November 01, 2009

New Media Update

by Alan Beatts

Here's the rundown of the month's news on the eReader front.  Two items very worthy of note are the report from Forester Research which estimates that total e-reader sales for 2009 will top 3 million units.  That is up by 50% from their estimate of a few months ago.  Second is that there is an increasing pool of circumstantial evidence that people who buy Kindles (and, to a lesser degree, other e-readers) actually read _more_ than they did before switching to the e-reader.  People have cited ease of transportation and the convenience of purchasing wirelessly as the reason for their greater reading consumption.

Apple -- Ebook reading applications and ebooks are some of the most popular items downloaded for the iPhone and iPod Touch.  So much so that they're even starting to edge out games as the most downloaded category.

Amazon --  In less than two weeks Amazon released the new, international Kindle (useable in over 200 countries) and discontinued the old, US-only Kindle 2.  The new international version is priced the same as the old Kindle and so it's been more of a replacement with more features than a competing model.  However, not all is joy in the rest of the world since the costs for books are substantially higher for international users and, for that matter, for US users who use the download feature while outside the US.  The higher costs are explained by Amazon as being part taxes, part data-service costs (international downloads still originate in the US), and part wireless carrier charges.

Amazon is also trying to react to Sony's announcement last month that users of the Sony e-readers will have access to all half-million of Google's free, public domain ebooks by increasing the free offerings for the Kindle.  However, at the current level of about 18,000 titles, they've got a long way to go.

Finally, Amazon has released a Kindle client application for the Windows computer operating system and they also have a Macintosh version in the works.  Again, it looks like they're playing catchup to Sony and other companies who already offer desk- and lap-top versions of the reader software.

Barnes and Noble -- Not satisfied with their relationship with iRex as well as their ties with PlasticLogic's forthcoming high-end reader, the 800-pound gorilla of bookselling has announced their own e-reader, the Nook.  It's a dumb name for a smart device if you ask me.  The Nook comes with two screens, one over the other.  The top one is a typical black and white EInk display like most readers on the market.  Below it is a small, touch sensitive, color LCD.  The idea is that the LCD will display full color covers while browsing the user's library as well as giving a better web-browser experience.  It's a nice idea (though I prefer the book-like folding concept which supports a more reasonable sized LCD display opposite an EInk panel).

There's just one problem -- it looks like it wasn't B&N's nice idea.  Spring Design, a Bay Area company, had the same idea and has patents going back to 2006 to support it.  Moreover, Spring representatives meet with B&N in the spring of this year to pitch their reader (called the "Alex") as part of a joint venture.  A joint venture covered by the full range of non-disclosure agreements that we're so fond of in Silicon Valley.  Net result -- Spring Design is in the process of suing the pants off of B&N over violations of the NDAs and patents.  Oooops!

Entourage Systems -- On the topic of two-screen readers, this start-up company has a product that, while heavy and a bit expensive, looks pretty good.  The eDGe (don't ask me why the weird caps, I'm not a tech-guy) has two screens and opens like a book.  One screen is a 9.7" EInk display and the other is a 10" color LCD.  It runs on an ARM processor and has 4 GB storage, an SD card slot and 2 USB ports as well as WiFi and bluetooth.  Other features include a web-cam, microphone and speakers.  Running on Google's Android OS, it's going to be closer to a net-book computer than an ebook reader but that's not such a bad thing.

Three catches -- won't ship 'til February, price is $490, and it's big and heavy compared to a single purpose e-reader (8.25" by 10.75" by 1" and 2.75 lb.).  But it's still a sign of where some people want to see the e-reader go, myself included -- if they'd make one that ran on OSX or the iPhone OS, I'd stand in line to buy one at even twice the price.

Beyond that, there are more and more e-readers being announced.  Rather than do a complete round up here, I'd suggest that you take a look at <> which has a very nice list along with a release schedule.

Next month I hope that the flurry will have cleared up enough for me to make some buying suggestions for the holidays.  I'm also planning on touching upon the non-US market for e-readers, as suggested by two of my readers.

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