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Electronic Book Readers: Re-Kindle-ing a Love Affair with Reading, or the Digital Demise of the Printed Page?
(Released January 2011)

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  by Marianne Stanczak  

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In the mid-1400s, Johann Gutenberg revolutionized books with the printing of the so-called Gutenberg Bible and so began the printed book. Fast forward a few centuries and a few million pages later, and another revolution may be taking place: that of the electronic book reader.
The Gutenberg Bible
Biblia Latina (Bible in Latin). Johann Gutenberg, 1455

If you look closely at the display of an electronic reader (also referred to as "e-book readers" or "e-readers") you will notice that it appears differently than that of a cell phone or MP3 player. First, there is no glare, just as if you were reading a paper book. This is because most current e-book readers use electronic ink technology, or e-ink. (Author's note: E-Ink is also the name of a company that makes electronic ink.)

Electronic ink is comprised of millions of microcapsules of black and white pigment particles. When prompted by an electric field, such as the circuit board in an e-book reader, these electrically-sensitive particles begin to move, forming into the text on the page to be read. Once the page is in its form, the image stays there, and no power is used until the page is turned to the next image. One comparison is that of an ink jet printer printing on a page.

Electronic Ink
Electronic Ink Microcapsules

The display is book-like in that there is no backlighting – such as there might be for an MP3 (iPod) player. Therefore, one must supply a light just as one would do with a regular paper book.

As most books contain no color and only text, most e-readers provide only grayscale text (usually eight shades of gray). These shades of gray often give the appearance of newsprint, which is easier on the eyes than stark black "ink" on stark white "paper." A company called Nemoptic makes black-and-white and full color Bistable Nematic screens, which offer competition to e-ink.

When a page is turned the current screen is "erased" and then the next page is "printed." A common complaint of this process is that between pages, a blackening of the screen – or refreshing – occurs; typically the changeover is one second long. However, this is approximately the time it takes to physically turn a page in a regular book. While the "flash of black" may be annoying as you are turning pages, it is even more noticeable if you are using menu functions (e.g., scrolling through book titles).

Many of the e-book readers on the market today allow anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 "page turns" per battery charge. That means a 5,000 page battery charge would allow you to read more than eight King James bibles, and with 10,000-page charge, you could read about half of the 20-volume, 22,000-page Oxford English Dictionary. In comparison, a device with a backlit LCD screen, which also has the power to turn pages faster, lasts only about 20 hours before a recharging is necessary. Additionally, e-reader displays generally have a high resolution (clearer to see): about 170 dpi (dots per inch) compared to LCD which typically have 100 dpi. (For reference, a printed page is 300 dpi).

Many types of files can be read on an e-book reader, such as ePub, TXT, HTML and PDF. Some, to prevent unauthorized downloads (i.e., not from their company), have their own proprietary e-book format (e.g., Mobipocket from Kindle). Currently, there is no particular file type that is an industry standard, although many claim that the ePub file is the leading format. In fact, ePub is frequently referred to as the MP3 of text.

A major obstacle preventing everyone from downloading just any files into just any reader is something known as digital rights management, or DRM. Because it can be used with most commercial files regardless of format, DRM prohibits the download/transfer of a file not specified for the type of e-reader.

Apple applies a DRM by using a "device lockdown," which prevents iPod Touch or iPhone users from using software from companies other than Apple. Of course, as with any technology, there are ways around these limiting features, such as the technique known as "jailbreaking" that bypasses DRM, allowing users to avoid having to go through Apple to install software on an Apple device. Some may use this method if they own an e-reader device that is obsolete – such is the case of those in the UK who previously purchased e-books from the now defunct Borders, Ltd., which began to run independently from it US parent company in 2007.

E-reader functions may also be limited by operating system (e.g., Microsoft Windows) or internet browsers (e.g., Mozilla, Internet Explorer). Combined with DRM, these additional limitations may affect the e-reader users' ability to copy/paste, print or change an e-book into another format.

You can also download books into your reader from the library – when doing so, a reader is still only borrowing a book, and the same issues will still be present. When the loan period has expired, you are unable to access the document. Additionally, libraries offering electronic books for download are still a fairly new concept. While many libraries may have this capability, the book selection is limited.

As with any other new technology, there are problems that go beyond pricing structures or software glitches. One such problem stems from one e-book reader, in this case the Kindle's, ability to convert text to audio, called the text-to-speech capability. Four university libraries agreed not to use the Kindle until it was accessible to blind or otherwise visually impaired students. By using a non-audible device, these libraries were allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

June 29, 2010


Dear College or University President: We write to express concern on the part of the Department of Justice and the Department of Education that colleges and universities are using electronic book readers that are not accessible to students who are blind or have low vision and to seek your help in ensuring that this emerging technology is used in classroom settings in a manner that is permissible under federal law. A serious problem with some of these devices is that they lack an accessible text-to-speech function. Requiring use of an emerging technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals with disabilities – individuals with visual disabilities – is discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner …


-Excerpt from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights' June 2010 Dear Colleague letter regarding e-books

Additionally, the Authors Guild charged that the text-to-speech function of the Kindle would wreak havoc on audio book, another source of income for authors. Kindle's maker, Amazon, did rectify this complaint by modifying the text-to-speech software to work with only those copyrighted materials that the publisher agreed to.

Go To E-book Readers Comparison

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