E-readers need to get better soon, or else

Or else what? This isn't some bad gangster movie where the bad guys are going to break the kneecaps of e-readers that don't meet educational needs, right?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Or else what? This isn't some bad gangster movie where the bad guys are going to break the kneecaps of e-readers that don't meet educational needs. However, if they don't make some real forward leaps in 2010, companies producing e-readers can expect to cede the educational market to any number of devices that can meet our needs.

Jason Perlow doesn't have a lot of good things to say about the current generation of e-readers and, while he's speaking from a largely consumer perspective, he got me thinking about what needs to happen for e-readers to tap the multi-billion dollar education sector. Where Jason predicts "the end of the beginning" for e-readers, I'm hoping that the Nook (which, on paper, looked incredibly promising, but is turning out to be remarkably kludgy as the reviews come in) isn't the beginning of the end.

Jason outlines many of their problems quite well, ranging from closed platforms to connectivity to slow performance, depending upon the e-reader in question. I've already talked about the lack of content, ad nauseum, but why should textbook publishers bring their books to devices that lack compelling hardware to really provide students with a good user experience. E-ink is quite nice for reading the latest paperback, but it stinks for visually rich content; it's current touch implementations are slow, inaccurate, and laggy, making marginal notes possible at least in Sony's Reader, but somewhat painful.

So what needs to happen to make these devices viable in education? What will make the Pearsons and Houghton-Mifflins of the world take notice and start pushing out content optimized for these devices? A few things:

  • I'm not even going to mention price. OK, I just did, but it goes without saying that these need to be really cost-effective.
  • Color. This is a no-brainer. Color e-ink exists and PixelQi (from OLPC display pioneer Mary Lou Jepsen) is very close to releasing sunlight-readable, low-cost color LCDs with refresh rates and resolutions that crush current e-ink.
  • A good touch interface. It doesn't have to be multi-touch, although it should support gestures for navigation. However, as I pointed out yesterday talking about the vaporware Apple Tablet, touch will be everywhere in 2010. It's a natural interface and means that a keyboard won't be necessary for note-taking in books. Marginal notes will live on.
  • Cloud integration and social networking. Want to make sure those notes are available in some way wherever you are? There should be an app for that and cloud support. Same goes for sharing notes, thoughts, and discussions on texts.
  • Open, standardized formats. Can you say EPUB? Build it to an open standard and they will come (textbook publishers, that is).
  • And finally, a reasonable approach to DRM. This will require some interesting partnership between the e-reader distributor and the content creators. However, I need to be able to purchase a set of books just as I would on paper, and load those books onto all of the students' e-readers in a given class. Come the end of the semester, I'd need to be able to transfer the license to another set of students. This might be the hardest piece of all, quite frankly, if the screens from PixelQi come to market anywhere near on time.

The thing is, this needs to happen in 2010. It can't wait, because if it does, everything from the Verizon Droid to the Apple Tablet (yeah, right) is fair game to display and manage content. Will EPUBs in a web browser or on a mobile phone be as visually appealing as on e-paper? Maybe not, but as we increasingly live in the cloud and online, the days of breaking out the books will be coming to an end. A word to Sony, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and whomever else wants to get in on the act? Get better now. Or I'll just start giving my students Droids and using open source textbooks.

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