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E-reader Technology: Friend or Foe?

For Christmas, I received a Kindle Fire, a grown up e-reader with many of the features of an iPad. This was not on my list, though I have been following the technology for e-books since the early work with smart paper almost two decades ago.

I have resisted the personal use of this technology for a number of reasons, some perhaps valid and some based on the known learning curve of adapting my way of working to use a new technology. Over the next six months, I will join the journey of so many others to search for the value sweet spot.

The first experience was a pleasant surprise. Like my iPhone, I have found the Kindle easy to use from the start. I took it out of the box the day before I left for Boston. I needed the latest edition of a book that I was using for a class I was teaching, and I had downloaded the book from Amazon and begun browsing it in about 10 minutes. No manual to read, all very intuitive. That’s the easy part.

Now I face two challenges with my Kindle. First, can I adapt my reading habits to allow me to migrate from hardback books to e-books? Second, can I integrate this into my work patterns to find the way the Kindle fits with my iPhone, laptop, desktop, and my various storage devices (memory sticks, CDs, etc.)? At the start of this journey, I want to record my hopes and concerns. Over the next six months, my goal is to see if I can fulfill the hopes and either find ways around the biases and downsides, or determine that they are not as important as I now think they are.

Here is the way I am thinking about e-books: There are some obvious plusses. My arms will appreciate the fact that the 14.6 ounce Kindle Fire can greatly lighten the load of a briefcase that usually contains five or six hardback books plus a laptop. I am going through physical therapy now for the strained tendons in my elbow from business travel last summer, and perhaps I can bypass that painful process going forward.

Another obvious plus is the time to get a new book. A single click replaces driving to the local bookstore or ordering a book online and waiting several days for the book to arrive. It is also slightly less expensive, though not as much as you might expect. Selection is clearly a plus, since a virtual shelf of e-books will offer vastly more selection than even the largest bookstore.

There are other potential plusses for the e-reader, though I am still exploring the reality of these. Often after reading a book, I will want to use a quote from it. I am hoping that two features of e-books will provide improvement: a system of highlighting and notes will be easily integrated with the book, and a search capability will allow me to find the particular statement I want to retrieve. Having a digital form of the book certainly could allow for the search capability, but how well this works remains for me to explore.

Today, I perceive some minuses to e-readers as well. My exploration will include checking out the reality of these supposed limitations, followed by an overall assessment of the plusses and minuses.

I am slightly concerned about spending long hours reading an electronic book, and whether this will offer the same great experience as a paper book. Of greater concern is getting stuck without a charger, realizing I cannot access the book — not an issue with a paper book. My experience of reading the first book gave me a feeling of passing through a large scroll. Often I can remember an idea in a book as being “near the top of a right-hand page, about p. 100.” Without page numbers, and sides of the page, I find the question of location somewhat disorienting.

An even bigger concern is the lifespan of the book. I have some books in my collection that are more than 100 years old, and they will still be accessible indefinitely into the future. The Dead Sea Scrolls illustrate a very long life for paper books. With e-readers and format standards in flux, will I still be able to read the e-book I buy this week in 20 years? I know I have some older software on floppy disks, and even punch cards, that are no longer useful. With the expected technology change, what life span can I expect? Also, in spite of the potentially infinite virtual shelf of books, there are many books not yet available in electronic form. I needed a copy of Money and Power by Jaque Ellul for the trip to Boston, for example, and there is no electronic copy (yet).

Then there are some more personal concerns. I tend to do a lot of reading on airplanes and while walking on a treadmill. The former doesn’t concern me so much, except for the irritation of shutting off the book during takeoff and landing. But I don’t yet know how the form factor of the e-book will adapt to the treadmill, a convenient place to combine reading and exercise. I do know it is not as rugged as the paper book when it slips and goes flying off the back of the treadmill. And while my underlining and note taking in a paper book is a bit awkward on the treadmill, I will have to see if I can perform the more exacting highlighting and note taking on the Kindle while walking at 4 mph up an incline. Another personal concern is the limitation on sharing books, something I often do with the paper books I buy. Trading and lending are more tightly controlled. Finally, I have a significant number of my books that are autographed by the authors. I can’t think of how to personalize this experience on e-books.

Some of these issues may simply be my own resistance to change, some may be solvable, and some may be things I will be willing to give up because of the other advantages of e-books. I will be tracking these things as I put my Kindle Fire to use.

A second set of issues I am sorting is how the Kindle will fit into my suite of work tools with the other electronic devices. Several people have told me, for example, that I won’t need to upgrade the old laptop I am still dragging with me when I travel. I am not convinced — yet. A primary use of my laptop is for writing while I travel. Having a real keyboard, access to Word, and being able to access documents from a memory stick are all a part of writing that don’t seem obvious from the Kindle. I am open to being wrong here, and will investigate this area, too.

The iPhone, Kindle, and laptop are all tools for accessing the web. The latter two require Wi-Fi availability, where as the iPhone does not. But the iPhone is not conducive to downloading and editing large documents. How much of such tasks can migrate to the Kindle, and which should remain on the laptop? Do I really still need a laptop, or am I holding on to an old paradigm?

I know I am late taking this plunge, compared with my more “gadget” oriented technology colleagues. Advice, experiences, and other suggestions are welcome, and I will plan an update toward the end of the year.

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Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998. He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990, and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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