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A couple of things at the outset. I love to read. I love books. Depending on what’s going on, it could be an audiobook or something I picked up at a used bookstore (around here at this point there’s just Bookman’s to fill that niche). Also, I have this idealistic vision of portability and versatility offered by electronic books. I worked for almost nine years for a company that did electronic publishing so as a matter of course I saw the inherent strength of reading without paper. It fits perfectly with the same way of thinking that had me transfer my entire CD collection to MP3 many years ago, followed by my DVD collection. Part of it could be letting go without fully letting go, I don’t know. Such is the story of the last five years of my life.

Anyway, back to the point. E-books to me have always made sense. Microsoft’s e-reader format was an early favorite, I read several books on my old Dell Axim that way. And of course there was HTML and plain ASCII (Project Gutenberg). But electronic books could not sufficiently pass the Crapper Test. That is, can you comfortably do it while on the crapper? Ten years ago wireless ethernet barely existed and no one wanted to park a laptop of that era on their lap in the bathroom. Just silly.

It was a matter of time before the technology caught up to the promise though, and it did eventually with Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle a couple years ago. This was all coming in increments of course, the biggest innovation being the e-ink screen which is capable of showing a passable greyscale image while needing only enough juice to create the image and practically none at all to maintain it. Amazing. Add to that faster processors and, of course, a tiny rendering of Linux for the underlying OS.

The biggest innovation that Kindle brought though was its infrastructure. Kindle and especially Kindle 2 take advantage of the iTunes model of transaction, only Kindle 2 makes this tighter by augmenting it with something called Whispernet, basically a cellular modem whose purpose is to send and receive small bits of data, whether its tracking your progress in a book or downloading a book to the unit. Nothing fancy or data-intensive, hence it’s being wrapped into the cost of the unit. That cost has come down a lot in the last year. Currently Kindle 2 comes in two flavors, one with a U.S. Only wireless plan for $259 and one with U.S. and International for $20 extra. Amazon also has the bigger and costlier Kindle DX, designed for the rendering of textbooks primarily and is scaled up in size for that purpose.

Barnes & Noble are trying to one-up Amazon with something called the Nook. At the moment I’ve only seen pictures of it myself, but it is adorable. it has an e-Ink screen like the Kindle, but where Kindle has a hardware keyboard Nook has a color glass touchscreen that can display a keyboard and spiffy bookcovers as well. The price-point is similar to the Kindle, though no international plan is available at the moment. Nook also has WiFi (wireless ethernet) built in where Kindle does not. Nook also has the advantage of being able to render PDFs without the conversion (and subsequent fees) that Kindle requires. Barnes & Noble is also trying to leverage its physical locations to foster Nook use with the WiFi (finally free at B&N and soon also at Borders) and with exclusive content, though they haven’t been clear on what that content will be. Nook will also have all the accessories that Kindle has, though not exactly the same given the structural differences between the two. Nook will also be expandable via micro-SD cards, which Kindle painfully is not.

Both devices feature some form of audio support, though Kindle has the advantage of supporting Audible’s 4 and enhanced formats. This is an advantage if you are a regular Audible user. Which I am.

Of the two I am drawn to the Kindle, mainly because of the Audible-ready aspect, but also because of the Kindle app for the iPod Touch. That was itself a matter of pure timing as it was available with a wide selection of books I wanted when I wanted them, whereas the Barnes & Noble eReader did not. The Kindle app works very basically, and after the enhancements of the latest version is quite workable as an eReader. The Barnes & Noble version, which is a rebranded version of the very robust Fictionwise app, is much more feature-rich than the Kindle app and has the distinct advantage of a well-entrenched e-reader format with a selection of free books readily available online. Kindle is going to port its reader app to Mac and PC soon, and one wonders if a Linux version will appear somehow or someway (without needing WINE of course).

Thanks to the apps and the ubiquity of the iPhone/iPod Touch, I can move from one realm to the other without having to commit to a single format. As I said above though, of the two my leaning is toward Kindle, though I won’t be making a purchase for another few months (here’s to hoping the tax refund is there and reasonably substantial). The closed-in nature of Kindle/Amazon is a concern to me, and the Chump Factor here is immense, especially given the fickle nature of Amazon’s cell providers of late and its disturbing lack of WiFi.

E-Readers are the future, like it or not. Reading is wonderful beyond words (an odd expression sure, but here it is), and books are lovely bulky smelly things. The notion of a library in one spot and within reach is tantalizing and satisfies my habit of reading several books at once. The absurdity of formats and competing devices and gestalts is annoying, as it was with Beta/VHS, HD-DvD/BluRay and Mac/PC, but it will harmonize eventually to be sure.

Just as long as I get my money’s worth out of whatever device I get before it obsoletes on me.

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