Saturday, August 14, 2010

Remembering the Rocket eBook, the true pioneer of eBook readers

I was thinking that this blog would be an appropriate venue to discuss eBook readers, especially since in recent years they have really started to come into their own as separate appliances.  Certainly it could be argued that these devices have reached a tipping point in the mass consciousness.  I have actually used an eBook reader of one sort or another on and off for the last ten years.  For much of that time I used a Rocket eBook 1000.  This device was by no measure common and really did not gain a wide following.  It appears that the page that I linked to is an advertisement from circa 2000 (I would link to a Wikipedia article, but there is none).  It is amusing that the page boasts that the now defunct NuvoMedia has sold "tens of thousands" of the reader.  Note that Amazon has sold three or four million Kindles, and this is also supposedly a niche device for serious readers.

In late high school and early college I used the reader to take advantage of Project Gutenberg public domain texts.  Especially at that time, reading a whole book on a curved, CRT monitor was a much more daunting prospect than reading on a modern, flat, high-resolution LCD screen.  The reader's low-resolution black-on-green display was as good as a Palm Pilot's, and yet the screen was large enough (as large as the Kindle's, in fact) to be able to read comfortably for hours at a time.

My Rocket eBook was the way in which I read all of the Constance Garnett translations of Russian literature, including War and PeaceAnna KareninaThe GamblerCrime and Punishment and Dead Souls.  I made many annotations and underlined just as many passages from these works.  The only problem was that at the end of the reader's life it was difficult to transfer this information back to my computer.  For that matter, it was difficult getting any information, including the actual books themselves, off the device.  Naturally, the reader was not very good for any kind of reading where one could expect to incorporate annotations into a Word document on a computer, for example.

The device could display only ASCII text.  This means that trying to use the reader for reading anything but English-language texts was nigh impossible.  After I started learning Russian I racked my brains trying to figure out a way to trick the device into displaying Cyrillic.  (Since the reader could display GIF-based images, I even experimented converting pages of Russian text into small image files.  This, alas, did not really work very well.  I will talk about how I implemented this solution on my first-generation Kindle in my next post).

The Rocket eBook anticipated Apple's current generation of mobile devices by basing the whole interface around a touch screen.  You selected text with the stylus in order to made underlines, and tapped an on-screen keyboard to enter notes.  (The handwriting recognition, like the Palm's, was truly awful).  And also like the iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, the device could display text either in portrait or landscape modes.

For its time the Rocket eBook was a very nice appliance.  It was built using hard plastics that I do not see in many consumer electronics today.  The fact that it survived from 2000 to 2007 through near daily use speaks to the quality of its construction.  (The fact that the screen showed nary a scratch after seven years of tapping and dragging with the stylus is perhaps more impressive).  I only retired it because I received a Kindle for Christmas 2007.  I fetched a handsome price for the Rocket eBook when I sold it on eBay (the reader does indeed have a small following of devoted fans), and the lady who won the auction wrote me an email afterwards describing how much she loved her first Rocket eBook.

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