Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

August 10th, 2008:

One Ebook Reader Inside Another

The programming tracks at Denvention 3 didn't get me terribly fired up to see them, and that was evidently a common reaction. Instead, I spent a lot of time with friends camped out on couches talking tech. Intense discussion went on about ebook readers and what they ought to be, along with much flashing of Kindles and Sonys and iPhones—which, I might suggest, would make reasonable reflow readers if a Certain Somebody of Inconsistent Insight wasn't so convinced that nobody reads anymore. (And if Apple didn't reserve the right to reach down to your iPhone and nuke any application it doesn't like…) So it may be time to outline what several years of thinking (and a certain amount of messing with various reader thingies that I have owned, borrowed, or simply beaten on) have converged to, in my own vision of an Ideal Ebook Reader.

The shouting war between those who want to read fixed pages and those who want to read reflowable text is pointless, and after awhile, silly. There is more than one possible view of a document, and as with suits and dresses, some documents look better in certain views than in others. A novel or nonfiction volume lacking illustrations can be read reflowably on a small screen. Anything with useful page structure or significant illustrations requires a genuine page view. Page views require large displays. There's no getting around that. On the other hand, the conventional wisdom that you must have either a full-page view or a pocket-sized device is also dead wrong.

Envision this: A rectangular block roughly the size and shape of an iPhone. It's really a storage module, with an SSD of a decent size. (I'd suggest at least 32 GB for starters.) The storage module has some minimal intelligence, and a battery. On one end, there's a high-bandwidth serial connector. USB 2 isn't quite broad enough. ESATA would work, or whatever comes after USB 2. Now, note well that the storage module is not only a storage module. It has an display and touch controls, and a renderer for reflowable ebook text, as well as a viewer for images and videos. It may also be a cell phone; certainly, there's room for the jelly beans in something that size.

Now envision a second, larger device, which is basically a tablet, or a convertible clamshell. It isn't necessarily a competitor to a full-featured laptop or Tablet PC, but something more resembling a 10″ or 11″ netbook, with enough processor muscle to handle Web browsing, email, and light text/spreadsheet manipulation. It has a slot for a removable drive…and the storage module I described above plugs into the slot. The tablet uses the smaller module for its data storage, but the data storage device itself can operate independently, as a pocket ebook reader or even a cell phone. No sync problems: There's only one SSD for both devices. But when you don't need the tablet reader, you pop out the pocket reader and stick in your pocket. If you have an idle moment, thumb it on and read another chapter from The Molten Flesh. Or call ahead to reserve a table at Chez Geeque.

What we basically have here is a GSM-equipped pocket reader that “wears” a larger tablet reader for the sake of its display and battery, and possibly its keyboard. The two devices (tablet and pocket reader) don't necessarily have to be made by the same firm. The two physical form factors and interface mechanisms should ideally be an independent hardware/software standard, so that people could choose one device or another from several vendors, mixing and matching tablets and pocket readers to fit their own preferences. Not everybody may want a pocket reader, so a “dumb” storage block without a display would be possible, and cheaper. Putting GSM on the pocket reader would allow the pocket reader to be a cellphone, and the docked assembly to work like a Kindle.

I don't know how likely this is, and I know it's not going to happen next week. I just need to make it clear that this is what I want, and what I think might serve the needs of the greatest number of ebook people in the greatest number of ways. I do know that getting into the either-or mindset is a trap, for ebook readers or anything else. We are engineers. We solve problems. And sometimes one solution lies inside another.