How to make an e-reader

Everybody’s raving (via Fimoculous, where I first typed most of this out) about the Kindle, and I do not doubt their sincerity. But neither Amazon nor Sony have quite figured out what they need to make. These devices are the Treo of five years ago — good enough to be loved, but about to be made irrelevant by the coming iPhone.

No matter how good the Kindle is, it is patently absurd to pay $2.50 per month to read Slate on it. And Bezos should be blushing at the contortions people go through to get PDF on their Kindles. The point here is that mostly what people want on an e-reader is not books — it’s the internet, stupid.

So, what do we want? Simple: a Kindle form factor with the guts of a Dell Mini, and a little sprinkle of iPod Touch. It goes roughly like this:

  • Intel Atom processor ARM processor, 16 GB internal storage, SD card slot
  • WiFi, vestigial keyboard
  • Ubuntu: just enough to run Firefox full-featured and an mp3 player
  • Color e-ink display (I’d settle for an LCD)
  • Touch-sensitive screen
  • What the hell: compatible with Amazon’s e-book format

The Kindle is $350, as is the new Sony reader (which has the touch-sensitive screen). The Dell Mini starts at $199. The 16GB iPod Touch is $300. Come on hardware makers, you can do this.

Update (4/13/09): TechCrunch is working on it.

7 thoughts on “How to make an e-reader

  1. Agreed. There should not be a 150$ premium on fewer features in a ostensibly better form factor.

    There’s some sort of disconnect going on here as well – what we want is the internet, what they’re giving is books, and we’re supposed to pretend that it’s hipper and cooler to read a fancy version of Great Expectations on the bus than browse the internet.

  2. books are free at the library, quite portable, and easy to use. Remember, browsing the internet is what you do when you’re at the office pretending to work. Kind of like what I’m doing right now.

  3. Actually, I’d be quite happy with a device for both books and the internet. But not Ipod size. Screen is too small to read comfortably and it will become cluttered with features, as the last NYT app demonstrates.

  4. Atom is too power-hungry for the kind of battery life you want, an ARM is more likely – apparently ARM netbooks are coming later this year.

  5. kingofrance~ See the 101 Kindle fanboy posts for advantages of an e-reader even for reading books. I agree with you about the library (and in fact whether there’s a way to check out e-books onto our own readers will probably a be a legal fight at some point).

    James~ Thanks, I corrected it!

  6. Let me address each:

    ARM processor, 16 GB internal storage, SD card slot”
    — All nice choices. 16GB of storage would add to the price (the Kindle 2 has 2GB), but an SD slot would be good.

    “WiFi, vestigial keyboard”
    —Again, these might be nice. Kindle 2 has whispernet, which is handy. WiFi would be a big drain on the battery, though, and really isn’t necessary to read a book.

    “Ubuntu: just enough to run Firefox full-featured and an mp3 player”
    —So you don’t want an e-reader, you want a tablet PC with Firefox? Again, this IS an e-reader we’re talking about here, not a computer. It’s meant for one purpose, with additional features for convenience; Not as a focus. If Firefox were on my e-reader, I’d do less book-reading and more web reading, and that’s what I’m trying to AVOID with an e-reader. I’m trying to focus on books. If I want to surf the web, I’ve got a laptop or iPod touch for that.

    “Color e-ink display (I’d settle for an LCD)”
    —Just how many novels have you read in color? Sure, it would be handy for magazines, but let’s face it: Since you asked for Firefox, what you really want color for is to view web pages. And again, you’re getting into tablet PC territory, not e-reader territory. An LCD is a terrible choice for an e-reader. If you’re a reader (someone who reads a lot of books) you don’t want to stare at a backlit LCD all the time.

    “Touch-sensitive screen”
    —Yeah, because there’s nothing like fingerprints to make reading a novel a much better experience. Again, you’re asking for a tablet PC.

    “What the hell: compatible with Amazon’s e-book format”
    —Oh, nice. So books are a secondary thought, here?

    Look, it’s clear that an e-reader is not the device you want. LCD, Firefox, MP3 player, 16GB storage, WiFi, touch screen… You want a tablet PC, an iPhone, a Blackberry, or an Android smartphone.

    If you want an e-reader, though— That is, a device with BOOKS as the main focus, and readers as the main users— then you want a Sony 505 Reader or Amazon Kindle or Bebook or Cybook… With e-ink to be easier on the eyes, no WiFi to drain the battery, and no Firefox to distract from the primary function: READING BOOKS.

    Sorry, but you’re asking for one device to morph into a completely different one. You might as well complain that your toaster doesn’t cook a turkey.

    What you want isn’t an e-reader. It’s this:

  7. Let me address each back!:

    16GB of storage would add to the price

    These days, you can find 16GB memory sticks for forty bucks. I’d be happy to have the price increased by that.

    WiFi would be a big drain on the battery

    True. I’m really needing the device to be equally adept at web browsing and e-book reading. It’s trivial to make the WiFi able to be switched on and off independently of everything else as many modern laptops do, and Firefox has pretty standard syncrhonize/browse-offline features, right?

    So you don’t want an e-reader, you want a tablet PC with Firefox?

    Yep: a weak tablet PC in a Kindle-like form factor.

    If I want to surf the web, I’ve got a laptop or iPod touch for that.

    That’s just the thing. I like surfing the web too, but there’s a difference between that and reading the web. I’m missing a device that allows for just-allright web surfing, and really shines for settling in and reading the longer and more interesting things I increasingly find. Judging by the clamoring for Instapaper support on the Kindle, I think I’m not alone. The iPhone is as good as anything you can shove in your pocket for the web, but can you do serious reading on it?

    If you’re a reader you don’t want to stare at a backlit LCD all the time.

    But if you’re reading a Kindle at night, you’ll soon wish it had a backlight, no? To be honest with you, I’m not 100% clear on the technical difference between LCD and e-ink. But it seems to me that as an LCD increases in resolution, it will begin to aproximate the look of e-ink. And the last time I saw a digital watch, the backlight on it could be switched on and off.

    …there’s nothing like fingerprints…

    Yeah… I’m not 100% on the touch screen. Maybe a mini-trackball or touchpad. But it seems that if you’re used to the iPhone, you forget how smudge/fingerprint-resistant some monitor and camera LCD’s are.

    So books are a secondary thought, here?

    Not exactly. It’s just that I don’t see the Kindle becoming the Standard for e-readers, and so eventually if other e-readers have a significant market share, Amazon may need to provide e-books in their formats. I would hope the world would gravitate toward some sort of open format.

    You want a tablet PC, an iPhone, a Blackberry, or an Android smartphone.

    Hopefully I’ve convinced you to the contrary. I want something that looks exactly like the Kindle — something primarily intended for reading. I think it’s a mistake (exactly the mistake Bezos is making, btw) to assume that the primary thing people want to read on an e-reader are books.

    (The Modbook looks pretty cool, but I think the thing I’m describing can be built for around $400, not $2000, and can be casually tossed into a totebag as I’m running out the door.)

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