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Crave Talk: Ebook reader will be literature's iPod

With magazine and newspaper sales falling, is the electronic-book reader the future for portable literature? We take a look at what you'll be clutching on the Tube come next year

"Books have to be read. It is the only way of discovering what they contain. A few savage tribes eat them, but reading is the only method of assimilation revealed to the West," so said novelist EM Forster. But little did his Bloomsbury Group dream of the invention of the electronic-book reader -- an entirely new method of ingesting literature.

At first, ebook readers looked like a novelty -- they were bulky and impractical. But with the invention of plausible electronic ink technologies that truly mimic the properties of traditional paper, it seems increasingly likely that we will see an uptake in ebook readers on a scale that will make iPod sales look insignificant.

We are a nation of readers. Compare newspaper, magazine and book sales to music sales and you rapidly get an idea of just how massive the market for readable material is. The trains are packed with commuters reading the morning news. They outnumber iPod listeners ten to one.

The new breed of electronic books use a screen that is non-reflective and can be read outside in bright sunlight or in a dimly lit train carriage. The black and white text, combined with a high resolution of approximately 170 pixels per inch, gives an appearance similar to newspaper. This is the key to the success of the electronic reader -- it is practically indistinguishable from the medium it replaces, yet just below the surface it's infinitely more versatile.

Many newspapers and magazines now offer full-blown PDF versions of their product online. The leap from here to the complete disappearance of printed material is not massive. Subscribing to The Guardian or Time Out via your wireless book reader and having a fresh copy waiting for you each morning on the virtual pages of your e-reader was once a fanciful idea. But today it's actually possible with a bit of jiggery-pokery -- soon it'll be a standard feature.

Falling magazine and newspaper sales generally suggest that many casual readers are turning to the Internet for their news and features. The electronic reader is the obvious successor to the printed word. It retains the advantages of paper (portability and readability) while embracing the speed and immediacy of the Internet. While traditional magazines are shunned for their static reportage on the recent past, an electronic reader is as up-to-date as the last time you were within range of a network.

Sony led the charge for an ebook reader earlier in the year, debuting the Sony Reader at CES in January. There was also the iLiad from iRex. Now, at CEATEC in Japan, both Panasonic and Fujitsu are showcasing their offerings (pictured above).

Remarkably, Sony doesn't show any signs of understanding how big this market could be. Its lacklustre release schedule was particularly puzzling (the Sony Reader has only just gone on sale in the US, with no definitive UK release date). It's beginning to look like either Panasonic or Fujitsu will steal the cake.

There is, of course, the looming shadow of DRM (digital rights management) restrictions -- although, for the moment, the Sony offering will display standard PDFs and the iLiad is essentially DRM-free.

The environmental benefits of a paperless distribution system are huge, not to mention the enormous influence the designers of a successful 'iPod for books' will wield over consumer society. Companies like Microsoft should be asking themselves why so much effort is being squandered on unseating the iPod with dead donkeys like the Zune when a far bigger, untapped market is so clearly ready for the taking. 2007 will prove that the pen is mightier than the pod. -Chris Stevens