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As a leader in hi-tech, Israelis often get first crack at some of the most important innovations that engineers come up with. So many multinational hardware and software companies have their own R&D labs here, and often developers will use Israelis as "guinea pigs," making sure their products work before preparing to sell them "out there."
Why that doesn't appear to be the case when it comes to the new crop of electronic book readers, then, is a mystery - especially since one of these newly announced products was at least partially developed in Israel! (I'm sworn to secrecy, so don't ask). But regardless, the rest of the world is on the verge of a revolution in the way it reads books - while we are, at least for the time being, left behind.
And I mean "the rest of the world" literally. Amazon's new Kindle 2, which goes on sale next week, will be available in more than 100 countries all over the world. Not in Israel, though. After the Kindle 2 announcement, American book giant Barnes and Noble announced its own e-book reader, the Nook. Not here, though; you can't buy a Nook in Israel, either.
It's not, I'm sure, because they don't like us. There are plenty of English-language readers here in Israel who would be more than happy to plunk down the $10 or so Amazon and Barnes and Noble charge for e-book versions of best-sellers available for download. The Nook is a brand-new product, and isn't available outside the US anyway - so we can't fume over being left out of Barnes and Noble's e-book party, at least just yet; every non-American is being excluded as well.
But the Kindle 2 is another story. If it's good enough for the residents of Andorra, Belarus and Papua New Guinea, it should be good enough for us, no?
Apparently not, and it's instructional to take a peek at the Kindle 2 home page (http://www.amazon.com/kindle) and try to figure out why Mongolians are eligible to buy a Kindle but Israelis aren't. The Arab world is out (fear of possible fatwas for immodest content?), as is China (well-founded fears of copyright infringement) and some poor countries in Africa (although many, like Kenya, Madagascar and even economic basket-case Zimbabwe, are in).
It's not clear what problem Amazon has with Israel, but I suspect that it has to do with import licensing rights for physical books and the desire of large importers of print books into Israel for a piece of the e-action. (A good summary of the legal issues in Israel regarding "hard" and "electronic" copies of licensed works is available at http://tinyurl.com/yet4tgn).
It's similar to the issues surrounding MP3 downloads vs physical CDs; the current licensee (or licensed importer) has first crack at making a deal for the same work in electronic form. And judging from the way the Israeli rights issue is being handled at the iTunes store (you can buy an iPhone for hundreds of dollars here but not a 99 cent song), we'll probably be waiting awhile for Amazon to iron things out with the publishers and importers.
Proof? Amazon is happy to sell you anything on the site to customers with an Israeli credit card, and although it won't necessarily ship everything here, it will ship physical books and CDs. But try downloading a free e-book or MP3 at Amazon, much less buying one, and the site will turn all apologetic about how it cannot serve people in your geographical area.
So what are the alternatives? Well, of course there's that old standby, the book - but you haven't read this far just to hear that there's no hope for e-reading here. Actually, there is an e-reader that you can buy, right here in Israel, at http://www.ebookshop.co.il, one of several Israeli sites that sell Hebrew-language e-books. The site sells the Foxit eSlick (http://www.foxitsoftware.com/ebook/), which lets you read PDF format e-books. (Note that the Hebrew site charges NIS 1,499, close to $400, for the eSlick, while it's listed at the Foxit site for $259. Are import duties really that high?)
So, right there you have an e-reader alternative that's "kosher" for Israelis, and it certainly looks like a nice device. But there is a trade-off: You'll be investing in a device that is definitely outclassed by the "big boys," Kindle and Nook, which are state of the art - including wifi connections to download books anywhere, and a touch screen, also a feature of Sony's PRS-600 reader.
The Sony device is sold independent of content, unlike the Kindle and Nook (i.e. you are not expected to purchase books directly from the Sony site, although there is a bookstore you can access). The eSlick doesn't have any of those things; you connect the device to your computer and manually upload books.
As mentioned, the problem for Amazon and B&N is connected to content downloads. The Kindle is more or less tied to the proprietary format e-books you get from Amazon, so there's little point in their selling a device you can't buy books on yet. The Nook is a little more loose, in that it allows you to read books in a variety of formats (more on that below). But B&N is, of course, interested in selling its content, so again there's little point in selling an e-reader we can't buy books for.
Another drawback for the Foxit device is that it only handles PDFs. There are many e-books available in PDF format, but there are just as many, if not more, in ePub (aka open e-book) format, the format read by many e-book computer readers, and used on a host of devices, including the Nook and iPhone (but not the Kindle). Most commercial best-sellers will be available in multiple formats (i.e. PDF and ePub), but some more-esoteric works may not be, so if your device doesn't handle both, you're missing out.
A battle royale may be shaping up between Amazon and the rest of the e-book world. Amazon sells its e-books in its own proprietary azw format, while B&N, Adobe, Sony and most everyone else has committed to ePub and other open formats. Amazon, of course, doesn't have to worry about anyone else, but not all the players (like Google?) have weighed in on the format issue yet.
If you've got a cellphone with a decent-sized screen, I would suggest using that as an e-book reader for now, until one of the more-advanced devices "makes aliya." Granted, a cellphone screen is not an e-book reader, but some of the newer phones have screens big enough to make reading less of a hassle.
There are ePub readers for nearly all smart-phone platforms (except Symbian - sorry, Nokia fans), but I'd suggest sticking with Adobe PDF Reader LE (mobile) edition, which, if your phone doesn't have it already, will cost you $15, far less than a dedicated PDF e-book reader.
What about content? Besides the hundreds of free places to download PDFs from (they're all over the place), I found a site that has thousands of best-sellers in e-book format (PDF, ePub and others) that doesn't seem to have a problem http://www.ebooks.com/ - but don't tell a certain book importer that you did!