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Crave Talk: Apple could set eBooks on fire

Rumours are rife that the next generation of iPods will be eBook compatible. But will this really put the boot into Sony's ventures into electronic readers?

If there's a vowel in the month, it must be iPod rumour time. One of the better ones is that the next round of iPods will be eBook compatible. eBooks require no paper, they're just files displayed in special reader software. Because you can fit loads of them into a small bit of memory, they've been pushed as a new and more convenient way to consume your reading material on the move.

They haven't done that well. Companies like Sony have produced rather tasty custom hardware, but to a varied reception. "Aha!" chortle the critics, "The new iPod will be a great success. Take that, Sony and your expensive, limited eBook silliness! Apple will swipe your library card".

That's so wrong. If the iPod grows eBookishness and does it right, it could be the best thing to happen to Sony's eBook since rich people learned how to read. Doing it right means not trying to squeeze every penny out of the system by excluding free content -- by all means have an online bookstore, just let people load their own stuff on. It means having proper search (which paper can't do), as well as a way of bookmarking, annotating and copying text (which paper can, when upgraded with a 30p pencil). It doesn't mean having tweaks like text-to-speech, if-you-liked-that-you'll-like-this, signed copies from the author and so on. Do them if you must. It doesn't matter.

If Apple gets it right, then reading eBooks on the iPod will become very popular. You can fit thirty novels in the space needed by one music track, so it's no hardship to keep a few hundred books floating about to fill spare moments, and Wikipedia will find its way into many pockets. A nice thing to have.

Yet no matter how good the iPod's software and screen is, it won't be that good an eBook reader. There are too many compromises in making the device an audio and video player too -- battery life, screen resolution and the cost of components mean that it's never going to be that good at displaying text under all circumstances. If you get into the eBook habit, you'll soon be in the market for something that does it better.

Step forward, Sony. Its eBook Reader has some superb features. The most important is the screen, which uses a new electronic ink technology with very high resolution, very high contrast and very low power consumption, reflected in the splendid battery life. Unfortunately, these unique good points are ruined by some sadly familiar examples of Sony's love of the proprietary: heavy digital rights management and closed file formats; limited ways to buy content; underwhelming software support.

Success for eBooks on iPod should create a market for everyone to enjoy. There's always the chance that Sony will deliberately turn away from this chance and insist on its right to drown its own puppy, but by now the company must have run out of toes to shoot. Ideally it will already be in talks with Apple to share in the online bookstore, but perhaps that's too much sanity for one day. A bit more openness and a bit of verve, and Sony could have a whole new market -- if it has the spine for it. Only time will tell if its eBook's missing that as well. -Rupert Goodwins