Digital Readers: Charging Into the Future, Ass First

As reported by Engadget, it appears that the Sony e-reader and Amazon’s Kindle are both essentially the same product.

The Kindle, if the FCC photo is to be believed, is ugly as hell. It looks like something out of NASA in the 1980s.

The Sony reader is a bit better, but as you can see in this photo by Rick Wilking from Reuters, it still comes off as a super-sized Palm Pilot. Has no one been paying attention to Apple’s success?

Digital paper/e-ink is pretty amazing, and I’m all for it, but what’s being done with it now lacks two key ingredients: wonder and enrichment. If these expensive, unwieldy book substitutes (can anything truly replace books?) will ever take off, it’ll take something more elegant and reader-centric than these ugly babies. I walked up to the ‘open’ Sony reader and instantly chose the wrong button to turn the page. The button I pushed (the small radial button on the lower right corner) did, well, nothing. The page turning buttons are, oddly, on the side of the front face and are comparatively small. Why does this thing have more than two exposed buttons? Sorry Sony, you fail.

Anyway, the industrial design problems with the form factor are less problematic to me than the typography. Unfortunately, I don’t have good shots on hand, but I was able to get my hands on the Sony reader at a Borders for a few minutes today.

Let me put it as succinctly as I can: these digital readers take all of the backward, ignorant steps that word processing applications propagate and make them worse. I saw a line with four words in it, with word spacing that was nearly the length of the words themselves, set in an ugly serif that had the familiar funk of Times New Roman about it. What is this, 1992? Bleh. I’d rather read back-lit text on the 480-by-320-pixel, 163 pixels per inch iPod Touch display. At least it’s high-res and has an intuitive interface.

Later that day, I pulled out a book (Thaddeus Holt’s The Deceivers) and turned the page. I looked at the well-set Adobe Garamond on a well-proportioned page and thought, in spite of its unwieldy girth, “Now this is reading.”