Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Why dedicated ebook readers won’t take off

With the launching of its Kindle DX ebook reader, Amazon has reiterated its efforts to bring digital publishing finally into the mainstream after years of languishing in niche markets despite the participation of major players like Sony (Sony Reader Digital Book) and Barnes & Noble (ebook publishing).

Amazon’s offering of ebooks will definitely encourage publishers to give the medium another chance. Conversely, the availability of a significant volume of free ebooks from sites like Project Gutenberg will convince readers to try ebook reading, if not purchase the Kindle or other ebook readers.

However as much as the Kindle is now being called the iPods of books, it has yet to do what the original icon did for music and media players. The question is will it be able to do so? For that matter, will any other dedicated ebook reader succeed in re-defining the ebook trade?

Where the iPod succeeded more out of packaging and providing a turnkey system with the iTune store than in using an alternate technology, dedicated ebook readers, for the most part, use E-ink as their display, instead of the more conventional and cheaper LCD technology. Unfortunately, while the use of the E-ink display makes the ebook reader a better device for its intended purpose, it also severely limits other type of usage.

Admittedly, E-ink is easier on the eyes because it is not backlit and does not have any flickering. Battery life also lasts considerably much longer, measuring in days instead of hours. But its downside is plentiful. It is more expensive. It does not support animation or video. And it is currently not available in color.
So that means consumers will be paying a significant premium if they choose to buy an ebook reader with a singular purpose over a more powerful, more versatile, general purpose notebook. Of course, the ebook experience on the latter will never match up with that on the former but you will get to do all the other things, including watching Youtube videos.

But what about the future?

Well, color E-ink is projected to be available in 2011. But that is like two lifetimes away in computer terms. On the other hand, per Mary Lou Jepsen, the designer of OLPC’s reflective LCD Screen, her new company, Pixel Qi, is developing an LCD designed for reading with a performance better than E-Ink’s – with full color and video.

In addition, other developments in screen technology such as flexible OLED provide interesting alternatives. If more affordable, more suitable screens are successfully developed for general purpose notebooks that can result in considerably longer lasting battery life, then the gap in performance between ebook readers and notebooks will certainly close. As it is, the current value for money equation already favors notebooks.

So when notebooks with improved screen technology and battery life start becoming available (and they will), at prices considerably much lower than those of dedicated ebook readers, the high prices of the latter will make them even less attractive. Even if manufacturers of the dedicated readers decide to switch screens to bring down costs, they will still find it difficult to compete price-wise. After all, it takes very little to go from an ebook reader to a general purpose notebook. The added components’ costs are only incremental.

Thus, from this perspective, dedicated ebook readers really do not have anywhere to go. Their sole functionality will eventually be performed by general purpose notebooks or even scaled-down sub $100 netbooks.