Pricey e-book reader gives customers no reason to buy

The high-tech office column
First published in Business in Vancouver, Issue #610, July 3, 2001


Last week, we looked at Adobe's updated Acrobat, a tool for making electronic versions of your documents. Adobe Acrobat PDF files can be found all over the Internet and on CD-ROMs, and are viewable on nearly every personal computer and even on Palm and Visor handhelds.

But for casual reading, toting around a notebook computer and waiting for it to boot up is too much, while the tiny screen of a Palm or Pocket Windows handheld is too little.

RCA/Thompson is betting that there's a market for something in between: a paperback-sized e-book reader that powers on instantly. The company recently released a pair of second-generation gadgets, aimed squarely at the huge consumer electronics market. They kindly loaned me one of each.

The smaller, cheaper (about $500) monochrome REB1100, about the size of a standard paperback novel, looks like an oversized Palm. Shipped in a leatherette case, it sports a USB jack to connect to your computer and a phone jack to connect directly to the Internet to purchase and download books and periodicals.

The colour REB1200 is larger, more like a trade paperback and much more attractive, as befits its $1,000 price. It's got a leather-like cover and turns on and off simply by opening or closing the cover. It lacks the computer-connection of its lower-priced sibling, but doesn't need it. Instead, it comes with both a phone jack and a network connector. Either way, it uses the Internet to connect to the Gemstar e-book site. Using the phone line, it first checks for a toll-free number for your dialing area; alternatively, you can set it to use your Internet service provider.

The Internet connection is almost totally transparent, ideal for someone who just wants to find something to read and doesn't want to be bothered with the details.

The 8.2-inch, colour screen is bright enough to read in the dark and it's easy to navigate through your book. The book automatically opens to where you stopped reading. Readers can set electronic bookmarks, highlight text and even add notes in the margins. Unlike a real book, it's easy to remove your highlighting and notes.

Unfortunately, the screen resolution, like a computer screen, makes for somewhat coarse text quality; even low-quality newsprint is a better-quality read. Other than that, the unit is a nicely implemented piece of hardware. The rechargeable battery is good for about seven hours at a shot, while downloaded reading material is stored on readily available Compact Flash cards. The eight-MB card that comes with the unit holds about 5,000 pages of content, which can be erased after you're through reading it.

As well-done as the hardware is, the business model doesn't make sense to me. You're limited to getting reading material from Gemstar. While it offers downloads from several mass-market publishers such as Random House and Penguin, along with newspaper content such as the Wall Street Journal and sections of the New York Times, there doesn't seem to be any way to access the other free or low-cost content available online. And with e-books on Gemstar costing about as much as real books, there's little financial motivation to download them.

I simply can't imagine too many consumers paying $500 or $1,000 for an e-book reader and then going on to pay $30 or so to read a best-seller.

There is a potential market for these devices. Engineers, technicians and service people who need to travel around with a bulky set of technical reference books could benefit by reducing that bulk to electronic form and could justify the costs of both the reader and the e-versions of their texts. But you won't find that sort of material on the Gemstar site.

Nice devices, but not at those prices. Sorry.

Late flash (March 8 2002): Reader Jeffrey Kraus comments:

"I agree that not being able to load your own documents is not a good feature.

But it is possible to convert and load user documents using the compact flash card. More details including a program that does this conversion is available at my web site:".

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan