The Ideal Ebook

By: Edward Bilodeau
December 17, 2000

There are often times during the course of the day where I find myself with a few minutes with nothing to do. Waiting for the bus, sitting on the bus, waiting for the metro, riding on the metro, waiting for someone, waiting for a meeting to start, waiting for a meeting to end... you get the idea. Unable to just idle, usually search about for something to read, if only to kill the time.

Unless I happen to be carrying around my current reading pile, I usually end up reading whatever is on hand: advertizements, product packaging, bank machine receipts, etc. That's usually enough for me to get my fix and keep my brain sufficiently occupied until the next major event occurs.

Recently, I came up with an idea: wouldn't it be great if I could always have a document of some sort on hand to read. Something technical, preferably, that could stand and would in fact require several re-readings before wearing out. Somehow, it would have to be small enough so that I could carry it on me always without ever thinking about it.

For me, the solution was simple. I could easily find an interesting, heavy document on the web. Having just purchased a printer for home (HP DeskJet 952C), I figured I could use that to print out the document. To get it small enough, I'd have to create a small page format in Word, copy the text over, print it out, and manually trim away the excess paper. A bit tedious, but still worth it since I saw the document as having a useful lifespan of at least a few months.

Fortunately for me, the process turned out to be even easier then that. While playing around with the Printer options, I noticed that the HP DeskJet printer driver allowed you to print either 2 or 4 pages per sheet.

Not quite as fancy as HP's PostScript driver, but still, good enough for my purposes.

First, I loaded the test document, the (AM/FM DXing) FAQ (more on that some other time), into IE. Then I set the printer to print 4 pages to a sheet, with page outlines. I got something like this:

Once it was printed, I manually cut the pages out, fastened them with a stapler, and voila! my first "little book".

So far, the little book has been a success, although it is starting to look a little worn down after having been carried around in my pocket for a month or so. Having solved this particular dilemma, I moved on to other, more pressing issues.


Time passes, then one day, I come across this post over on David's site:

My friend [...] reads his latest book, to an audience at Chapter, from a lil green Palm Pilot. I told him I don't believe the hardware is ideally there for me, but given the choice of my favourite latest hardcover in that massive book format and the small green palm, while sitting on the subway every morning, I think you know what I would choose.

"While sitting on the subway..." All of a sudden, I understood why one day I would want to have an ebook, or at least a device capable of displaying ebook text. With the right design, at the right price-point, I could use an ebook to have whatever documents I wanted on hand at all times. For some reason, I always thought of the ebook in the context of a book-replacement [1], and not for viewing shorter documents. I still can't see myself reading an entire book on an ebook, but smaller documents? Bring it on!

Realize, I used to own a Palm II, and I gave it away. Having to always buy new batteries was a drag, and I just found that I wasn't using it all that often. Before I run out and spend any more money on fancy gizmos, I'm going to have to put some serious thought into just what is it that I'm looking for.

Here are my specs for the ideal ebook reader:

At the same time, the ebook does not need to have any of the following:

I don't know if such a machine exists yet. Inexpensive, highly specialized devices like the one I'm describing here are not exactly in vogue these days. More typical is the trend of keeping the price point at the same level while cramming in more and more features. There must be some real economics or marketing savvy behind this, but I'll be damned if I can figure it out.

At least now I have a better idea of what I'm looking for. Expect to see more here as I look into this. Also, if you have any comments or suggestions, please email me at

[1] I figure that the people promoting ebooks are following the "give away the razor, make money on the razor blades" model. If they can sell people on the idea of reading books on an electronic device, all of a sudden they have a market for their product that follows the same economics as the software market. Additional books can be sold without incurring significant additional costs. (They also get to resell us all those books we've already paid for, just like they did with CDs.) They are only interested in selling me a product viewer, and not a tool for general document viewing. [back to text]