Sony was careful to make the quarter-kilogram device, which weighs about as much as a two-thirds-full can of soda, comfortable to hold and easy to operate. There are special buttons for navigating from any page in an e-book to the table of contents and to various chapters; there’s another button for changing the text size, a helpful feature for the bifocals crowd. The device lacks a search function, but you can skip through a book in 10 percent (or 10-page) increments, and there’s a bookmark button.
The only two buttons you have to remember, though, are the ones for paging forward and back. And you can press those buttons up to 7,500 times before the Reader runs out of power, according to Sony. I believe it. I charged the device once, used it for more than 20 hours, and never came close to depleting its battery.
But if you buy a lot of e-books from Sony’s online bookstore, you will quickly deplete your wallet. The “Connect eBooks” store is to the Reader what iTunes is to the iPod and is almost as easy to use; customers browse titles using a Windows program provided with the Reader, download purchased e-books to their PCs, and manually synchronize their Readers with their PCs. The store offers a decent range of current and backlist titles, at prices comparable to those Amazon charges for print books. For example, the electronic version of Walter Mosley’s Fortunate Son, which lists at $23.95 in hardcover, is discounted by the publisher to $17.95, and further discounted by Sony to $14.36. (Amazon charges $16.29 for the hardcover.) But I can’t see readers paying that much for e-books. A $5.95 paperback, cheap as it may feel, is a concrete thing.
In fact, I doubt that e-books will be seen as a viable alternative to commercial print books until they’re so cheap that their ephemerality doesn’t matter to buyers. With iTunes, Apple has demonstrated that for downloadable songs and TV shows, this magic price point is $1 to $2. Because reading an e-book is so different from reading a print book, e-books aren’t directly comparable to downloadable songs, which can sound just as good as CDs. Still, I’d guess the magic price point is quite low; personally, I wouldn’t pay much more than $5 or $6, or about the price of a low-end paperback.
Of course, high book prices aren’t the only reason the Sony Reader may be slow to catch on. Many people’s pockets and purses are already stuffed with more gadgets than they’d like. A dedicated e-book reader may not make the cut. And while Sony’s device is capable of displaying Word files, PDFs, gray-scale graphics, and RSS feeds (including news stories or blog entries downloaded each day from the Web), it doesn’t do any of these things as well as laptops do.
Still, when it comes to pure readability, the Sony Reader proves that e‑book technology is finally good enough to appeal to parts of the mass market. In fact, it may be just the first of a new generation of reading devices: in November, iRex, a Dutch spinoff of Royal Philips Electronics, started shipping the iLiad e-paper device (which looks remarkably similar to the Sony Reader but costs more than twice as much), and rumors in the blogosphere indicated that Amazon was working on its own e-paper device. Now hardware makers and content providers need to settle on a business model that makes sense to consumers. Economics, not ergonomics or engineering, will determine whether the second coming of e-book devices lasts longer than the first.
Wade Roush is a Technology Review contributing editor.