I'm frightened. I'm starting to see the light behind eBooks. I've owned a Rocket eBook for years, but have only used it to avoid printing out free texts from Gutenberg and the like. Until the last couple of weeks, I'd never purchased an eBook. Recently, however, I noticed a few books I wanted were less expensive to grab as eBooks than to pay for used versions shipped to my door. Because I thought it'd be neat to try out eBooks on my old Palm III, I used the Mobipocket format. Let the experiment begin.

Mobipocket requires that you input your readers' "PID", a unique identification number, before downloading your books. As long as you have a relatively recent version of the Mobipocket reader, you can enter up to four PIDs, ostensibly for your computers and readers. I've got PIDs for my Palm and Vostro, as there's no Mac version of Mobipocket (though you can still use your Mac to send your book to your Palm, for example). Theoretically, I can't sell my used eBook. Practically speaking, the four PID "limit", though I have to assume it's against the license, means you could share your books with three more concurrent readers who have access to the net, and you could all read the book at the same time. Try that with paper. I also can keep as many backups of my books as I'd like. They're really quite small -- about 500k in this case -- and are easy to store around. The ability to save copies makes it difficult to misplace your eBooks for any considerable amount of time.

eBooks also solve two of my biggest paper media issues. I tend to be very careful with my books, even paperbacks, and I don't bend their spines. This makes them difficult to read while, say, eating. With eBooks, there's no issue keeping the "pages" open, nor any chance of screwing up their condition through coffee spills. My second issue with books is lighting, as when I'm reading in bed. Reading on a computer's screen fixes this perfectly.

It's also incalculably nice to be able to search a book for text and to copy decently sized portions into an email or other document. Highlighting and annotating in Mobipocket format aren't as flexible as adding manuscript marginalia to a printed book, but are serviceable replacements. My desire for immediate gratification is also much easier to satisfy with a quick download than an often unsuccessful used bookstore run. So far I've used fictionwise,com, which has a pretty good selection, short stories for sale on the cheap, and some wacky discounts for frequent buyers that I can't quite follow but seem to make things even more affordable.

I'll continue to worry about eBook readers going out of production, inexorably tying my eBooks to what could become obsolete platforms, but even the old Rocket eBook still finds limited support in the pay-to-read circles. I'll probably continue buying as many used [paper] books as I can find. Still, for those books I know up front I'm reading for fun that remain fairly expensive used, eBooks seem like a pretty danged good alternative.

PS -- The aging Palm III isn't, not surprisingly, the best eBook reader. The greyscale screen doesn't provide enough colors to see all of the Mobipocket 4.8 icons, and the measly two megs of memory fill up quickly with applications, leaving scant space for eBook storage that usually grab 500k or more at a time. Still, pdas and even laptops are the sorts of things I believe are going to be what people use to read eBooks, not dedicated eBook machines like the Rocket eBook reader or the Kindle. Once the iPhone SDK comes out, expect it to carry eBooks [if they don't already]. With its touchscreen and beautiful color display, the iPhone would be Mobipocket's perfect host. The application on the Palm works great, allowing one to annotate, highlight, and search intuitively. Best of all, it does the obvious: remember my page. Catch a few pages, turn it off, turn it on a half-hour later and you're right back reading again with no delay. A relatively stock Palm, even without much memory, can carry two decent-sized books in a physical package smaller than all but the smallest paperbacks. Even the tiny Palm III screen is good enough to get lost in a book. I've enjoyed using it as an eBook host, though it should be said Mobipocket's reader application works great on Vista with my widescreen Vostro.

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