Are eBook Reading Devices Doomed?

Sony announces it’s in trouble.

I don’t know if that will affect the eBook group. That division is now housed entirely in the U.S., has been profitable, and has begun its international campaign. I hope Sony will see the wisdom in continuing it. To surrender the field to Amazon would be a defeat Sony could not afford.

And yet: Could it all be for nothing?

There are three recent signs — as well as a total wild card — that point to possible dramatic changes in the eBook-reading hardware landscape.

The first is Samsung hitting the pedal hard on OLED screen manufacturing. There have been exciting rumblings that Samsung intends to put these incredible OLED screens in notebook computers. Samsung recently displayed a folding OLED prototype screen.

OLED screens are a huge deal. This is what I previously wrote:

This past weekend, I was in J&R. I made it a point to go see that OLED TV Sony’s Howard Stringer has bragged and bragged about.

It’s no brag!

You have to see it for yourself. Color, contrast, brightness, and viewing angle just shame every other television on sale.

SONXEL1 altSIDE

That’s a side view. The screen really is shockingly-thin. (Of course, that’s a bit of a gimmick, isn’t it? If you add the electronics that are separated into the base to make it wall-hanging, there goes the thinness, right?) Now, what happens when Sony finally nails the production run of OLED screens? Would a six-inch one finds its way into a future model of Sony Reader? It’d probably be expensive as all hell, but that’d be only for the first model (targeted to businesses and publishing professionals). Prices would eventually drop.

Let me say one more thing about that Sony OLED TV that pertains expressly to eBooks: it would make eBooks on par with high-quality full-color printing that’s now available. In fact, it’d be higher quality than what we see in weeklies such as Time and Newsweek. We’re talking high-quality full-color Japanese magazine printing (which, if you haven’t seen that, you should!).

The second development has been Hewlett-Packard demonstrating color eInk screens.

Truly, the first device that can do color eBooks will change things forever.

And that just might doom all existing dedicated eBook readers!

For here’s the third piece of this puzzle: Amtek Rumored to Show Slate Netbook at CES 2009

The specs are familiar to netbook fans — Intel Atom N270, 512MB RAM (upgradable to 2GB), 80GB HDD, 10.2” XGA TFT(1024*600) — albeit with less RAM and hard drive space than we’re used to seeing these days. The touchscreen may make up for that, if it brings the awesome.

Those specs just kick the hell out of all current eBook reading devices. And it has a color and touch screen.

Throw Adobe Digital Editions on that and it’s immediately ePub Heaven.

And, of course, it’s not only an eBook reader. It’s a full-fledged portable computer in which eBooks are only one application.

Let’s say it comes at a premium price of US$700.00. That’s twice the price of a Sony PRS-505 and $300 more than the new touchscreen PRS-700.

Suddenly the entire eBook reading equation is changed. It’s no longer, “I need this small device that’s made for eBooks.”

It becomes, “I can get this small computer and also have eBooks.”

I’ve argued since I first saw it that the Sony Reader is the absolute ideal size for a portable device:

The Oh. My. God. Moment came in picking it up. This is a masterpiece of design and engineering. It is what a totable computer should be. This is what the Nokia 770 and all UMPCs should be like. Just this exact size and thickness. This is science-fiction come to life. It is worth your time to get to any store that has it just to hold it.

I still believe that.

This puts Sony in a tight corner.

1) It can find itself — as Amazon will — with eBook hardware sales going to zero by the end of 2009

or

2) It can go All Hands On Deck, cross company boundaries, and quickly change course from a dedicated eBook device to the best damned portable computer available.

And what’s the Wild Card in all this?

Pixel Qi, which brags it has revolutionary screens that will basically run on electrons by osmosis instead of the greedy sip-sip-sip of current technology.

Someone is going to put these pieces together:

1) Sony Reader-sized touchscreen computer

2) Revolutionary screen

3) Included Adobe Digital Editions software

Will it be Apple? Hewlett-Packard? Asus? MSI? Amtek? Or Sony?

It will take just one company to start the ball rolling. Just as it did with Asus and the original EeePC. The pile-on quickly followed, with every manufacturer leap-frogging one another, culminating in the Samsung NC10 which gets a startling battery run-time compared to all the rest.

Amazon wouldn’t really care if its abominable Kindle sales went to zero. It could release a Kindle Reader app and still make money from selling eBooks (although I’d quickly expect those $10 prices to go bye-bye). Amazon would doubly clean up because it also owns MobiPocket, which already runs on conventional computers.

The dying dinosaurs of print wouldn’t really care because they’re selling standardized software now — ePub files. They don’t care what reads them — Sony Reader, desktop Adobe Digital Editions, or Stanza on an iPhone — they would still make sales.

This leaves Sony very vulnerable. It also threatens with extinction all the other dedicated eBook devices out there, such as the ECTACO jetBook and the BeBook.

Next year really is going to be the year everything changes for eBooks.

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14 Comments on “Are eBook Reading Devices Doomed?”

  1. Amalthia Says:

    I think what makes ebook devices great is that the battery lasts at least a week in my case.

  2. BlackVoid Says:

    “Next year really is going to be the year everything changes for eBooks.”

    Next year, you will realize that you were wrong with all the predictions in this article.

    “Truly, the first device that can do color eBooks will change things forever.”
    WHY???? How many print fiction books are in color? Try 0 percent.

  3. mikecane Says:

    >>>How many print fiction books are in color?

    You are stuck in my tunnelvision here. Reading isn’t just *fiction*.

    http://mikecane2008.wordpress.com/2008/10/25/ebook-devices-color-the-final-frontier/

    http://mikecane2008.wordpress.com/2008/10/15/ebooks-game-over-when-color-happens/

    Does anyone *really* want, say, Time or Newsweek or Vogue or Cosmo in monochrome?

    Also, non-fiction books usually have photos — usually in B&W, because color printing is expensive. Not so with e!

    There are also maps, guidebooks, etc.

    And let’s not forget comic books and graphic novels.

  4. daffy4u Says:

    “abominable Kindle sales”

    How have you determined that Kindle sales are “abominable”? You can’t determine that because Amazon has not released any sales figures. It’s just a guess (or hope) on your part.

  5. mikecane Says:

    >>>How have you determined that Kindle sales are “abominable”?

    You’re parsing it wrong. It’s “abominable Kindle” — as in me considering it an abomination — not “abominable … sales.” Although those rumored sales figures are full of shit too. I don’t think they’ve reach 100,000.

  6. daffy4u Says:

    You wrote it wrong. If that was what you meant, you should have written it as “Amazon wouldn’t really care if sales of its abominable Kindle went to zero.”

    In either case, I don’t agree.

  7. mikecane Says:

    No. Yours is the carping of the hit-and-run reader. Regular readers known I won’t call it anything other than the “abominable Kindle.”

  8. AlKelly Says:

    “Truly, the first device that can do color eBooks will change things forever.”

    I have sitting next to me my ebookwise ETI 1, also known as the RCA REB 1200, formerly known as the Softbook reader (I believe). It has an 8.5″ diagonal measure color screen that plays ebookwise’s .imp format, but also I was given a document converter as a free download. It has a wonderfully bright and smooth looking display. I can convert everything easily except for pdf’s. I have converted a couple and it was hit or miss as far as quality. I understand that most people seem to think that ebook reading devices started when e-ink was developed, but there are those of us who read a lot of material, who like public domain and internet disseminated reading material and love to read in bed with the lights off (yes, it’s backlit) and just don’t need e-ink. Frankly, I think the next killer ebook device will be made by a company that markets the device without being overly concerned about DRM formats. Make it easy for me to get my material on my own ebook reading device without going across your computer servers or taking several minutes to convert to your format and I might buy another.
    So- yes I agree with you, but I think that the perfect large-screen ebook reading device (I can’t see small type well, and don’t want to have a single paragraph take up an entire page- so no palms or pocket pc’s) has already been created. It only needed pdf compatability and slightly higher picture resolution for photorealism. Can you tell that I’m biased? :-)

  9. mikecane Says:

    I vaguely remember those. I dismissed them at the time because I felt they were bulky as well as very expensive. Plus, eBooks probably weren’t on my radar as they are now. I know you guys love those units.


  10. [...] Cane hits the target on color eBooks … Truly, the first device that can do color eBooks will change things forever … There [...]

  11. Robert K. Says:

    so that I have in 2007 registered domain names ColorEbooks.com and ColorEreaders.com

    I predict a huge future in it!

  12. dbonneville Says:

    Unless they can make an OLED that draws no power, or make power from a company like EEStor with some uber-powerful and tiny batter, color ebooks will arrive and dominate the market.

  13. Jerry Love Says:

    I feel as though you catch some things while missing some others.

    If I wanted a laptop/netbook ebook reader, I’d but a laptop/netbook. There are some distinct reasons I want a seperate ebook reader and your view of “improving” them often actually destroies them.

    OLED? You’ve killed battery life (which is in number of pages, not number of hours), and you’ve moved from a reflective display (easy to read in harsh light) to an emittive display (admittedly the best of them) that glows in the dark and is hard to read with the sun shining on it.

    A computer with an ebook app? You’ve killed battery life again! You’ve also added weight, cost, and heat.

    Color? There I agree. An ebook reader that was good at more than novels would be a good thing. Magazines, Newspapers, Text books, blogs. These too are good fodder for ebook readers but often include (of neccessity) color pictures.

  14. demonreader Says:

    I ended up here, because I have been searching for a new battery for my REB1200, and have continued doing some research. I was successful in my battery search, hopefully, and just wanted to comment. I love my REB1200. I have had it for a number of years and use it quite a lot. I first got it for travel, so that I wouldn’t have to take a huge pile of books. Now I use it frequently at home. I was upset when, years ago now, the original site stopped providing new material. I was thrilled when the new site came up, and use it frequently. I like the color screen, and would hope that some books will be available to use it with things other than their covers. Not really important though, because I use it primarily for fiction. I could see that some biographies/histories would be better with color. My house is full of paper books, and I would never give them up, but I have, of late, been purchasing a number of old favorites, so that when away, I can dip back into them. I don’t find it too big or heavy. It fits in my purse better than a hard cover paper book, and can be read in the dark. The only problem is reading in the sunshine…


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