The global engineer

E&T tries out some gizmos that are trying to replace the paperback.

Do you ever have time to read? I read more books - novels and, I confess, the occasional self-improvement manual - when travelling than at any other time. A plane seat is hopeless for eating and sleeping, but not bad for devouring a good thriller. My reading material is usually an ‘airport exclusive' paperback picked up in the departure lounge. It makes me feel quite pumped up to read something I know has yet to be mauled by any British or American reading group.

Eventually, I dump the book in some hotel room, hoping the next occupant (if not the chambermaid) will be able to make use of it, as a language lesson if nothing else. And then I have to try and find another book, in English, in whatever part of the world I happen to be. Once, in Brazil, I was reduced to reading a teen horror novel as the only available piece of sustained English. It gave me nightmares.

Now, however, I can sleep soundly abroad, as Amazon has launched the Kindle ebook reader. This paperback-sized device can hold up to 200 digital books, and has a 30-hour battery life - enough for even the most delayed long-haul flight. It uses E-Ink, created by MIT Media Lab, for the typeface, which is why it's as comfortable to read as a Penguin. E-Ink works like an Etch-a-Sketch, forming letters by rearranging chemicals under the surface of the screen.

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E-Ink is electronic ink that carries a charge, enabling it to be updated through electronics. It doesn't need any front or backlight, is viewable under a wide range of lighting conditions, including direct sunlight on a beach. The principal components of electronic ink are millions of tiny microcapsules, each about the diameter of a human hair. The microcapsules contain positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When a negative electric field is applied, the white particles move to the top of the microcapsule where they become visible to the user. This makes the surface appear white at that spot. At the same time, an opposite electric field pulls the black particles to the bottom of the microcapsules where they are hidden. By reversing this process, the black particles appear at the top of the capsule, which now makes the surface appear dark at that spot.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com's CEO, who is an avid reader married to a novelist, wants you to get lost in a Kindle just as you would get lost in a well-thumbed hardback. He wants it to be more emotion than machine. So the Kindle never beeps at you like your laptop does. The six-inch screen is about the same size as a page. In sleep mode, it displays images of ancient texts and literary authors like Jane Austen. And, while I couldn't sit and read a large print book without embarrassment, I could quite happily use the ‘change font size' facility on a Kindle so that my middle-aged, jet-lagged eyes didn't feel so strained.

Can Kindle really replace the airport paperback? The challenge is to design an ebook reader that is as simple to use as the real thing. A book needs no batteries and has the easiest user interface of any technology. No one needs to consult a manual or call a help line because they can't get their page to turn.

On the Kindle, you load up books directly via a wireless system called Whispernet, which can download and install your choice of Goldsworthy or Grisham in minutes. You can dip in to a book to decide if it's worthwhile, as the first chapters are available for nothing. Kindle editions of New York Times best-sellers are $9.99 each.

It works anywhere, not just in Wi-Fi hotspots. Anywhere, that is, within the USA. Outside the States, you have to download books from the Amazon site.

"The vision is that you should be able to get any book - not just any book in print, but any book that's ever been in print - on this device in less than a minute," says Bezos.

Competitors

Kindle isn't the only device turning pages. ICUE delivers ebooks to your mobile phone. Words flash on to the screen one after the other in quick succession in a system called ‘flash reading'. The speed and length of phrase can be altered to suit the reader.

Of course, if you're travelling you can also download guide-books in ebook format. Increasingly, publishers are producing podcasts to complement their printed products, so you have an oral travelling companion. And there is a burgeoning love for retro guide-books. This January, the famed historic guidebook Baedeker made a comeback almost two centuries after it was first published. The destinations the new English-language series covers have somewhat changed, however. Dubai is one of the re-launch titles.

As we're looking back, I thought you might like to revisit some of the subjects this column covered last year. In October, with the launch of Japanese-style capsule hotel Yotel at Gatwick South Terminal, I asked why so little had changed in hotel room design. Reader Malcolm Blunden obviously thought I'd been far too pampered. "So Yotel has 10m2 cabins! That isn't a cabin - it's a suite! I wish someone would redesign the sleeper compartments in German night trains. Dressing and washing are like trying to operate in a broom-cupboard full of clutter."

Mr Blunden will be delighted to know about the spacious and beautifully engineered Cube Hotel, a sugar cube-shaped structure in the ski resort of Biberwier in the Austrian Tirol. With ramps in place of stairs, guests can wheel or walk their sports gear up and down.

The following month, I bemoaned the problems of lost luggage and looked at possible technological solutions. Sad to say, since then, baggage matters have only got worse. End of year statistics have revealed that all the major US carriers have lost even more luggage than the previous year. There is still no effective, economic or technological, solution. But at least while you're waiting fruitlessly for your Samsonite to bump along the carousel, you can curl up with your Kindle, lost in some literary world.

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