I remember when, some years ago, the idea of the electronic book was first mooted. Nominal plans showed a box-shaped object, unlike the wafer-thin "ereaders" of today. There was a good deal of scepticism as to whether such a device would prove successful commercially, let alone replace the traditional paper book. Then it seemed to slip from public notice.
Now, a few decades later, we find ourselves in the midst of what might be called the "eBook Revolution", when, for the first time, sales of books in electronic form are reported to have overtaken paper book sales. It would be hard for even the most hardened sceptic to retain his scepticism in the face of the current success of the electronic book. Like the PC and the mobile phone before it, it is here to stay and, though we might enjoy the feeling of novelty for a little while longer, we shall soon find ourselves wondering, as we do with those other devices, how we ever managed without it.
Looking on Amazon and other booksellers’ Web sites, I see that prices of ebooks have fallen, sometimes quite dramatically. In fact, the electronic version of a book is often cheaper than the paper version. But that’s not all: the ereader provides us with a comfortable way to read all those free books out there. Organizations like Project Gutenberg have been labouring away for years transposing out-of-copyright books into electronic form, but reading them was always slightly inconvenient in that you had to read them off the PC screen or print them out on paper. Now, suddenly, with the ereader, they have come into their own.
Even if you do not possess an ereader, you can still read ebooks: many sites offer you free ereaders that you can install on your PC, laptop or tablet PC. This isn’t as good as it sounds, however, for most of these are designed to get you to buy books from the company concerned and will let you download books from elsewhere only reluctantly or not at all. What we really want – and what we should insist on – is a reader that can download from any site and read books that have been stored on our computers and other devices.
I was fairly sceptical about ebooks until recently. I still believe that you cannot beat a "proper" book on paper. The look, the feel, the fact that you can flick back and forth between text, illustrations, index, etc by simply sticking your finger between the pages are qualities that the ebook cannot match. Not yet, anyway. However, if your book consists of a straight narrative without pictures or diagrams, then the ebook is perfectly acceptable.
Having obtained your ebook, though, what is the best way to read it? One obvious answer is by buying one of the electronic ereaders currently available on the market. Their prices are fairly modest (depending on how well stuffed your wallet is, of course) but you may still hesitate to fork out the money if you have little experience of ebooks and are not sure the expense will be justified.
This was the question that I faced myself. Initially sceptical about ebooks, I now wanted to try them out but was not ready to buy an ereader until I was certain that the expense was justified. There was, however, a solution. It was sitting on my desk in front of me: my smartphone!
In a previous post I mentioned the Ibis Reader. This is an online reader and provider of free ebooks. The list of available titles is not impressive but Ibis Reader has qualities that make it stand out from the crowd. It ought to be better known. As with most online facilities, you start by creating an account. All this requires is a username and password. This is simply to gain you your own bookshelf where your uploaded books are kept.
Once you have your account, you can load your bookshelf with books. You can obtain these from anywhere. There are books available on the Ibis Reader site but you can obtain books from other sites. The easiest way to do this is to download a book in epub format onto your PC, and then upload it to your Ibis Reader account. Then you read it!
The disadvantage of this system is that you have to be online to read. No reading on the London Underground, then. As long as you can get online, though, you can read your books without let or hindrance. Ibis Reader remembers, without prompting, where you got to in the text and obligingly opens it at that spot next time.
The advantage is that Ibis Reader is designed the work in any device. It will certainly work on you PC and laptop and on your Android tablet PC. It claims to work even on your smartphone. So, does it?
Well, yes it does! At least, it works perfectly on my Blackberry Curve. While Ibis Reader formats the text to suit the kind of device you are using, the final result will depend on the device itself. For example, I have two browsers on my Blackberry, the native RIM browser and Opera Mobile. Both display ebooks, but do do slightly differently. The native browser shows the text in a fairly small font. I can enlarge this by zooming but this also expands the width of the page beyond the edges of the screen, making it necessary to scroll left and right as I read. The Opera browser, on the other hand, show the text in larger print but still keeps it within the borders of the screen. It is thus the better option for reading ebooks.
If you like to read books in French, however, you will probably find that Ibis Reader lets you down. This is because the French seem not to use the epub format at all. Their preferred format for ebooks is PDF. Ibis Reader, unfortunately, cannot read PDF files.
I found the solution to this quite serendipitously. I had Documents to Go installed on the Blackberry and recently updated it. Included with the update was… a PDF reader! So I can still read PDF files on my phone though I have first to load them into memory. On the other hand, I don’t need to go online to read them.
There are now many sites online that offer to convert files between all the different formats. In theory, you could convert a PDF into an epub file and read it in Ibis Reader but in practice that is not very satisfactory. The result is never perfect and the faults in formatting may make to text difficult to read.
Now that I have perfected the art of reading ebooks on my Blackberry, an even better solution has come along. Before I say what it is, let me make a further point. The explosion in electronic inventiveness has brought a problem in its train: a proliferation of devices. With regard to portable devices, we first had the laptop computer; then we had the mobile phone; this was followed by the PDA and, more recently, by the tablet PC. And now up pops the ereader. The way things are going, you will need a special bag to carry all these devices around with you. What is the solution?
The solution, of course, is consolidation, the creation of devices that are multi-purpose. This has already happened to some extent with the mobile phone and the PDA becoming parents of the "smartphone", which is not only taking on the functions of a computer but also adding to this many entirely new functions such as that of the electronic wallet.
The only difficulty with this is one of the main virtues of the smartphone: its tiny size. No matter how good the screen resolution, I cannot imagine anyone wanting to surf the Web or read ebooks for long periods at a time on a smartphone. That is to risk eye-strain. In response, enter the tablet PC which, with its larger format provides a much pleasanter experience for surfing the Web and for… reading ebooks. It just so happens that, thanks to Tigger, I have joined the ranks of the tablet PC owning classes. Once I have got to grips with it, I will be able to say more about it from the point of view of reading ebooks.