A possible solution to the problem of oversized, expensive and usually unreadable computing manuals is about to be launched in the UK, a ponderous two whole years after its US debut.

Never read an ebook? Perhaps the Sony PRS-505 ebook reader will change some minds.

There’s a hefty ‘but’ in all this, but before getting to that, let’s survey what looks like an impressive device. The 6 inch screen comes with 8 levels of gray, and is good to read a claimed 7,500 page turns, thanks mainly to not needing an eye-straining backlight as would most screen-based devices. It can store 160 average books (i.e novels), or more using add-on SD or memory Stick storage.

Pages are turned back or forward, one at a time, using a manual control, the most obvious element of what is said by reviewers to be a highly usable interface. You can even view JPGs, GIFs, RTFs and Word files, assuming you have Word installed on an available PC. Don’t forget the PC – you’ll need it to charge the thing via the supplied USB cable as it comes without a mains charger. That takes a claimed 2 hours or so.

On the face of it, it looks to be superior to Amazon’s Kindle, another device that has spent its formative years solely in the US and Canadian market.

The concept is the same one that propelled the MP3 player to the top of the sale charts, but will it do the same for digital books? Not for a while yet.

You can carry hundreds or even thousands of electronic books around with you in principle, but you’ll find that only a limited selection of books are available in the Sony BBeB format favoured by the reader. They also cost as much if not more than the paper equivalents, hard to understand when the cost should be considerably lower than a physical object.

The reason is cost is still high is tied, no doubt, into the business models of publishers and the way books are copyrighted, which brings us neatly round to the digital rights management (DRM). If you buy a physical book, you can do what you like with it, including lend it out, sell it, or just leave it to grow dog-eared. The Sony Reader restricts it to being viewed on six devices, one of which must be a PC, so the ability to move the copy around from person to person over time, has some limitations. Publishers rightly fear the way that data can be copied and multiply on a scale impossible for a physical book.

The biggest regret, however, is that this device could be a fantastic way for IT professionals to buy cheaper versions of manuals, slimming their ominous girth to something more portable, but there just aren’t enough titles yet. Imagine being able to carry around with you an entire technical library on a device not much bigger than a PDA? What’s stymieing this isn’t technology, it’s the willingness of the industry to embrace a business model based on digital content rather than paper volumes.

As with the music industry’s struggles to contain downloadable songs, a world of books on tap is too uncertain for the industry to contemplate.
A fuller list of titles can be researched on Sony’s website.

There is no mystery about the price, despite what some news sites have said. Play.com is offering the thing at £199; for comparison, it’s $300 (about £150) in the US right now.