I've been writing a lot about e-readers lately. Of course, they're all over the news and are having a tough time competing with new generations of tablets/MIDs/slates/whatever you want to call the tablet-y things that flew out of CES and are most likely flying out of Cupertino next week. I've written quite a bit about their inherent limitations, as well as possible applications in ed tech and often, I've come to the conclusion that better content, combined with a solid reader app on a PC or smartphone is just a better choice all around than a dedicated e-ink reader device.
I'm still not convinced that e-readers as we currently know them (think Kindle, Sony Reader, and even the Nook) won't be gobbled up by smarter phones and tablets/netbooks that can provide near-PC functionality along with a tolerable reading experience. E-ink/e-paper really does make for a great reading experience, but I wonder if it's enough to justify yet another device in my bag (or that of the students I support).
I wonder about library management and deployment issues, DRM, and file formats, none of which are addressed very well for school applications in the current crop of e-readers.
Then I discovered Calibre and I have to wonder if it just might take cheap e-readers and make them really useful, especially for high school and college students. Larry Dignan reported last week that $150 was a magical pricepoint at which we could expect to see a whole lot of e-readers getting sold. Citing research by the Yankee Group,
...the e-book reader [is defined] as devices with the following characteristics:
Processor speeds limited to 700 Mhz or less; ePaper displays; Storage capped at 4 GB. Yankee Group’s forecast is based on the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony Reader, Interead’s COOL-ER, Plastic Logic’s Que, enTourage’s eDGe, Hearst’s Skiff and Foxit’s eSlick.
These all share the limitations I've discussed before and yet Calibre has the potential to transform these cheap, limited devices into a portable reference and pleasure library that is hard to match. Check out this video overview of Calibre, an open source e-book management system that replaces management systems sold with a variety of mainstream e-books:
I now have Calibre running on my home web server and can access my e-books from anywhere. E-books is suddenly defined much more loosely, though, as it can include any PDFs I generate or download, a variety of reference and periodical subscriptions that Calibre can manage, and countless web clips that I can easily save for reference.
I have everything from our school district's teacher master contract to Joomla reference manuals to Stephen King's latest book loaded up on Sony PRS 600 and managed via Calibre. I save documents that I need to reference offline into PDFs and load them into Calibre. I save meeting notes and interview questions. You name it, if I can turn it into a PDF, a text file, or an EPUB, I've started loading it up for later reference or review.
Calibre bypasses Sony's store-centered interface on my Reader and just makes it a reference library with my own materials, downloaded materials, and purchased books. This warrants further exploration, but it certainly suggests a useful educational usage model for the cheap e-readers that will be flooding the market soon. We're already very close to the right price point. Tell me how you'd use Calibre with your students, or if you think that the Kindle-style e-reader is on its last legs in the face of x86 and ARM-based tablet competition.