e-books on your PC, sort of
I thought it best to write this review promptly before I uninstall the Barnes & Noble eReader application. After reviewing the current technology offered by Amazon and Barnes and Noble, I have yet to see how a serious electronic book industry is ready for prime time.
I investigated Amazon’s Kindle technology quite some time ago, and did not buy a $299 reader device to replace the odd $5 paperback for killing time at the airport gate. If the airline industry has not learned in seventy years how to take the best interests of its consumer base seriously, I suppose we should not expect much better of the fledgling ebook industry, which, in my opinion, is off to a very bad start.
If it is just me, please forgive me, but I fail to understand the marketing posture of companies who cripple a promising technology with the attitude that the consumer will be willing to tolerate anything just to obtain it.
Digital rights management is very important, but if you thought it took the MP3 and music industry too long to reckon with the hard reality of consumer needs, convenience and requirements, wait until you see what they’re doing with books.
The book storage repository is the provider’s web server, not your hard drive. In Amazon’s case, I believe the purchased book is actually downloaded to the Kindle reader, so there is some sense of “ownership” as long as the Kindle works.
Adobe tried the downloadable property management approach over a decade ago, with their TypeOnCall technology. Every time you bought a new machine or rebuilt an old one, you had to jump through incredible hoops to get your fonts back. Usually one more more phone calls were required, and you’d have to read 25-digit serial numbers to semi-hostile customer service operators who were probably defending their employer against piratical rip-off consumers. I lost hundreds of fonts and a lot of money when I finally rebelled, deciding to forgo this ordeal. Shortly thereafter, Adobe dropped TypeOnCall entirely, with no backwards support for the old user base. Why would I want to go through this again with e-books?
I read on MarketWatch that Barnes & Noble was rolling out eReader to compete with Amazon. One is able to read the Barnes & Noble e-book technology on one’s PC or laptop, iPod or Blackberry. You can forget about the miniature devices for books if you’re over 25, but I was really quite excited about being able to read on my laptop.
In Barnes & Noble’s case, what you buy is essentially a link to their digital rights properties on their server. I have found no evidence in Program Files or Documents and Settings that the physical file equivalent of a “book” are actually stored there. So, if you were thinking of synchronizing free or paid book content between your desktop and laptop, you can just forget all about that too.
The Barnes & Noble reader app is “now free”, meaning, we take it, that they formerly charged for this programming crudity. The control panel app is done in C++ or similar legacy technology, and not very well. It is plain-jane but serviceable, except that it crashes a lot. It goes berserk if it cannot establish a web connection, which I determined by switching off the LAN.
The download, then, is free. It comes with two books – more on books later. Since I was only installing as a personal trial, I declined to register my email and select a password right away. When I restarted the app, I got an endless loop dialog sequence “Connecting …” and “error 1033: e-mail address cannot be found” from which I could only exit by CNTL-ALT-DELETE. I had to uninstall and reinstall the app (supplying an email and password this time) to explore further. The book browser app crashed while I was exploring the free compact dictionary (one of the crudest dictionaries I have ever seen).
I spent some time online at the Barnes & Noble eReader store. MarketWatch reported a large selection of titles “under $9.99″. Current best-sellers list as high as $20 and above, making them more expensive than paperback and about as expensive as hardcover – for electronic smoke-and-mirror vaporware text you can “download as often as you want”. Is somebody missing the point here?
There is a selection of 750 titles for $4.99 and under, which is great if you like Zane Grey, who comprised nearly a third of the listings. There are lots of Gothic novels, most now in the public domain, several potboilers, and a few gems from ancient and 19th century classics, a smattering of Twain and Dickens, and the like – those are well worth the price. I actually put about half a dozen titles in the wish list, but did not buy.
I find it hard to believe you cannot search for titles alphabetized by author on a bookstore website, but it’s true. A search for “Pirzig” and “Stegner” turned up no eBooks for those authors, only hardcover. I had to scroll through all 750 icons, 20 at a time, to find the few books I did add to my wish list.
From what I could determine of the current online title selection – admittedly this enterprise is but recently launched – many readers would quickly exhaust the selections they were interested in, and would then be motivated to move on to another service or technology. As in the world of music, a selection of 750 or 1500 titles is pathetic once you cull out the stuff you have no personal interest in.
The files are said to be encrypted, and I certainly support this, but the problem is there is no downloads folder, and no findable “files”. I somehow acquired more free titles (I did not select them online), expanding the selection to 6 in the Application Data folder. See Figure 3. The largest file is 11K – no way to stuff a couple of hundred pages of text into 11K.
The reading quality of the free books I tested is quite adequate – on a par with Adobe PDF. Illustrations are not much to write home about – see Figure 2 below. If the application had been stable and well-designed, if the purchase was downloadable as a single file, and the book selection better, I could have lived with this.
Of course there are a lot more books in the over $5 range, but page-at-a-time is a hard way to browse books if you are only looking for a few things in particular (there is no plain text index). I was not about to commit any great investment before deciding whether I would even adopt the technology.
I did not. More crashes this morning convinced me I do NOT want this thing on my laptop, at the airport, or anywhere else.
Below are some screen shots from the app (at about 50% scale), taken before I unintall it for the last time.
I conclude that we will just have to wait until Google figures out what to do after they’ve scanned every book in the world, or, better yet, wait until Apple decides it’s time to do it right.
Figure 1. The app
Figure 2. The reader (free Jane Austen “Sense and Sensibility”)
Figure 3. Application Data
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