In yet another attempt to launch the idea of Star Trek style reading on the world, Sony has released the Portable Reading System, an electronic book reader sporting a new screen technology and capable of holding 80 books. It is a small device about the size of an average paperback, about half an inch thick, weighing nine ounces, and having a six inch screen. The release of this ebook reader is the first in several years, after makers the new technology found that it wasn’t catching on as planned. Although the Sony PRS-500 sports a new screen technology designed to mimic paper, its prospects sound doubtful at best.
The Portable Reading System’s claim to fame is its E Ink® technology, a mechanical system working in a similar manner to the flipping schedule display boards at train stations. Rather than using a liquid crystal display screen, as cell phones, laptops, and previous ebooks do, the E Ink® system uses tiny beads, black on one side and white on the other, to display text. The beads are rotated by an electric charge, displaying text with a feel that is allegedly similar to paper. With this system, a page can be displayed indefinitely without using battery power. The only operation that drains the battery is turning pages, which the PRS-500 can do 7,500 times on a charge.
Sony’s website claims that the reader can hold about 80 titles in its 64 megabytes of internal memory, convenient to be sure, but prompting the question of where these titles will come from. Sony suggests that users buy books from the CONNECT eBookstore™, at a price not much lower than the price of physical books. Short of doing that, one could load free public domain books onto the reader, using, for example, the project Gutenberg online library, taking advantage of the reader’s compatibility with a number of formats. However, as has been the case in the past, readers would quickly come up against a lack of reading material.
It is not that the technology to digitalize text does not exist. Google has recently built a gigantic searchable library of books from numerous academic libraries, using machines that can turn books’ pages, take pictures of them, and convert the resulting images into text. However, copyright issues have not been resolved, and the bulk of this text is unavailable to the would-be ebook owner.
As has been the case with other ebook readers before it, the PRS-500 may be doomed not to catch on. Several years ago, another company, NuvoMedia’s Ebook Gemstar launched a line of somewhat more primitive ebooks, hoping to start a new trend of space-age reading. It did not. Perhaps because of the lack of reading material, and perhaps because people just prefer the feel of an old fashioned book in their hands, Sony’s Personal Reading System is likely not to catch on.