Dr. Ari Jaaksi
Director, Open-Source Operations/Multimedia
Nokia

Dear Ari —

I’d like to respond to your current blog post, which talks about the next steps in the Nokia 770′s progress as getting feedback and improving the product, openly and with outside participation.

I wish I had been able to meet you while you were in the United States — I would have pestered you with as many questions as Reggie and Mike Cane combined. I would also have made a suggestion to you in person that I’ll have to make in this open letter instead.

I propose a specific and significant addition to the software included in the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. On Monday, I did have the opportunity to meet the outgoing and incoming VP’s for Convergent Products/Multimedia, Janne Jormalainen and Ari Virtanen, to discuss the 770′s development. In our talk, Janne explained the dilemma you face with every suggested hardware or software addition. “Sometimes,” he said, “the hardest decisions are what to leave out.” I hope to persuade you that the suggestion I make meets even the highest level justification you can set. As you’ve written, you want to “concentrate only on things that matter for the mainstream users. We are building mass market devices; that is where we are going big time!”

For example, I know there are lots of games you could include. You could fill the 770 with games of all sorts, appealing across the spectrum, from logic games to shoot-em-ups. Yet in this regard, I think your inclusion of chess was extremely shrewd. Beyond the mere issue of the game’s popularity — might not Solitaire be more popular? — a specialized handheld chess-playing device with a decent screen costs $100 (or more — $369 for the Novag Star Sapphire Chess Computer). The 770 obviates the need for one of these utterly. To me (and others who play chess), the 770 is now worth $100 more.

Similarly, specialized devices that have no other capability than reading e-books sell for more than the cost of the 770. These include the Sony Librie ($479), the Hiebook (480×320 $289), the Cybook ($399), and others. There is a terrific hunger for electronic texts, for the ability to carry dozens of books on a handheld, both for reference and pleasure. Half a dozen e-book programs and formats exist for the small screen of a Palm, most of them created when the display measured only 150×150 pixels.

Here’s how hungry people are for electronic reading material — when the University of Virginia put 1600 texts online in 2000, without any publicity, without any official announcement even, in the period of six months 2 million e-books had been downloaded. And most of them were books more than one hundred years old (none written more recently than 1923). These are the books that sell for a quarter in a used bookstore, the ones you walk past without noticing — and there were 2 million downloads in that short period of time.

Project Gutenberg, with some 17,000 texts available in text, html and Plucker formats can’t even measure the number of downloads of their public-domain titles, all of the same vintage as Virginia’s, because these books are available from so many sites measuring is impssible. Michael Hart, PG’s founder, simply says “hundreds of millions,” but even accounting for hyperbole and wishful perceptions, conservative estimates are more than 50 million. I cite these download statistics to show you that the readers are there, that people totally accept electronic texts and like to read them.

From your own experience, you know how much text you read on-screen every day — at a conference in Montreal five years ago I polled the audience and found even then that 60 percent of them did three-quarters of their reading on a screen — email, news sites, websites of all sorts, wikis and blogs, PDFs, reports, word processing documents, even instant messaging, everything mounts up. I expect the percentage both of overall reading and of the overall population meeting a high threshold have increased in the intervening years. And this means the resistance to electronic reading predicted in 1999 by publishers just doesn’t exist.

What this says to me is that an e-book reader on the 770 will be a tremendous offline hit with 770 owners, those wanting to lose themselves reading during a commute (after all, how many times can you play marbles?) or in bed or in line at the bank, where there’s no Wi-Fi or media features aren’t what you want. And that’s my suggestion: include an e-book reader.

Of course, one reason I foresee ready acceptance is that the 770 already has world-class e-book software in the FBReader, which possesses more and finer controls over display than any other reader ever. Having belonged to the publication structure working group of the Open eBook Foundation back in the early days of ebooks as carryaround devices, I know something about this. When you control the precise size of the type, and the font, and other subtler aspects that affect your visual appreciation of the text on-screen, there’s a tremendous personal gratification. (You probably recognize the opposite feeling, the one you get when you go to a website and just feel utterly antagonized with the small typesize

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or noisy design or some other unreadable and unchangeable aspect.)

FBReader is an open-source reader written originally for the Sharp Zaurus by Nikolay Pultsin and ported to the 770 by Mikhail Sobolev, whom I expect you know. The current version is 0.71b and it awaits two desirable features — highlighting and bookmarks. But it is fantastically adapted to the 770, capable of rotating text 90 degrees by pressing the center Scroll button, advancing or going back a page by pressing the zoom + and – keys (right under your finger tip when the screen is rotated), reading text or html files inside zip archives to preserve space on the MMC card.

With the 770′s incredible resolution, the curved and diagonal letter shapes in FBReader are beyond that ever encountered in an e-book reader — it’s easy to say, as I have at MobileRead, at Teleread, at Internet Tablet Users blog, that the FBReader on the 770 is the best e-book reader ever, bar none. Add color pictures to the text (OK, not so many of those public-domain ebooks have color illustrations) and it’s just icing on the cake.

A PDF enables a designer to control font choice, image placement, other layout aspects. But few PDF’s are constructed to be read with screen proportions, especially the 770′s, and they just do not allow one to increase too-small type to readable sizes. Instead you must zoom the whole page, and when you do that you go back to the preposterous need to scroll horizontally, back and forth, back and forth, to read a page. You can see many screen captures of FBReader online, including here, here and here to see for yourself.

FBReader complements the PDF viewer the 770 includes; it can display content in formats (html, text) the PDF viewer can’t handle. Thus reading content can be provided that still gives the reader/user controls to make the text readable.

Readers — the human kind —
have enthusiastically embraced e-books. Print publishers are more reticent, fearing like the music industry that releasing their product electronically will undercut sales. This is no small distinction — it is not publishers who are in the mainstream, but readers. I want to say this carefully: your desire to reach the broadest possible audience means you must follow the wants of your users and not an industry concerned with protecting itself from shrinking sales.

So I hope you will take a very close look at this program and include it in your basic set of applications. It fits very closely with meeting the needs of users, of capitalizing on the strengths of the 770, of subsuming a whole category of more limited devices, and lastly of providing for another type of communication-as-data that I understand is an overall Nokia goal. Indeed, I know that Nokia has been thinking about including e-book readers on its devices since at least 1999, when I met the company’s representative to that OEBF working group. I believe now is the time to act on that long-held interest.

With much gratitude for what is already reality in the 770, I am
Sincerely yours,

Roger Sperberg
firstinitial lastname at gmail dot com

Internet Tablet Users blog


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