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BY NICO VREELAND

In the past few weeks, several companies have announced sheet-of-paper-sized ereaders, a trend which no doubt reflects a growing desire to crack into the lucrative business/student ebook market. The problem is that, while bigger screens are necessary for students and businesspeople, bigger screens alone will not make for a suitable device.

The fragility of the screens, the still nascent state of E-Ink, and the inadequacy of all current content interaction systems are just a few flaw that ereaders need to address before these devices become a commonplace sight on college campuses. Simply enlarging the display (and the price) won’t by itself create a perfect ereader for students and business users.

That said, though, I think this trend toward big ereaders could spell great news down the line for the state of ereading.

Here’s what’s happening, why it won’t be mind-blowing in the short-term, and how it could finally take ereaders mainstream.

The players

Most recently, CrunchGear posted news that Brother will release an ereader with a 9.7″ screen in Japan on June 1st (pictured above). The price? A staggering $1450, and from the looks of the interface in the early pictures, it won’t even have a touchscreen. PCWorld reports:

Brother intends the e-reader to be used in situations like factories, offices or by salespersons who typically need to access and refer to manuals and other data during their working day.

That seems like a slender niche market; I doubt it’ll catch on.

Then, there are rumors everywhere that Apple’s purported large-screen iPod Touch, which might actually be a netbook, might actually really be a large-screen ereader of its own. Largely, this kerfuffle seems to have been generated by a quote from Chicago Sun-Times contributor Andy Ihnatko in Newsarama:

“There’s something I keep hearing, and I don’t think I’d rank it as high as a rumor, but it’s an interesting story that I keep hearing, that for awhile, trucks loaded with books would arrive at a loading dock on the Apple campus, and offload big, big, big, big, huge load of books, and then the trucks would leave empty. … There’s been a long-standing rumor that Apple has been silently preparing to open a bookstore on the iTunes store…”

I’m in favor of Apple getting into ebooks, even if I doubt the new device will be an ereader.

Plus, we already know about Plastic Logic’s plans to release a sheet-of-paper-sized ereader, and the iRex 1000s is the only ereader actually out now that has both the large screen size and an interface that lets you write on ebooks as you would 0n paper. But the 1000s’s price tag, nearly $900, pretty much prohibits it from being widely adopted by student (even though it now pales in comparison to the Brother’s).

All this marks a substantial movement toward large displays. However, there are a few issues that need to get resolved on the way to business/student ereader ubiquity.

The problems to solve

The most pressing problem is that E-Ink simply isn’t fast enough, agile enough, or colorful enough for students to use for textbooks. This is just going to be a matter of time and development, driven by the fact that looking at an E-Ink screen is much more pleasant than looking at an LCD. Eventually, all our screens will be E-Inks screens, but, for now, the technology isn’t ready for anything that must be dynamically interacted with.

Secondly, there’s content interactivity. No current ereader interacts with text the way you can with a book. Early adopters might be a little forgiving of this functionality and so might the manual-toting factory workers that Brother seems to be targeting. But anybody who does anything with a book other than stare it simply cannot find an ereader that will replace the functionality of a pen and paper.

A final problem, but by no means the least troublesome, is that most E-Ink screens are quite fragile. My first Sony Reader’s screen broke disastrously, and it was in its case, in my backpack at the time. That’s a fragile screen, especially for a device with a touchscreen interface. I had a devil of a time getting my money back, and I’ve read many accounts of customers not getting any money back at all.  Making the screen four inches bigger will do nothing but exacerbate this problem.

Hopefully, something like Plastic Logic’s prototype flexible display will become commonplace eventually. In the meantime, somebody has to start making hard cases for these things. I was worried enough about my new ereader’s screen that I bought a metal box and felt strips on eBay, in order to make my own hard case (more on that soon).

In sum: large-screen ereaders should help, but will not be mass-adopted anytime soon

The very fact that companies are designing these big devices is a heartening sign that people are starting to realize the broad potential of ebooks beyond what ereaders currently offer. However, it doesn’t seem like they yet know exactly what that potential is.

The race isn’t simply to make bigger screens, the race is to adequately mimic—or even improve upon—the current functionality of paper books.

However, in the interim before E-Ink platforms become suitable for textbooks, some stiff competition could definitely help drive the development of more capable, more interactive interfaces.

I’m on record saying that ereaders aren’t ready for students, and I’ve seen nothing in this latest ereader trend that shows me anything to the contrary. Right now, reading textbooks on laptops is more useful than any dedicated reading device. The first company that can upset that balance (and deliver a reasonable price point) will be the winner, and there’s no winner yet.

You’ve got to crawl before you walk, though, so I’m considering the Brother and its cousins a pretty decent crawl.

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