by Chris Woodford. Last updated: May 5, 2014.
Back in the 19th century English author, Martin Tupper wrote: "A good book is the best of friends, the same today and for ever." It's true: books are friendly, familiar, and loveable and that probably explains why it's taking us so long to get used to the idea of portable electronic books. But with the arrival of a new generation of electronic book readers, such as the Sony Reader, and Amazon Kindle, the days of the printed word just might be numbered. Let's take a closer look at electronic books (e-books) and find out how they work!
Photo: Left: Amazon Kindle Paperwhite electronic book reader. Right: The rival Sony Reader PRS-350 is considerably smaller and designed to carry around in your pocket. Both are smaller than the first generation of Kindles, because their touch-sensitive screens do away with the need for a separate keyboard.
Two in one: books... and the information they contain
Think of a book and you think of a single object, but the books we read are actually two things in one: there's the information (the words and pictures and their meaning) and there's the physical object (the paper, cardboard, and ink) that contains them. Sometimes the physical part of a book is as important as the information it carries: it's really true that we judge books by their covers—at least when we're standing in shops deciding which ones to buy—and that's why publishers devote so much attention to making their books look attractive. But, a lot of the time, the information is much more important to us and we don't really care how it's delivered. That's why many of us now turn to the Web when we want to find things out instead of visiting the local library.
In short, we've learned to split off the information we need from the way it's delivered. E-books take this idea a step further. When we talk about an e-book, we really mean a digital version of a printed text that we can read on a handheld electronic device like a miniature laptop computer— two quite separate things, once again.
How do you store a book in electronic form?
An e-book is really just a computer file full of words (and sometimes images). In theory, you could make an e-book just by typing information into a word processor. The file you save has all the elements of an electronic book: you can read the information on a computer, search it for keywords, or share it easily with someone else.
The first attempt to create a worldwide library of e-books was called Project Gutenberg and it's still running today. Long before the World Wide Web came along, a bunch of dedicated Gutenberg volunteers took printed books and scanned or typed them into their computers to make electronic files they could share. For legal reasons, these books were (and still are) mostly classic old volumes that had fallen out of copyright. The electronic versions of these printed books are very basic, text-only computer files stored in a format called ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange)—a way of representing letters, numbers, and symbols with the numbers 0-255 that virtually every computer can understand.
Photo: The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite electronic book reader (left) alongside the rival Sony eReader (right). This Kindle has a fairly unobtrusive set of LED lights built around the screen to make reading easier in the dim evening light. Although it's hard to see in this photo, the Paperwhite does has a much whiter, crisper screen than the Sony.
The problem with ASCII is that the text contains very little formatting information: you can't distinguish headings from text, there's only one basic font, and there's no bold or italics. That's why people developed much more sophisticated electronic files like PDF (Portable Document Format). The basic idea of PDF was to store an almost exact replica of a printed document in an electronic file that people could easily read on screens or print out, if they preferred. The HTML files people use to create web pages are another kind of electronic information. Every HTML page on a website is a bit like a separate page in a book, but the links on web pages mean you can easily hop around until you find exactly the information you want. The links on websites give you powerfully interconnected information that is often much quicker to use than a library of printed books.
The greatest strength of ASCII, PDF, and HTML files (you can read them on any computer) is also their greatest weakness: who wants to sit staring at a computer screen, reading thousands of words? Most screens are much less sharp than the type in a printed book and it quickly tires your eyes reading in this way. Even if you can store lots of books on your computer, you can't really take it to bed with you or read it on the beach or in the bath-tub! Now, there's nothing to stop you downloading simple text files onto something like an iPod or a cellphone and reading them, very slowly and painfully, from the small LCD display—but it's not most people's idea of curling up with a good book. What we really need is something with the power of a computer, the portability of a cellphone, and the friendliness and readability of a printed book. And that's exactly where electronic book readers come in.
How do you read an electronic book file?
An electronic book reader is a small, portable computer designed for reading books stored in a digital format such as ASCII, PDF, HTML, or another similar format. (Currently the two most popular ebook formats are EPUB, a worldwide, open standard that evolved from an earlier standard called OEB (Open e-book) and widely used by Sony Readers and most other ebook readers, and AZW, a proprietary format developed by Amazon and currently readable only on its Kindle reader.) Books take up very little space when you store them in electronic format: you could easily fit 10,000 electronic copies of the Bible onto a single DVD. Most ebook readers can store hundreds or even thousands of titles at a time and some have Wi-Fi Internet connections so you can download more books whenever you wish.
The most important part of an e-book reader is the screen. The first e-books used small versions of LCD laptop screens which have a resolution (sharpness) of about 35 pixels per cm (90 pixels per inch). You could easily see the dots making up the letters and it was quite tiring to read for more than a few minutes at a time. The latest e-books use an entirely different technology called electronic ink. Instead of using LCD displays, they show words and letters using tiny, black and white plastic granules that move about inside microscopic, spherical capsules under precise electronic control. Displays like this have about twice the resolution of ordinary computer screens, are clearly visible in sunlight, and use much less power. In fact, they're almost as sharp and easy to read as printed paper. We'll see how these screens work in a moment.
The lack of books in electronic format is one of the things that puts people off using e-book readers—and that's what made Amazon.com's Kindle reader both an exciting development and an instant success. Amazon already worked with virtually all the world's publishers as a bookseller, so it was able to make huge numbers of titles available for Kindle in electronic format—over 88,000 books were available on the launch date. That's certainly what people want and expect from an e-book reader, but whether it will finally make electronic books as popular as iPods remains to be seen.
Photo: You can read electronic books right now, even if you don't have a handheld ebook reader. There's free electronic book software available for all the popular operating systems. You can also download versions of the Amazon Kindle that work on a PC, Mac, iPad, or cellphone. Here's an electronic book reader running on a normal computer screen, showing the first page of F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned.
How does E Ink® work?
Since electronic ink has been crucial to the success of ebooks, let's now take a detailed look at how it works.
You're probably reading these words in the same way that I am—by staring at a flat, LCD computer screen. For people over the age of about 35, who grew up with computers that used blocky green and black screens with just 40 characters across and 25 down, modern screens are wonderful and amazing. But they still have their drawbacks. Look closely, and you can see jagged edges to the letters. Try to read an LCD screen in direct sunlight and (unless the screen has a very bright backlight), you'll really struggle. But the worse thing is that LCD screens lack the lightness, portability, and sheer user-friendliness of ink-printed paper: you can happily read a book for hours, but try the same trick with a computer screen and your eyes will quickly tire.
Photo: Computer screens as we knew them in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, the best screens could display no more than about 64,000 pixels and often just uppercase text or very crude "pixelated" (square block) graphics. Computer games like Space Invaders, shown here, were very primitive—but still highly addictive!
Back in the early 1970s, the Xerox Corporation that had pioneered photocopiers a decade earlier became concerned about the threat that computers might pose to its core ink-and-paper business: if everyone started using computers, and offices became paperless, what would happen to a company so utterly dependent on paper technology? It was for that reason that Xerox pumped huge amounts of money into PARC™, (Palto Alto Research Center), the now-legendary campus where modern, user-friendly personal computing was pioneered. Among the many innovations developed there were personal computers that used a graphical user interface (the "desktop" screen featuring icons, later copied by the Apple Macintosh® and Microsoft Windows®), Ethernet networking, laser printers... and electronic paper, which was invented by PARC researcher Nick Sheridon.
The basic idea of electronic ink and paper was (and remains) very simple: to produce an electronic display with all the control and convenience of a computer screen but the readability, portability, and user-friendliness of paper.
Photo: The E Ink® display on a Sony Reader (bottom) is much sharper and easier to read than a typical LCD screen (top). Magnifying by about 8–10 times and zooming in on a single word, you can see why. The E Ink display makes sharper letters with a uniformly white background. The LCD display blurs its letters with anti-aliasing to make them less jagged, though that makes them harder to read close up. The red, blue, and green colored pixels used to make up the LCD's "white" background are also much more noticeable. Unlike the E Ink display, an LCD does not use a true white background: it relies on your eye and brain to fuse colored pixels instead. The resolution of E Ink is also far greater: typical LCD displays use around 90 pixels per inch, whereas E Ink displays use at least twice as many pixels.