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

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are optimized for buying books from a single vendor—bye bye, competition, and if the vendor decides that the product is obsolete or the company folds, I’m left with not just another electronic paperweight, I may also lose access to my books.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.

By Steven Bellovin, Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University

Bellovin is the co-author of Firewalls and Internet Security: Repelling the Wily Hacker, and holds several patents on cryptographic and network protocols. He has served on many National Research Council study committees, including those on information systems trustworthiness, the privacy implications of authentication technologies, and cybersecurity research needs.

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yeah, but. Avri Doria  –  Jan 14, 2010 6:19 PM

I agree with much of what you said.  But I bought one.  And am, oh so very happy.

Part of it is I never learned to read only one book at a time and since I seem to travel almost continuously, carrying a fairly wide library with me works well. I have my poetry for when I am in a poetry mood, my trashy novel for when I am bored and philosophy for when I want to pretend that I am still educable.  I even carry around a set of 19th century cookbooks for when I really want to pretend.

The number of free books I have been able to download either from the free reservoirs availble from Mobipocket.  and the number of books available from Project Gutenberg is phenomenal - lots things i never knew about. 

And I cannot count the number of kgs of papers I have not had to lug around with me when I go to meetings.

So I understand and sympathize with all the things you said (and often fall asleep during take off and landing for a cat nap) and have all sorts of improvements I wish they would make like being able to output marked up papers, but I am so very happy to have mine.

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