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The Future of E-Books

One of the biggest stories in publishing right now is the promise and direction of eReaders.  In an industry starving for good news, the growth of the product is a godsend. Here’s a piece in The Wall Street Journal that cites consumer research estimating 900,000 of the devices will sell this November and December. At Amazon, the Kindle has become the top-selling product. Other sellers, notably Barnes & Noble (the Nook) and Sony (the Reader), are joining the market now, too, though delivery time is frustratingly slow. Prices for the readers have dropped, and so have prices for best-sellers available for download.

The article contains a warning, however:

“Books are having their iPod moment this holiday season. But buyer beware: It could also turn out to be an eight-track moment.”

The pace of advancement is so fast, that is, that today’s devices may appear primitive if not useless a few years hence. Furthermore, there is a “format war” developing (remember VHS vs. Beta), so that “there’s no guarantee an e-book bought from one online store will work on devices sold by a competitor.”

The rise of competition is the topic of another story, this one in eCampus News. There we learn that “Time Inc., News Corp., Conde Nast, Hearst Corp., and Meredith Corp., whose magazines include Time, Cosmopolitan, and Better Homes and Gardens, announced a joint venture on Dec. 8 to develop the format that rivals Kindle’s gray ‘electronic ink.’ It promises to emphasize visuals, retaining the distinctive look of each publication, as compared to the text-oriented Kindle.”  And the appearance isn’t the only difference. More importantly, this new technology will “incorporate videos, games, and social networking, along with a classic magazine layout that can be flipped through with the touch of a finger.”

That diversity of uses is crucial to the future of such devices. So say Forrester Research analysts in this Wall Street Journal blog entry.  They say that the future of the eReader is dim unless it provides multiple uses to users — not just book reading.  Most consumers don’t read enough to justify buying a single-function reading device, and according to Forrester’s data, more consumers already read eBooks on mobile phones and PC’s than on eReaders,” they say.  Who wants to lug around two devices when one of them will perform all the jobs you need? This is a consumer-demand question that will shake out in the coming years.

“For many people,” the piece concludes, “e-book readers raise a classic tech conundrum: Are we better off with lots of specialized devices, or just one that does everything? Amazon executives argue that there’s a market for a dedicated e-reader like the Kindle — just like there’s a market for dedicated high-end digital SLR cameras, even as smaller cameras proliferate on phones and other devices.

“Bob LiVosi, the founder of independent e-book store BooksOnBoard, said that in the long run, reading technology may be decided by what avid readers — who are mostly women — are willing to carry around. ‘A convergent device that might be tablet sized with netbook functionality, plus a phone, would seem to be a natural for the future,’ he said. ‘Three or four devices in a purse or briefcase or backpack are way too many and something’s got to give.’”

If he’s right, it means that the eReader will no longer be understood primarily as a book reader.  Books will form just another part of the environment coming through the screen — I would say a progressively diminishing one.

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