Elegant design from the evil empire

Microsoft Reader

I’ve been interested in ebooks for a while and am convinced that eventually they will become common. People will get used to reading books on portable devices with screens that look better and cost less than the screens we have today. I don’t think that paper books will go away but ebooks will become more common. I like the idea of being able to read free books on a device and being able to carry hundreds of books at a time.

Lately, I tried out a number ebook readers for the PC including:

Surprisingly, I found that Microsoft Reader provided the best reading experience (see the scaled-down screenshot above). It feels natural to read this way. For an easily distracted person, like myself, the strength of Microsoft Reader is that there are so few options and that these options are not visible during the reading experience. For example, there are about five choices for font size so I don’t find myself toggling between incremental sizes. I can’t even choose the typeface. This may seem like a fault but it works for me. I didn’t find myself looking for additional features and that’s what I want when I’m reading. If anything, this feels like Apple design. Instead of giving the user control over every knob, aesthetics take precedence.

I found that eReader provided the second best reading experience. The main problem with eReader is that it is centers around the Palm operating system and is unlikely to win the ebook format war.

Mobipocket provided rich control over the reading experience. Some of the user interface is more awkward than necessary; it isn’t possible to hide the menus while reading; and, the most important options (such as font size) aren’t available on those menus. That said, Mobipocket provides a reasonable reading experience. I like this format because it isn’t locked into a particular operating system and it has a good shot in the near term at becoming the dominant format for ebooks.

I like the idealism of open-source software but FBReader is clunky and doesn’t work with many of the most common portable devices.

Adobe Digital Editions is just bad. It runs awkwardly slow and it focuses on the PDF file format. I like PDF for capturing material originally on paper (I have many hundreds of technical papers in PDF). That said, PDF is typically not formated in a way that is easy to read on a computer screen. As strong as the PDF format is in the world today, I can’t see the current form of PDF becoming the dominant way to read ebooks. If you are going to read a PDF, stick with Adobe Reader. It’s probably on your computer already.

The most annoying thing about ebooks today is the barrage of options that include varyingly evil forms of digital rights management (DRM). I wouldn’t recommend that you buy any form of ebook with DRM unless you also accept that you may lose access to the book in the future. For example, many DRMed ebooks will only work on one kind of device. Some DRMed ebooks will only allow you read on the particular device that you used for the original download. This problem with DRM is as big as the problem of reading on screens that look worse than paper.

Ebooks have a long way to go before they achieve large scale acceptance. In the meantime, I’m going to play around with reading a few ebooks on my laptop. Right now, I’m reading Accelerando by Charlie Stross (and have been for the last year or so). The convenient thing about reading this book in ebook form is that I can quickly search for the names I’ve forgotten since the last time I put the book down. If you are interested in reading a mind bending book about our possible future, then I highly recommend Accelerando.

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