Last week I gave a talk about social media to some marketing and promotions people for two Canadian publishers. As a speaker’s gift, I was given a Sony Reader Digital Book.

It’s a thin slab of aluminum, the size of a paperback and the thickness of an iPod. It’s wrapped in a soft leather cover and, when closed, looks for all the world like a Moleskine notebook. Open that cover, and it’s a whole different story.

The Book’s screen is made of e-paper. Imagine millions of tiny ping pong balls embedded in vanilla pudding. One half of each ball is white; the other half is black. Depending on how they’re rotated in the pudding, the balls can appear white, black or as a shade of grey.

By applied targeted electric charges, individual balls can be asked to rotate. Since it takes 166 balls lined up to make an inch, you can use an obedient matrix of the little guys, acting in concert, to form letters about the size of the letters you see in a book or magazine. That’s e-paper. It’s like having a dynamic Xerox machine that can change the content on a page in the blink of an eye.

The remarkable thing about e-paper is that there is no flicker, no harsh backlight. In fact, in bright sunlight it looks as matte and easy to read as a printed page.

Beneath the e-paper, inside the Book, is a memory chip that can store up to 160 average-length books. That means the Reader Digital Book is not really a book at all. It’s an uberbook. It can call up for display any of the thousands upon thousands of pages in its memory. You can bookmark a page, flip to a specific page and select books from your library with a simple menu.

Best of all, e-paper displays only need to have electricity applied to them during a page change, so a single battery charge lasts for weeks, not hours like in a laptop.

Sony’s idea is that you will buy a Book (about $300) and then spend even more money at the Sony eBook Store online, where it sells e-books burdened with Digital Rights Management (DRM) locks. Scott McClellan’s insider peek at the Bush Administration, What Happened, is available for $16.77, for example. But, once I buy that ebook, I can’t share it, resell it or make copies of it.

So, I have absolutely no intention of buying it, or anything else from Sony’s online bookstore.

Why? Because I want to have the same rights with my electronic content as I have with my books in the real world. DRM takes those rights away.

And, because the Reader Digital Book can also display plain text files, Word documents, PDFs and hundreds of thousands of public domain books like The Prince or Sense and Sensibility. Those books are available in a format the Book can read at sites like Feedbooks and ManyBooks . And, of course, the motherlode of all public domain e-books is Project Gutenberg, which is home to about 250,000 free titles.

And, there are some authors, like the DRM and copyright critic Cory Doctorow, who have put even their newest work (the excellent Little Brother, in Cory’s case) up on ebook sites DRM-free for folks to suck into their readers. I did just that, and bought a print copy to share with my non-ebook friends to support Cory.

There are also online utilities like WikiType that will convert any wikipedia entry into a properly formatted e-book complete with indexed section heads.

This is what I love about the Web. Here’s a device that’s designed as a repository for e-books that are hamstrung by DRM, and a whole subculture of open source geeky goodness has sprung up to supply it and other ebook readers like it with a wealth of unburdened, open source content.

For the past couple of days I’ve read Little Brother on the device, read research for some writing I have to do, read a long wikipedia entry on World War One and have started to re-read The Great Gatsby. I’ve had lots of comments on the subway and Go Train. One woman, looking over my shoulder at the magically changing pages looked at me and said, “Is this what we’ve all been waiting for?”

And, I have to say, holding a little silver book that contains a shelf full of fiction and research, it does feel like I’m living in the future. The fact that that future is 100 per cent DRM-free makes it taste pretty sweet.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...