Is paper dead?
Illustration: Adam Fitzcharles

Is paper dead?

When I first came to Japan, long before the advent of mobile phones, I was impressed by the number of people I saw reading on the trains -- a literate society, I thought. Later I noticed that many of them were not so much reading, as looking at comic books (apologies to all manga fans, but I still can’t regard this as an art form) or drooling over pictures of scantily-clad women.

But now the average train contains many busy thumbs as the readers squint at their cellphones, sending messages, or even reading books on these tiny screens. Although it seems a good idea to reduce the number of trees killed for our reading pleasure, the idea of reading (especially kanji) on a tiny screen does not appeal to me, and probably to others.

Hence the popularity of Amazon’s Kindle electronic book reader in the USA, which has started to revolutionize the reading habits of that country (it’s not available outside America at the time of writing). Japan has produced the Sony equivalent for some time (now on at least its third generation) but to be honest, I have yet to see one in everyday real-world use. I myself use the Stanza application for iPhone, but although it’s fine for reading novels on the train, I’d hate to consult a reference manual or similar using it. The whole idea of e-book readers is interesting to me -- I’m going through the process of self-publishing, and the amount of work needed to get a book into print is considerable (check out if you are interested - a PDF version is also available).

To add to the marketplace, Fujitsu Frontech has just introduced a new rival on the scene, the FLEPia. It’s the first color e-book reader on the market, and sells for considerably more than its rivals (about 100,000 yen). However, it comes with a number of advantages - the 8-inch touch screen, using OEL technology, is self-illuminating, and actually uses no battery power at all when not refreshing the page - Fujitsu claim 40 hours of continuous use on a single charge. This technology has been a key Fujitsu goal for some time, with continued improvements to both legibility and refresh speed over the past few years. WiFi and Bluetooth (including the use of a Bluetooth-equipped mobile phone as a tethered modem) as well as USB, of course, allow data transfer to and from the device. Up to 4GB of SD memory card allows for high-capacity storage.

Another advantage of the FLEPia, software this time, is the fact that it is not a closed-architecture standard -- whatever one thinks of Microsoft Windows CE 5 as a platform, it is at least an architecture where applications can be developed and new types of content can be catered for as they emerge. For now, two popular Japanese e-book standards are supported - XDMF and T-Time, and of course a browser, e-mail client, Microsoft Office document viewer, etc. are supplied.

Of course, technology without content is useless -- a lesson Apple has taught to the makers of devices -- and accordingly Fujitsu has teamed up with PAPYLESS, one of Japan’s leading retailers of e-books, and the Website for the device provides not just a sales outlet and support center for the device, but also a contents store, with e-books available for sale. Sony likewise operates a bookstore for its e-book reader, and Kindle, of course, is simply a way for Amazon to sell more content. But can subscriptions to newspapers and magazines be far behind for the Fujitsu device, given that the color display is large enough to justify publication of glossy magazines (and to sell advertising)?

One non-book application that springs to mind, given the general-purpose nature of the beast, is its use as an integrated sales catalog and order-taking device for products where the salesperson can not bring samples to the prospect. In financial services, too, where it is mandatory for the latest versions of documents to be shown to customers for signing prior to the sale of risk-based investments, such a device could ensure both that all compliance regulations are met, and that the customer has actually read and understood the contents (via a PDF form or similar) and has real applications in various other document-related businesses.

But until the price comes down, I don’t see any of these devices taking over from books or from mobile phones as the commuter’s weapon of choice to fight boredom on the trains.

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