Meet the IREX:
It's a soon-to-arrive device for reading eBooks — a rival to Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader — and according to the article Best Buy and Verizon Jump Into E-Reader Fray, you'll be able to buy the $399 touchscreen, Verizon 3G wireless (but not WiFi) IREX DR800SG at a kiosk inside your friendly local Best Buy store. (As one who has an AT&T 3G account for my iPhone, I'm wondering whether I'd need a separate plan for the IREX.)
"Starting this week," says the 9/22/09 article, "Best Buy is training thousands of its employees in how to talk about and demonstrate devices like the Sony Reader and IREX, and adding a new area to its 1,048 stores to showcase the devices. Best Buy previously sold e-book devices only on its Web site and in limited tests in stores."
The-eBook-Reader.com website has more about the IREX and also its predecessor iLiad eReaders (which didn't do very well) from the same company. Among the selling points of the IREX: it's "the first [dedicated] eBook reader other than the Amazon Kindle to offer free wireless service for quick and easy eBook downloads." Its 8.1-inch touchscreen makes it one of the bigger eReaders available. However, "you can't use your fingers for navigation; you have to use the [included] stylus."
Using the stylus — after a promised firmware upgrade — you'll be able to write stuff on the screen by hand, such as book annotations, that can then be converted to text and stored. But, sadly, "It seems the touchscreen doesn't serve much of a purpose at this point."
Here is a whole website dedicated specifically to the IREX.
At the main IREX website there is further information about this reader. PDF documents available there say it is "a sleek, 8.1‐inch, touch‐screen eReader," it "offers multi-mode 3G wireless capabilities," and it "supports multiple formats including industry standard ePub format and multiple DRM solutions, rather than a single, 'closed' proprietary format that locks content to a specific device."
Admittedly, that last item is a bit obscure. What does it mean?
First of all, "industry standard ePub format" refers to a format for eBooks which is being widely used for free-of-charge downloads of classic books that are in the public domain and no longer copyright protected. These digital editions can be distributed and redistributed for free — by anyone, to anyone, for any reason whatever.
So they do not need to be copy-protected, which is what DRM (Digital Rights Management) is all about.
The IREX publicity seems to imply that it will give access to multiple kinds of DRM-encoded, copy-protected eBooks: "supports multiple formats including ... multiple DRM solutions." But this PDF-format fact sheet shows that's a bit overstated. For, among "DRM solutions" in today's eBook world, there are two main biggies, the Amazon Kindle format and the so-called eReader format ... and IREX does not support the former, only the latter.
The IREX fact sheet gives "Adobe PDF, EPUB, Newspaper Direct, Fictionwise, eReader, TXT" as the formats supported natively by IREX. EPUB and TXT are typically not DRM-protected. Newspaper Direct is limited to delivering newspapers electronically, not books. Fictionwise and eReader both use the eReader format — since they are basically the same company! Only the ability to read DRM-protected Adobe PDF eBooks adds any real value, and this is a format that is also supported by the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle DX (though not the less pricey Kindle proper — go figure).
Conspicuously absent on the IREX is the ability to download, unlock, and read Amazon Kindle eBooks. Also missing is support for Mobipocket, another DRM-protected format that is owned by ... you guessed it, Amazon.
This is not to say that the IREX is a bad deal. After all, it connects directly to the Barnes & Noble eBookstore — a big source for DRM-protected eBooks in the eReader format — just as the Kindle plugs you right into the Kindle Store at Amazon.com.
But the IREX is not going to be an eBook reader for all people. In fact, I'd say there is a proverbial eBook format war in progress: Amazon (cum Mobipocket) vs. everyone else (with Barnes & Noble as ringleader).
Until someone tells me different, I am under the impression that just about any eBook you can get for the Kindle, you can also get in eReader format for a Sony Reader or an IREX, albeit at not necessarily as low a price. But if you want to be able to tap into either eBook universe at will, your best bet still remains a multi-function mobile such as an iPhone. (See iPhone as eReader for more on that possibility.)