Will the Asus “Eee-Reader” be a sea change?

Lots of people were tweeting yesterday about the new Asus e-book reader which, we’re told, would be a form factor unlike any of the e-book readers currently out there. Due out, possibly, before the end of the year, it would be a foldable dual-screen reader which will let the user read a text on one screen whilst surfing the web on the other. It will be full-colour, with a soft keyboard on one of the screens. With a price tag of somewhere around £100, it could make a very compelling device.

But I fear there is a big, fat, juicy fly in the ointment. Neither Kevin nor I have been impressed with the software that comes built into cheap electronic devices. We bought my mum a little MP3 player a few years ago and whilst it looked nice enough and was within her budget, the user interface was nothing short of appalling. Even I had a few problems understanding how the thing was supposed to work and as far as I know, my Mum hasn’t touched the thing in months, if not years. And as for Kevin’s GPS device wrangling hassles, let’s not even go there.

We’ve also not been impressed by the Asus Eee PC’s operating system, Xandros. It’s not because Xandros is based on Linux, which we both use regularly, but because Asus’ implementation of Xandros makes it difficult for the casual user to install software not included in Asus’ package. It’s like Microsoft making it difficult to install anything but Microsoft-approved software on your laptop.

When it breaks, you need quite a bit of know-how to fix it. Kevin has spent hours working on a friend’s Eee, first getting it to run a Twitter client and then fixing a BIOS update that buggered things completely. Updates to the Eee change the location of user application preferences, which can then break shortcuts to user-installed software. That makes installing your own software challenging. This is something that users would be up in arms about if it were Apple or Microsoft.

The mock-up of the Asus “Eee-Reader” looks lovely and the price is certainly user-friendly, but will the software be? I have shied away from the other e-readers because a portable device of that size that I can’t write and check email or Twitter on is unappealing to me. The users interfaces of the devices I have played with have been at best clunky and at worse frustrating and proprietary software means users can’t install their own software (as far as I’m aware).

If, like the Eee PC, the Eee-Reader uses either a Linux or Windows variant as its OS, users will at least be able to customise their device to some extent (depending on hardware limitations and know-how). At the moment, netbook users who have the Windows machine actually have more freedom than those on a Xandros machine, because Asus have made it so difficult to install software on Xandros. If the Eee-Reader gave me that choice, I’d probably end up plumping for Windows, even though that comes with its own issues.

What might be interesting would be if it was capable of running Android. As Kev tells me, “people have some interesting hacks with Android.” I’ve never had a chance to properly play with Android so I’m not sure if I’d be keen on having it on my e-book reader or not. I would guess that ‘Hackintoshing‘ it won’t be possible; there are specific hardware requirements for a Hackintosh and as yet we have no idea whether the Eee-Reader will meet them.

My worst-case scenario is that Asus would produce some sort of proprietary OS with only limited functionality that users can’t add to. If Asus did that, they would be missing a trick – the success of Apple’s App Store shows that people want to be able to install applications of their own choosing onto their phone and that developers are willing to spend time creating them. If the Eee-Reader’s hardware specs mean that software needs to be specially developed or adapted for it, then Asus should use an OS that’s easy to develop for and create an open marketplace that encourages an ecosystem of applications for users to choose from.

The initial description of the Eee-Reader sounds attractive, but unless its software is usable and extensible it’s not going to tick the box for me. I can’t carry round a laptop, and iPhone and an e-reader; my back would never forgive me.