This page is dedicated to a general overview of "eBooks" and the relevant information needed to start exploring the related technology.
- - an electronic document that maintains many of the formating characteristics (typography) of traditional books.
- - an electronic version of any printed work
- eBook Reader
- - a device dedicated to reading electronic documents
- - software written to read electronic document formats.
Also known as E-Book and various combinations of the cases for the first two letters.
Ebook users, and the surrounding culture, are interested with anything electronic and text based. Its acolytes are focused on such pursuits as open intellectual property, well archived accessible data, or things as simple as reading with one hand in the bathtub. The idea to ponder is, what happens when all text is accessible electronically, and is viewable anywhere.
There has been at least one early attempt at a portable book reading device. It was called the Fiske Reading Machine and dates back to 1922. It was followed a bit later with a Handheld Portable Microfiche Reader.
As modern eBook Readers have a computer inside, the beginning of eBooks begins with the underpinnings of the computer itself. Initially the idea of electronic text was not in the minds of early computer designers of the 1940s. Early computers were concerned with number crunching. A 4 bit code was developed called BCD (binary coded decimal) to represent the numbers. By the 50s the idea of letters appeared but they only considered text useful for messages. Adding letters increased the BCD coding scheme to 6 bits (64 combinations). Uppercase letters and some symbols were all that were supported.
Meanwhile companies working on the electric communication of messages (Telex, TWX) in the 50s were also struggling to solve some of their own coding problems. They were using a 5 bit code derived from the Baudot code with only 32 combinations. They used two of those codes to switch between numbers/symbols and letters. As communication hardware and computer hardware began to interact a better system for coding was needed.
In the 60s a committee was assigned to solve the problem and the result was the seven bit ASCII code that we still use today. An initial design was implemented in 1963 but without lower case letters. In 1967 this was corrected. Part of the design was to select a letter order for the coding that permitted easy computer sorting alphabetically.
By the late 60s the guys at Bell Labs were designing a new OS justified, in part, by the need for a decent text editing capability to create electronic documents to be printed out. The result was Unix, which used the ASCII coding scheme.
In 1971 Project Gutenberg began with the typing in of the "Declaration of Independence." It was followed by the "Bill of Rights" and then the full Constitution of the United States. When this was completed the KJV Bible was entered one book at a time and finally the plays of Shakespeare.
In 1972 Alan Kay, a researcher for Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), came up with the idea for the Dynabook. This was a tablet like PC for children to aid in their education. It was also envisioned as a replacement for paper manuals for the military. It was never built.
In 1977 the home computer revolution began with three dominant players, Radio Shack, Apple, and Commodore. Again the need for electronic text was overlooked as Apple left lower case out of its original character ROM and Commodore hid the lower characters in a ROM that could only be accessed with an obscure undocumented Poke command and even then they operated improperly on the keyboard requiring a shift for lower case. The Radio Shack model tried to save money by removing one bit memory chip from the display and thus could not distinguish between upper and lower case letters. Adding this chip became a popular third party add-on. Radio Shack, Apple and Commodore corrected these errors later. Some form of TXT was available for these early machines.
Finally, in the 80s electronic text began to get the attention it needed but still primarily intended to be used to produce paper books. A few eBook texts started to appear only in TXT format and some Bible study software appeared featuring reading and searching text on the computer screen. The development of the LCD display opened the door for the Laptop computer which could be used to display an eBook. In 1989 Franklin introduced a portable hardware device called the Bookman containing the Bible and portable eBook reading had arrived. In 1990 Sony introduced a dedicated reading device called the Data Discman which used small CDs for data storage. It barely escaped from Japan and was never a huge success. CDROMs containing eBooks were readily available by 1993 for use on PCs. These eBooks were generally classics, religious text, and encyclopedias. Of these, only the encyclopedias were copyrightable, but protection schemes were used to protect some of the the programs that read these eBooks.
As more portable computer based solutions appeared in the 90s the idea of reading a book on a computer began to take form. Apple coined the term PDA to stand for Personal Data Assistant with the introduction of the Newton in 1992. Later models of the Newton reached a screen size of 5.9" making it a precursor to the tablet craze. The acronym PDA stuck but the D came to mean Digital rather than Data. Early Palmtop portable solutions were developed by Psion and Hewlett Packard using 8086 (x86) type processors.
Palm launched the PDA revolution with its Palm Pilot in 1996. Initially an eBook reader was an add-on to palmtop and PDA solutions. The PalmDoc format for eBooks appeared in late 1996 with eBooks in 1997. Microsoft started their own WinCE OS in 1996, initially for Palmtop computers and the PocketPC emerged in 2000. The Franklin eBookMan was introduced in 1999. While it could function as a PDA its emphasis was on eBook Reading.
 eBook Readers
The Rocket eBook and the Softbook Reader were introduced in 1998. Both products were bought by Gemstar LTD. in the year 2000. Hiebook appeared in 2001 from a Korean eBook company. In 2001, Gemstar went on to replace the black and white Rocket eBook with a black and white REB 1100 and later introduced a gray scale GEB 1150, which is currently the eBookwise-1150 with a 5.5" screen. The large screen (9.5") gray scale Softbook Reader was replaced with the REB 1200 / GEB 2150 color devices. The Bookeen Cybook Gen1 device was also a large screen color unit that used Windows CE as its embedded OS.
Jinke, under the Hanlin name, released its first e-paper reader the M1 (followed soon with the M2) in 2000 for the Chinese market using a BCD display. The first devices to use E Ink's technology, the Sony Librie (Japanese only) and the Hanlin V8 (Chinese only) appeared in 2004. Sony replaced the device with the PRS500 in 2006 and with the PRS505 in 2007. The Hanlin eBook Reader was released to the international market in 2006 and later replaced with several models. The Bookeen Cybook Gen3 (using Netronix hardware) and the Amazon Kindle were released in 2007. These all have 6" screens. The larger screen market is currently controlled by the iRex iLiad with its 8.1" Gray scale screen released in 2006 and an even larger 10" model introduced in October 2008 called the iRex Digital Reader.
2008 saw continuing release of new models and the introduction of the Hanvon N510 an E Ink Reader with a 5" screen. This became the rage in 2009 with many new 5" readers appearing on the market. Many new players emerged and most of the older players also released readers in this size. Amazon chose to buck that trend with the release of a second 6" reader and a large screen 9.7" reader called the Kindle DX. This anticipates a resurgence in larger screen readers by other manufacturers in early 2010.
As the idea of eBooks became more mainstream in 2010 the LCD screen was reintroduced for eBook Readers. While the battery life of these devices is still no where near the life of E Ink devices the color capability helps drive their popularity. Some of these devices include the iPad and Nook color. The iPad launched the idea of a multi-purpose device, a Tablet which finally became successful with it 9.7" screen. Today the market place for eBook reading seems divided between dedicated readers and Tablets.
Initially eBooks were available only for out of copyright books. The financial implications of eBook publishing and reprinting of books in electronic form had to be worked out before newer eBooks began to appear. The release of dedicated eBook devices in 1998 caught the attention of publishers although not yet the attention of the average consumer.
EBooks have yet to achieve global distribution. Early on the eBooks were created by the same company that made the eBook Reader and were in a format that only it could read. The dominate formats that emerged included the MOBI format from mobipocket, the LIT format from Microsoft, the eReader format and a few others. PDF has emerged as the standard electronic format for PCs and large screen formats but are not suitable for most eBook Readers.
The Amazon's Kindle still follows the proprietary model using a DRM modified form of mobi called AZW. They continue to dominate with the most eBooks available from any single source. Sony's PRS500 began with a proprietary model but has abandoned its proprietary format to go to the new emerging ePub standard format. With the notable exception of Amazon most eBook Readers are pursuing ePub as at least one of the eBook formats they support. ePubs are available with or without DRM depending on the source with regular book publishers favoring DRM.
See eBook fundamentals for additional topics on understanding the basic workings of an eBook.
- birth of computers
- first "Internets"
- prodigy / online encyclopedia
- early PDAs and digital bibles (Bookman)
- eBooks of the late 90s
- Tablet PCs - 2003
- Electronic Ink Devices - 2004
- The biggest advantage is convenience and choice. A user can carry an entire library of eBooks with them and then pick the one they want to read or jump back and forth.
- Visually impaired folks can increase the font size to make reading easier. And others may enjoy this feature due to lighting conditions or just to relieve eye strain.
- Portability means you can read at odd moments when you are waiting around. Or perhaps look something up if you have some references on your device.
- Reading is generally one handed.
- EBooks can be obtained via downloading instead of having to visit a physical store.
 Current Problems
- E Ink is the current state of the art in eBook display but it has some limitations:
- limited gray scale (not color and not even very many levels of gray on most devices).
- no built-in light. E Ink can't be back-lit and other techniques haven't been developed.
- page turns are slow and include a flash to black. (Most users don't seem to mind).
- fragile glass substrate, so easily broken.
- DRM usage has restricted eBook readers to a single format for DRM'd eBooks. Sony now supports two DRM formats.
- The idea of DRM itself is a pain for many users.
- Readers are too expensive for many users.
- PDF is the most popular format for eDocuments but does not scale well to eBook devices. Reflowable PDF software is starting to appear.
- Many books that users want are not available as eBooks.
 Near Future Projection
- PVI to release a 9.7" screen with polymer backing instead of glass to be more rugged.
- expect that polymer backing will ultimately replace glass as the preferred method as it avoids the problem of a broken screen that occasionally happens to current devices with a glass backing.
- expect touch screens to be more prevalent.
- expect wireless connectivity to be more prevalent.
- expect color displays.
- expect faster display response.
- expect text to speech (tts) and mp3/ogg audiobook capability.
- expect eTextbooks to be featured.
 Other Names
There are all kinds of electronic material besides just books that are available for reading electronically. In this article the term eBook is being used in the generic sense of all electronic reading material but some people think there should be a more generic term so that items like newspapers, magazines, and other forms can be covered. Thus the terms "digital media" or "Digital publishing" are also in use. Amazon uses the term e-documents and divides their content into e-docs and e-Books where e-docs do not use DRM although they may still be copyrighted. Gutenberg Press uses the term e-text to distinguish regular ASCII text files from those that contain eBooks. Others use the e-text term as a generic name for any e-document. Of course terms like e-newspaper and e-magazine are also in use. Note that the hyphen in these terms is often omitted.
This has also been extended to the reading devices themselves. Some use the term ereader or e-reader to refer to the device used to read eBooks but this can be confusing as there is also a product called eReader.