(This is part of a series; the earlier posts are here.)
To make e-readers most effective, manufacturers and publishers have to make some improvements to their technology and to their business models.
Let me begin by focusing on readability. E-readers are still not quite as legible as paper. The Kindle 2 is a vast improvement over earlier readers, such as the Rocket eBook from about 10 years ago. Still, its dark-grey-on-light-grey contrast is not quite clear as the contrast on paper. Books on the Kindle 2 are readable, but at least slightly less so than paper.
Current e-readers also tend to reduce the size of illustrations, because of the smaller page size. [Footnote: The Kindle DX, with its fairly large screen, doesn’t seem to have this problem.] You can zoom in on part of an illustration, but that lets you see that part more clearly only at the expense of temporarily making other parts invisible. Either the screen has to get clearer, or the electronic versions of books have to break up the illustrations in ways that maintain the illustrations’ readability.
Second, annotating and highlighting is still considerably harder on e-readers than on ordinary books. On the Kindle 2, for instance, you have to hit a button several times to move the cursor to the words one wants to highlight. To write notes in the margin, you have to type your annotations on a small and fairly clunky keyboard. [Footnote: Cf. Jeffrey R. Young, How a Student-Friendly Kindle Could Change the Textbook Market, Chronicle of Higher Educ., May 6, 2009 (reporting that the difficulty with taking notes on a Sony e-book reader persuaded a university to abandon its experiment with switching to e-reader textbooks).]
Fortunately, it seems likely that a solution will not be long coming: a stylus-based interface, with which people can just touch what they want to highlight, and can handwrite whatever brief notes they want to jot down. Such interfaces are already available on other computers, so it seems likely that they will make their way to e-readers soon.
Third, current e-readers, and the ebooks that are sold for them, generally don’t include the same page numbers as the paper books. This may lead students to be reluctant to switch to e-reader textbooks while their classmates and teachers are still using paper books: When the teacher asks people to turn to p. 123, the e-reader users won’t know where to go.
Fortunately, this too should be easy to deal with. The Kindle software will just need to be able to display the current original page number on each screen, and to let people enter the page number they want. And publishers will have to insert the proper codes in the files that would indicate to the Kindle where each new paper page starts.
Fourth, e-reader search features are primitive — all you can do is search for a particular string. If e-readers are to become useful for large treatises, it would be helpful to allow a LEXIS-/WESTLAW- like set of search operators: AND, OR, NOT, NEAR, and the like. Again, though, the technology for this is readily available.