A year ago, a few early adopters were playing with their latest toy: Amazon’s ugly, clunky e-reader, the Kindle. It was an idea Sony had tried a few years earlier but failed at miserably.
How the game has changed.
Though Amazon won’t release figures, analysts are guessing that the company has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million Kindles through its online store to date, keeping pace with the iPod, according to ireaderreview.com.
Released last spring, the second-generation Kindle is a sleek, smooth-operating device that could have come out of an Apple factory. And it has been joined by the Kindle DX, a larger version to accommodate newspapers in full-scale -- as opposed to web -- formatting.
You now can buy a Kindle book and read it on your iPhone -- without even having an actual Kindle.
That burgeoning market is poised to explode, led by three Sony models and two devices that will use Barnes and Noble’s new e-bookstores.
From 1 million e-reader units sold in 2008, market research firm DisplaySearch predicts that number will jump to 77 million units in 10 years.
This year, Sony introduced three new readers that it hopes will revive its fortunes. They include the Reader Daily Edition -- the first able to download books using a Kindle-like WiFi, as opposed to computer, connection -- as well as a smaller Pocket edition and a touch-screen version aptly named Touch, that lets the user write notes and swipe through pages with the touch on the screen. (See accompanying article, "The Great e-Reader Smackdown.)
The Daily is the only one with wireless capabilities, like Amazon's Whispernet.
"If you want to download perishable daily information, wireless is important, Sony's Vice President of Digital Reading and Audio Divisions Brennan Mullin told TheWrap. "If you're downloading a book a week, a PC-tethered experience is just fine."
Sony says it has sold 400,000 of its e-readers as of January 2009.
To growing numbers of consumers, the convenience of an electronic book -- the ability to carry over 1,000 volumes, the built-in search, bookmarking and dictionary functions -- in a device the size of a slim paperback that’s easy to read in the sun and lasts for weeks on a single battery charge, is well worth the $300-plus expense.
The drawbacks? It’s possible, of course, the proliferation of e-readers and e-book stores may eventually confuse the consumer. Depending on the device you buy, you’ll find yourself tethered to one or another for your titles, a replay of the old VHS/Beta videotape wars. (See accompanying article, "Battle of the e-Formats.)
And e-readers are only about as technologically advanced as the earliest iPods, in black and white and with limited contrast -- unless you’re willing to fly to Japan and spend $1,000 on Fujitsu’s FLEPia color reader. (Samsung also has a color reader available only in Japan, the Papyrus.)
It’s not just booksellers who see a bright future for electronic readers. Once screens get larger -- Amazon’s DX has a 9-inch screen, and Plastic Logic is introducing a 13.8-inch model next year -- they could serve as a viable substitute for newspapers.
The Kindle has offered newspaper subscriptions since launch, usually downloading the morning’s paper overnight. But it’s not a stretch to consider a file continually updating to a large-screen e-reader, providing the look of print with the immediacy of the web.
At the same time, newspapers could save a fortune in print and distribution costs, which now account for up to 65 percent of their expenses. Throwing a newspaper on millions of suburban driveways each morning is beginning to seem as archaic as the milkman dropping bottles on the doorstep.
“We have a very strong interest in e-newspapers. We’re very anxious to get involved,” Kenneth A. Bronfin, president of Hearst Interactive Media, told TheWrap. “We are hopeful that we will be able to distribute our content on a new generation of larger devices.”
Hearst also is an investor in E Ink, the company that manufacturers the technology that powers most of the e-readers.
Electronic print uses no power once it is drawn on the screen; it only needs juice to lay each letter down. As a result, a charge can last for weeks. And unlike LCD screens, they don’t cause headaches after lengthy use, and they actually look better in bright light.
Coupled with a wide viewing angle, they do an adequate job of imitating paper and ink, creating black type on a somewhat muddy gray background.
E Ink is working on creating color displays, full motion video capabilities and even flexible screens. But the working prototypes at E Ink’s Boston headquarters several months back displayed only washed out colors and small moving images -- the company has some way to go before it’s ready to introduce an advanced product that will woo the skeptics.
But it will happen. Just in the last few months, tremendous strides have been made, most recently by Sony, which had the first consumer reader in September 2006 -- one that was plagued by weak marketing, and a clunky downloading system and is now trying to play catch-up with the Kindle.
The new Sonys not only purchase from the Sony bookstore, but they can borrow electronic titles from local libraries; when the lending period is over, the book stops working.
Now it’s Barnes and Noble’s turn to try and grab market share by upping the title ante.
The company has pacted with IREX Technologies and Plastic Logic for Readers due out later this year. Purchasers will be able to download more than 700,000 books from B&N’s new online store, as well as 500,000 public domain titles from Google.
In the numbers game, Barnes & Noble has both Amazon and Sony beat. Amazon's Kindle store offers 350,000 titles, while Sony is up to 150,000, plus a million public domain titles from Google. “Anytime we can add more content, we will," Mullin said.
Amazon says it’s not worried. “Right now we have 105 of 111 New York Times bestsellers,” said Cinthia Portugal, a company spokesperson. “We’re committed to adding every book ever written to the Kindle Store, so we are working our way down the long tail.”