Building a Better E-Reader: A Developer's Daydream

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Despite several well-intentioned attempts, the tablet PC has never caught on with consumers. So why were tablets and tablet-like devices all the rage at this year's CES conference in Las Vegas? And why does the rumor that Apple plans to announce a tablet device later this month have bloggers and the media whipped to near frenzy?

While past attempts to spark interest in tablets have failed, there's reason to believe it might work this time. The new devices are cheaper, lighter, and more power-efficient, and they have better screens. More important, this time they're not meant to replace traditional laptops. Instead, the new tablets will be marketed as portable media devices, with a particular eye to a relatively new application for consumer electronics: reading books.

Doubtless many customers will always prefer the comfort and familiarity of their local bookstore. Still, there are signs that e-readers could be the breakthrough tech product of 2010. According to, its Kindle e-reader was a runaway success over the 2009 holiday season; on Christmas Day the online retailer actually sold more e-books than paper ones. And orders of Barnes & Noble's Nook are now backlogged into February.

E-Readers Fall Short for Developers

Even if e-readers don't catch on with mainstream book buyers, the devices seem all but tailor-made for specialized audiences. To students, for example, the prospect of trading backpacks full of heavy textbooks for a single, lightweight device must be tantalizing. And what about software developers? Every programmer I know keeps stacks of technical material close to hand, all of which could benefit from portability and improved navigation.

Unfortunately, however, my own attempts to use e-readers with developer documentation and other technical fare have been disappointing. While current devices work well for novels and general nonfiction, working with reference material was an exercise in frustration. Slow performance, clunky UIs, formatting problems, and missing features quickly had me longing for the old stack of dead trees.

If Apple or another vendor could work just a few more upgrades into the next generation of e-readers, it could have a real hit on its hands. So what's still needed?

Even Better Screens
The secret ingredient of today's e-readers is e-ink, a new type of screen that draws power only when the page changes. But e-ink screens refresh slowly. Reading sequential pages is painless enough, but flipping back and forth between sections of a reference work can be frustrating.

E-ink screens are also grayscale-only. Again, that might be fine for novels, but there's no allowance for it in a textbook. Publishers design books in black and white because printing in full color is expensive, but that's no longer true if your target is a screen instead of paper.

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