I’ve been fascinated by e-book reader devices, ever since I first saw a review for one of these devices, way back in 1998. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be presenting a look at the wonderful world of e-book readers in a 5 part series of articles.

What is an E-book reader?

The term e-book reader can refer to both software used to read electronic books or e-books to dedicated hardware devices for reading e-books. I will be largely focusing on the dedicated hardware devices for reading e-books and not on the software used. The evolution of the software and file formats used for e-books is in itself equally interesting and deserves much more attention.
In its simplest form an e-book reader had a screen for displaying the text of the e-book, buttons to move forward, backward in the book and to access device functions. To a large extent this basic design is still seen in most e-books today, though gradually touch screens where gestures achieve the same function as buttons, seem to be catching on.
I will touch on the specific technology that goes into making e-books a bit later. For now, let’s look at the interesting history of e-book reader devices.

Early beginnings

E-book readers can be considered to have first come into their own as a device class, almost two decades ago in 1989. In that year Franklin introduced one of the earliest hardware devices for reading e-books. The device was called the Bookman, and served principally to read The Bible. Later on cards were sold (retailing at $10-$30) through which one could add e-books to the device. The device featured a primitive LCD screen that showed between 2 to 8 lines of text (depending on the model and font size). The device was followed by Sony’s Data Discman which debuted in 1990 in Japan and 1991 in the US. This device had a larger 10 line LCD display (about 3.5 inches). E-books available for the device were mainly on small CDs which sold for $20-$50. The e-books available for the Data Discman were mainly reference books like encyclopedias, movie guides etc. The device came at a steep price of $550 and never really caught on outside Japan.

The Age of PDA’s

The next “wave” in the e-book reader market came with the introduction of the PDA. Apple introduced its PDA called the Newton in 1993. The Newton had an e-book reader program called the Newton Book-reader, which allowed the device to double up as an e-book reader.  Palm introduced its now legendary PDA, the Palm Pilot in 1996. In late 1996, the company introduced its PalmDoc format for PDAs and subsequently from 1997 onwards, e-books began to appear for the Palm. Simultaneously, Microsoft got into the act and began developing its own operating system for handheld devices called Windows CE in 1996. This eventually resulted in the introduction of the PocketPC in 2000. PocketPC supported e-books through Microsoft Reader and the LIT format. Soon other formats and readers like the Mobipocket were available for the PocketPC platform. Meanwhile in 1999, Franklin introduced its PDA like eBookMan. The eBookMan supported common PDA functions but was designed to serve more as an e-book reader than a PDA.
All these devices had touch screen LCD’s, and most allowed handwritten input via a stylus which in some cases could be used to make notes while reading.

history of e-book readers

The standalone e-book reader

Since the introduction of the Franklin Bookman, most e-book readers were usually not dedicated devices but more like PDAs with the ability to read e-books. All this changed in 1998 with the introduction of the Rocket eBook and the Softbook reader. Both devices featured large LCD screens, which made using the reader almost like reading a paperback sized novel. They also featured expandable memory and adequate battery life that ensured in some cases up to a day of reading on a single charge. Gemstar which bought Rocket eBook, as well as introduced Softbook reader, continued to introduce new devices from 2001 onwards.  Bookeen launched its Cybook Gen 1 device running on Windows CE in 2004. The device featured a large 10” LCD screen, Windows CE as the OS. Most of the devices introduced in this era featured large LCD screens (usually touch screens), usable battery life and OS flavors ranging from proprietary systems to Windows CE and Linux. However all this was about to change.

Rise of the e-ink devices

While LCD screen remained the de-facto display choice for quite some time, this changed with the introduction of Sony’s Libre in 2003. Libre used an e-ink display and was the first e-book reader to do so. E-ink is a type of electronic paper that was developed by the E-Ink Corporation. E-Ink displays offer a crisp paper-like reading experience and only consume power while changing pages, thereby allowing the device to run for a long time on a single charge.  The Libre mainly sold in Japan, though the device found its way to the US through online vendors. Sony replaced the Libre in 2006 by the PRS-500 and later followed it up with the PRS-505 in 2007. Recently Sony launched its latest model the PRS-700 in 2008. This model featured a touch screen to access the menus and change pages. Other manufacturers also bought e-book devices to the market. Notable among these were the Hanlin e-book reader in 2006, the iRex Iliad in 2006 and the Cybook Gen 3 from Bookeen in 2007.
Then Amazon entered the fray and changed the rules of the game with its popular Kindle in 2007. The device featured an e-Ink screen, keyboard and a unique way of delivering content to the device. Amazon teamed up with Sprint to introduce WhisperNet, a wireless network that made accessing Amazon’s online store for e-books possible from anywhere in the US. For the first time you could get books onto your reader without the need for a computer. It was revolutionary!
Amazon released the latest versions of its Kindle devices, the Kindle 2 and the larger Kindle DX in 2009. Other notable releases in the year 2009 included Foxit’s eSlick reader and the iPod themed Cool-er from Interead.  Other releases slated for this year include the first color e-ink device (current e-ink based readers only display in grayscale) from Fujitsu called the FLEPia, Wizpac’s textr and Plastic Logic’s reader.
LCD devices continued to be introduced during this period. One of the most recent devices introduced was the JetBook which was introduced in 2008 and featured a 5” reflective LCD screen. Besides LCD based devices, the introduction of large screen smart phones like the iPhone and the proliferation of applications for them, has seen the increase in popularity in using the phone as an e-book reader.
I hope this article has provided some insight as to how e-book readers have evolved over the last two decades. In the next installment, I will discuss the technology that goes into making today’s e-books.

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