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One point of view, taking note of sundry "cool" things that affect-- or could affect-- the education business.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

E-Ink Bound for Bookbags?

Remember the heady days of the dot-com bubble? When everything everywhere was "going digital," and the internets were going to revolutionize everything from commerce to pudding? Well, it's time to dust off one of the "also ran" technologies that made to the list of things that didn't make the big time: eBook readers. (Or E-Book readers, or e-book readers, or some other iteration blending a creative use of cApitalization or hy-phen-ation or lackofspace.)

Seems iRex, a European technology concern, has finally released details on the iLiad eBook reader they announced last fall. Sadly, the device fails to "revolutionize" much of anything, although the specs and form factor are a marked improvement over the technology of 1999. (Thinner. Lighter. More memory. Touch-screen interface. Longer battery life.) The only thing this eBook (iRex's spelling) reader has that wasn't around a few years back is e-ink, which is largely responsible for the extended battery life.

e-ink is a technology that only consumes power when it changes the image displayed. It uses bi-lobal crystals a la LCD technology but in a solid-state form that allows the display to hold its' image without consuming battery juice. You only use power when you re-draw the screen.
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Sadly, the iLiad doesn't pack much more of a punch. It reads PDF files, XHTML, raw text, and will play mp3's. Given the fact that Adobe is pulling the plug on DRM technology for the PDF format (2007), the likelihood of seeing visually appealing monochromatic pages on iLiad isn't high. Publishers, in their relentless pursuit of filthy lucre, are going to want some assurance that the first eBook copy they sell won't also be the last.

Sony, a brand with just a mite more muscle than iRex, also recently announced an eBook reader. Their boasts PDF compatibility, but ups the ante with an online bookstore boasting 10,000 titles at launch (any day now) and a proprietary (and ostensibly secure) file format called BBeB (BroadBand eBook). Sony's unit will reportedly sell in the $300 to $400 range, while iLiad is purported to run (yikes!) a whopping 650 Euros, which is more than $800 US (or else it's 39 degrees; we always get those celsius/metric conversions messed up).

With price points that high, Johnny won't be loading one of these full of his textbooks any time soon. But the technology has gotten better, and usability is coming into line with expectations. If it's just a question of cost, Moore's Law should render these at a more accessible price point within 18 months to 2 years. It might be too late to help the Class of 2006, but maybe by the time the Class of 2010 rolls around, students will be schlepping e-ink and spare batteries rather than textbooks and notebooks. By that time, tablet interfaces will be more common and elegant (witness Micro$oft's push of Origami), batteries will have more life in less weight, and e-ink may be ready for color.

But speaking of Origami, why would someone shell out $400 for an eBook reader when they can get a full-on tablet portable running Windows for one more Benjamin? Origami promises multimedia capability, real computing power, wireless connectivity, Bluetooth, and color. And yeah, it'll open a PDF file, too. Devices will come from several hardware playas, meaning competition and downward price pressure. These, too, will be subject to Moore's Law (which states that computing power doubles and prices split in half about every 18 months). And with Nicholas Negroponte's OLPC project, who knows? Maybe a hand-cranked version for the US market will bring computers to students for half the current going rate.

No matter how it shakes out, though, it's coming. Call it one-to-one computing or an eBook revolution or OLPC or Origami, the stars are aligning in the constellation Technologus, and students in schools around the world will soon be able to learn like never before. Cool, huh?

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