E-books, are they coming or not? Eight months ago, contaminated by the insight and enthusiasm of Antonio Tombolini, the Italian e-book pioneer, I had given in-depth coverage to this little talked about technology that is slowly but steadily improving its capabilities.
Photo credit: Sony
Apparently unnoticed by most, ebooks readers are slowly opening up some truly revolutionary changes to the way we may consume, read and annotate information.
The key revolutionary factors remain in essence the following ones:
1) Use of e-ink instead of LCDs with unprecedented legibility under all types of lighting.
2) Great energy savings due to the fact that e-ink needs to be powered only to compose a screen and not to maintain it visibile (under any lighting conditions).
3) Super portability and huge memory capacity. Ebooks Readers are light and compact, and much better than carrying a real physical book or catalogue of any kind. Further they can hold hundreds of heavy books without any of the negative physical consequences.
4) Internet communication abilities. Documents can be uploaded and downloaded as you do on your computer. WiFi is built in. Your annotated and hand-corrected research paper can be sent straight from your ebook reader to the student that needs to see it now.
Business media content analyst John Blossom, looks in this article at Sony's latest e-Book announcement and at the state of the ebook industry amid some genuine skepticism about its present and future potential.
Given Amazon upcoming entry into this arena, the goods that Mr Tombolini has shown me in high detail and the positive initial response he has had from the Italian market my view is that overall most analysts and tech media commentators are missing to see a real major opportunity that is coming.
Ebooks hardware technologies can provide indeed very significant benefits and tangible benefits to the end users as soon as rollable displays kick in (mobile ebook phone already announced for release this year by Italian telco Telecom) and as soon as the prices start to roll down a bit.
Yes ebooks are still too expensive for anyone that has no key business advantage in being able to carry tons of paper-like information in a device the size of an agenda, and too few of the ideal categories of users are even aware of the existence of this technology and of its key traits.
But judging ebook readers without having tried and used one is like evaluating new food without tasting it.
For most, ebooks is still a term that brings in mental images of Acrobat, PDFs and computer formatted amateurish publications that have littered our inboxes and file folders for many years now.
Notwithstanding the long wait I believe we are nearing a turning point. And while there are still true limits and too high prices in the limited number of ebooks hardware technologies available today, things are definitely moving, and in the right direction.
If Amazon itself starts to subsidize or give out this new ebook hardware for next to nothing, you should a rapid change in the evolution of this marketplace.
And while John Blossom reports here with disappointment about the latest ebook device released by Sony, "a far cry" he writes from what he expected, I read the same news as another convincing sign that, notwithstanding predictable design limitations and sky-high prices ebook readers are indeed coming.
Intro by Robin Good
by John Blossom
I've been waiting so long for eBooks to take off that it's beginning to feel like a scene from a comedy sketch or an existential play, but current sales trends offer some moderate optimism that the medium may be building steam.
While USD 8 million for eBooks sales in July is still a rounding error for the book trade as a whole it's double what it was a year ago, and showing strong movement towards cracking USD 100 million in eBook sales next year.
Helping along eBooks will be improving players such as Sony's new PRS-505 platform, which Engadget indicates is now available at a USD 299 sticker price.
The 505 features improved paper-like image resolution from e-Ink technology and perhaps most importantly a USB port to allow uploads and downloads between the reader and one's PC - at last simplifying the process to snatching content off the Web and transferring it to the reader. That content can include MP3 files, but with ultra-low power consumption - you could go weeks between needing extra juice for this unit - the main appeal is to the monochrome text world of readers.
Yet for all of the niceties added to this improved model it's still a far cry away from what is likely to be adopted as a mass-market device for book consumption.
One significant barrier remains the price point - with communications companies subsidizing the cost of mobile phones heavily to promote usage, why hasn't the book industry considered the same for devices that would promote eBook growth?
The answer comes in part from the tradition of booksellers working with balkanized networks of distributors - they're comfortable with retailers who want to lock in their own comfy margins with book products, each with their own quirks and formats.
In the process of helping their vendors remain proprietary, though, the industry is slipping away rapidly from any real opportunities for eBooks to take off in a big way any time soon.
Amazon's Kindle platform, slated for a launch (of sorts) this month, will do hardly better than Sony in making people love yet another device to clutter their world - and in fact may do worse, given the device's positively retro look: think of a cross between an IBM PCjr and an early Star Trek Tricorder.
Then again, for those attached to print perhaps this is flashy enough.
The real problem with eBook readers lies with their inability to provide any sort of useful reading experience beyond simple book pages.
With Adobe PDFs still the widely used standard for premium eBook materials, too many publishers are trying to format information with print-like rendition in mind and leaving eBook readers to try to figure out how to scroll through or otherwise make sense of materials not well adapted for the relatively low resolution of eBook readers displays.
There's a long ways to go before we can even begin to think of this medium as truly "electronic paper."
Mobile devices such as phones are the real portable eBook and eMagazine platform of choice, but even here displays can disappoint. I was watching an iPhone enthusiast demonstrate recently how "easy" it was to read a magazine through the slick new device - a magazine that was formatted for print reading and utterly unnavigable on the tiny iPhone screen.
Publishers born of the print world just cannot give up the notion that print-formatted materials will work great on anything that's smaller than their original format.
Photo credit: Portable rollable displays
With all this said, there may be a niche for eBook readers amongst people who want to make sure that they have something to grab when their mobile phone needs a recharge.
In the meantime eBooks are thriving on phones and in online venues where printable formatting is considered a plus.
eBooks will do particularly well as materials that can encourage previewing a title that someone would like to consider for on-demand printing.
But still, even at this highly developed stage in the electronic publishing era, it's hard for most publishers and technologist to think of books as anything other than a relic that will be accomodated reluctantly by new technologies.
This leaves plenty of room for people to reinvent what a book really is.
Original article written by John Blossom, and first published on October 3rd 2007 on Shore.com and entitled "Sony Tries to Re-Kindle eBook Interest with a New Reader".
About the author
John Blossom is a content media and business expert whose career spans more than twenty years of marketing, research, product management and development in advanced information and media venues. John Blossom has also been a key player in a number of ground-breaking Internet-oriented initiatives at Reuters, including the introduction of content management services and a global effort to integrate Internet-based information suppliers into the mainstream Reuters information services environment. You can follow Mr Blosson news radars on the business and trends of media content at www.shore.com where he maintains a daily news radar and highly respected news analysis blog.