So, Sony’s Reader is out. This seems to be the first e-book reader that uses electronic paper and has a chance to be more than just a brief clunky curiosity.

The specs aren’t all that good, though. On the positive side, the display has a reasonable 170 dpi (200 to 300 is considered optimal for simulating actual paper) and battery life is reasonable at 7500 page turns. On the negative side, the display shows just 800×600 pixels and the dimensions aren’t ideal – slightly larger than a standard paperback, although a little thinner. From the pictures, the lines are too short for my taste, and 4-level grayscale isn’t enough to do proper antialiasing. And $349 is a little on the expensive side. It plays MP3 files but with only 64MB of memory that’s not much use.

My ideal e-book reader would have a 200 dpi screen which reproduces exactly the printable area of a standard paperback, which would mean a screen 1200 pixels tall and 700 pixels wide. Since the device has to compete against paperbacks, dimensions, weight and (ideally) price should be very similar. The Connect Store shows weirdly mixed prices; some, around the $6 level, not totally unreasonable, while others are in hardcover range. Come on, it’s not as if e-books have to pay for all that overhead of printing, binding, distributing, shipping, remaindering, and so forth. $4 should make e-books more accessible while at the same time paying better royalties to authors.

In 1989, Ben Bova wrote Cyberbooks, a funny and prescient tale of what would happen if such a subversive device as a cybernetic book would actually be brought on the market. Well, he didn’t foresee the emergence (only a very few years later) of the tubes, erhm, Internet, but it’s still a very readable story. Needless to say it seems to have sunk with very few traces; it’s out of print and Amazon has no cover picture available, and I know nobody else who has a copy.

Coming back to the present, I believe Apple should take a shot at this device. Jonathan Ive can do a much better design than the Sony Reader with one cerebral hemisphere tied behind his back, and a 1200×700, 200 dpi screen with 16 or more gray levels will certainly leave the labs soon.