With the Christmas period approaching thoughts turn to what will be the gift one would most like. In past years digital technology has provided many of the most desired gifts, in particular Apple’s iPod and more recently iPhone have topped many people’s Christmas gift lists. This year one has to wonder how many of us are longing for a new digital gift and if so what will it be.
Perhaps this year the gift that tops the Christmas lists will be a new E-reader. There are a number of such products that have recently been introduced. In this area there are now many competing products. The best known of these new products are the Kindle from Amazon that has had success in the USA; the iRex iLiad Reader sold through Borders; and the Sony Reader. E-readers are defined as an improved way of reading books that can be downloaded in an electronic format from bookstores. The benefits of these e-readers are defined mainly in areas of practicality in that one lightweight e-reader can store more than 100 books in its memory. Last year the Kindle accounted for 6% of Amazon's sales of titles available in both print and electronic format, and growth is likely to be rapid. The New York Times recently quoted Carolyn Reidy, chief executive of Simon & Schuster, as saying its sales of electronic books will more than double this year compared with last year, after growing 40 per cent between 2006 and 2007. David Shanks, the chief executive of Penguin Group USA, said his company sold more electronic books in the first four months of 2008 than in all of last year. I have to say these are rather facetious comments as sales of e-books were unlikely to grow in earlier years, as there were few feasible devices on which they could be read.
In many ways these E-readers are similar to the Apple iPod in that both download digital data from a specific sales location, and both products download their data in a proprietary format. In most cases a download will be around the same cost as purchasing the printed version of the book. Only books out of copyright will be downloadable free. Unlike an iPod it will not be possible for owners of e-readers to transfer books they already own into the e-readers, whereas iPod owners can load their existing music into the products via their Macs or PCs.
One may think that e-readers are new. This is not the case and there have been many attempts over the past decade to get e-readers accepted. I remember in the time of the dot com boom that there were various different e-readers being offered. These failed to succeed. We have then had items like the Tablet PC that were also defined as ideal for downloading electronic books. Whatever happened to these devices that Microsoft in its ultimate wisdom told us was the future of computing? The new e-readers however are technologically much better than earlier devices mainly because of the almost zero power screen technology that can be read in sunlight, and very low cost solid state memory that allows these devices to be used for long periods of time in normal reading environments. They do however only work in monochrome and color e-readers may be three to five years away.
I’m afraid at this time I am hardly impressed with these e-readers. I think the success they are having is more for the computer geek area where people want the latest technology. How many people really want to spend lots of money to buy an electronic reader that is not that easy to use and which for usability does not compare with the well proven technology of ink on paper. How many people are prepared to pay full price for a book that you cannot share with others and cannot store on your computer for re-reading at some time in the future. I’m sure I am not the only person that sometimes goes back to reading a book again a few years after I first read it. There is also the situation that many printed books are available in printed format at seriously discounted prices, whereas the prices of e-books appear to be only at full prices.
I am however not totally negative about e-readers. I think they have huge potential and there is a massive market waiting for them. I have not mentioned at this time my favorite e-reader, this being the Plastic Logic eBook that is due for release in early 2009. Unlike the other products mentioned before it is larger in size being the same size as a Letter format pad of paper. This uses a more advanced form of plastic electronic display. The product however is not defined for downloading electronic versions of books but to download any digital file used in business. This product is aimed at business applications to allow people to carry around and read huge amounts of business literature. Any digital file can be loaded into the reader and read when required. This includes business documents, books, magazines or newspapers.
This brings me to what I think is the real potential of e-reader devices and also why I think the Plastic Logic device is the key to the future. The biggest market for e-readers is not for reading books that are much better in their well proven paper and ink format, but for educational, medical and scientific books. Just look at the real opportunity in the educational area. Schools have a real problem in having the latest up to date books for students. For the future I see students having an e-reader such as that from Plastic Logic, and using this to log into their school or college computer network to download for a time limited period the relevant material they need for their studies. The educational publishers will instead of selling printed books reach agreements with the schools and colleges to provide continuously updated digital material that can be downloaded, on a time limited period, by the students. E-readers will change the whole world of educational publishing. This will allow students to have far better more up-to-date material for their studies. It will allow educational publishers to open up a new e-business working with the schools and colleges. It will however have a negative impact on the printing industry, as there will be far fewer books printed.
E-readers are not going to be mass-market consumer products like the iPod because the business model for books is not like that of music. E-readers will however find a different market and will be a major success, but not this Christmas. The day of the e-reader has yet to come.