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Why I Won't Buy an E-book Reader -- and When I Might

13 January 2010

There have been many news stories lately about ebook readers. The New York Times said that they were prominently featured at the Consumer Electronics Show. Amazon is pushing its Kindle; Barnes and Noble has its Nook. There are many other aspirants, either on the market now or waiting in the wings. For now, though, I'm sitting on the sidelines.

Many of my objections are familiar. Some readers, like the Kindle, use proprietary formats. The Kindle and the Nook are optimized for buying books from a single vendor — bye bye, competition, and if the vendor decides that the product is obsolete or the company folds, I'm left with not just another electronic paperweight, I may also lose access to my books. Speaking of which — could Amazon possibly have found a less-apt target for retroactively not selling something than George Orwell's 1984? You can't make up stuff like that!

The issue of vendor control is a very deep and troubling one. Avi Rubin has pointed out that Amazon decides when or if they're going to update the software on Kindles; this is, to say the least, suboptimal. If you buy a product because it has certain features and the vendor later removes those features, have they violated your rights? To be sure, their lawyer probably stuck some clauses in the shrink-wrap license, but you almost certainly didn't read it...

Then there are format issues. Amazon has their own, proprietary format, which is part of the whole vendor lock-in. I can't give away or lend books the way I can with physical objects, save for the very restricted lending with the Nook. Even then, you can only lend the book to another Barnes and Noble customer. Yes, I understand the publishers' and vendors' motives for imposing such restrictions. They have their own needs and goals, some of them very legitimate. That said, my goal is to optimize for my own interests, not theirs; often, though, theirs and mine conflict, and for now my interests are better served by dead tree editions.

Beyond that, I spend far too much of my life on airplanes. I can read a physical book when the plane is below 10,000 feet; I'm not allowed to use an electronic devices. Yes, it would be nice to cut my carry weight for books on long trips, but even that doesn't quite tempt me.

Given all that, why am I still mulling the idea? I have a lot of books. Strike that — I have a LOT of books. I don't know how many, even approximately; I do know that they occupy at least 170 linear feet (more than 50 meters) of shelf space. And that's just my books; the family is considerably larger. I want an ebook reader that not only lets me buy new books, but gives me access to my old ones.

I certainly don't want to repurchase all of my old books. In an intellectual property sense, I shouldn't have to; after all, I've already paid the "license" fee for the copyrighted content. Right now, I just want to upgrade the medium. Besides, some of the books are quite old, when they were much cheaper they would be if purchased today: the book in my backpack right now for reading on the train to and from Manhattan cost me $1.50 when it was new, more than 40 years ago. Still, I don't see an economic model; there's not that large or lucrative a resale market for them, and almost certainly not enough to pay for new, digital editions, even assuming that they're now in print electronically. Still, that's what I really want.

I strongly suspect I'm not the only one in this position. People who read lots of books are the natural market for high-priced ebook readers. The first vendor to solve the library problem will probably win a lot of sales, all of the other issues notwithstanding.

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