play with it is always good. So being able to use the Sony Reader 505 and read through and add books to it was a novel experience (pun intended I’m afraid!). I’m always looking to improve my skills and am looking to focus on my web development skills in the future.

The ability to access books or tutorials converted to e-book formats would be incredibly useful while sitting at the computer using things like Dreamweaver as I can refer to the screen and at the same time refer to multiple e-books rather than having to either switch between screens or switch between books.

I can see how something like this would be an advantage also to someone writing a dissertation or a thesis as they can, in essence, have a mini-library at their finger tips. Although being someone who enjoys reading in the bath, I’m not a 100% sure how effective e-readers would be at this and I haven’t come across any waterproof ones, yet.

Reading the Metro on the train into work this morning I came across an article about Sony Readers. Sony is just about to launch their first wireless electronic reader which also includes a touch screen and the ability to store up to 1,000 novels. In the article, Steve Haber, a Sony president, said the e-book market was expanding rapidly, ‘Momentum is building tremendously. It’s just a matter of time.’

With 400,000 of the previous non-wireless e-readers sold since January the market does appear to be growing, the article also mentions the Amazon Kindle which is also popular but with the company not providing figures it is hard to say the exact level of growth and also to see the sales war.

I was interested to see this article for a number of reasons, partly to see something that is in an emerging market being talked about relatively prominently in a free paper. Also Seeing the evolution of e-readers and how this will impact on education, both with the learners and providers.

Finally thinking about whether these developments change the purpose of e-readers. The reason I say this is because e-readers are to an extent self-explanatory: their purpose is for reading. To me the idea of wireless connection and a touch screen move slightly away from just reading, whether this is a good or bad thing depends on your own purpose for using an e-reader and how the product targets and addresses that purpose.

Coming from a web design and development background I’m also interested to see how things such as CSS, JavaScript and even Flash could be utilised by this kind of technology. CSS can already be used in the process of converting files to an e-book format, so it will be intriguing to see how far styles can be applied and again whether they change or affect the purpose of an e-reader.

With mobile technology, specifically mobile phones, design-heavy websites have been replaced with content-lead websites, but applications for these phones combine content with design and with e-books being able to be read on an iPhone and iTouch (see for a more detailed overview), it will be interesting to see whether the e-reader gets seduced into branching out into related but different areas and how successful this will be.

Personally I would like to see the e-reader branch out, as depending on what I’m doing I will be doing other things while reading: if I’m reading for pleasure I tend to listen to music at the same time; and if I’m reading for study then I’ll tend to be on the computer.

So to further move to these things would attract me to an e-reader. It also makes me wish I could predict the development and then try and tap into it, as I feel that there is an emerging market of e-reader support, development and add-ons waiting to break through.

Emma Davies

Learning Technologist

E-books: It’s All About Timing

When I was a child, I remember skateboards arriving on my street in the mid 1970s as the latest fad. Some kids could ride them, most couldn’t (I didn’t even get close). Then skateboards seemed to fade for a decade or so, only to re-emerge in a much, much bigger way in the early 1990s with – I think – the West Coast surf/mountain bike/ showboard/grunge culture.

I may have got this cultural sequence and referencing wrong, but the point is, as with many things in life, the timing appears to be crucial. It’s the same with e-books.

Nine or ten years ago, Glassbook, MS Reader, Rocket E-book and many others were battling it out for universal acceptance. Poor revenue models (does anyone remember Steven King’s ‘just-leave-a-buck’ system?), a lack of useful content (out-of-copyright material is out of copyright – i.e. free – for a reason, but hats off to the excellent Project Gutenberg nevertheless), the unwillingness of publishers to do anything other than dabble and the dotcom crash all ensured e-books remained peripheral.

But now they’re back. But why will it be different this time around, especially in higher education? I would say that there are at least five good reasons.

First, the largest global online bookseller (see Amazon’s Kindle) and the one of the largest technological manufacturers (see Sony’s Reader) are now key players. Publishers will trust both of these companies. Second, there is an acceptance that all traditional media companies (music, news, publishing) have to produce new revenue models not based on rigid digital rights management (DRM). Third, the increasing willingness (albeit tentative at the moment) of academic publishers to release useful material in digital form. Fourth, the public realisation that the emergence of the e-book in no way signals the death of the printed book. (How can it? The paperback surely is an example, in design terms, of the perfect combination of form and function.) And finally, the technological developments in educational infrastructure and the changing expectations of students.

So what does this mean for the future? Well, I genuinely believe that we are not far away from a situation where a student on a wireless-enabled campus at the end of a lecture is able to connect to that university’s Amazon storefront, check his or her credit balance, buy and download the chapter, section or pages recommended by the lecturer (not the whole book, mind), and then read, annotate and bookmark this in the coffee shop five minutes later. That student may even click on the hyperlinked references in the text’s bibliography and purchase additional ‘knowledge chunks’.

In effect, rather than buying several large printed textbooks, many of whose chapters will never be consulted, a student, during his or her degree, will construct a bought library of many of these high-quality knowledge chunks, each of which is highly specific to the course of study.

The hardware – whether a bespoke device, iPhone or netbook – is fun but, despite the whiz/wow factor, really not that important. Neither is the format of the material (PDF or HTML/XML), although I prefer the latter as it  is far more powerful and long lasting.

But connectivity, mobility and, most crucially of all, content are absolutely key. Excellent standards in the first two are already with us; for the third, it’s time for the academic publishers to climb back on their skateboards. They may tumble once or twice, but they really cannot afford to miss this potential market, DRM or not. In our world of VLEs and PLEs, the gains will be enormous.

Simon Kear

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