E-books close to market breakthrough

December 14th, 2008 - 2:19 pm ICT by IANS  

Berlin, Dec 14 (DPA) After years of false start, e-books - thin, highly simplified displays - seem to be getting cheap enough for mass use. Thanks to a new technology known as e-ink, they can now function for weeks without a battery recharge.Early next year, Sony is to launch its PRS-505, a reader device with a six-inch black-and-white screen, in Germany, Europe’s biggest market, after introducing it to booksellers in October at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Its launches this year in Britain and France have achieved good sales, as did earlier models in Japan and the United States.

The product’s main rival, the Amazon Kindle, is only on sale in the United States. The device is “this season’s first official sold-out holiday item,” in the words of New York book-publishing blogger Kassia Krozser.

A try-out with the Sony Reader suggested that my aunt could have read its biggest font size, seemingly about 18 points, and easily found her saved books. You flip through the pages by pressing a toggle switch.

At 260 gm, the PRS-505 reader seems heavy, because it is mostly metal. But in fact this is the same mass as a paperback book.

The lettering is crisp. The screen contrast is less than on a laptop display, but just as clear as with most paper books.

Peter Ziesch, the Sony executive overseeing the content buildup in Germany for the PRS-505, said no price has been set yet.

In France the device officially sells for 299 euros ($400), which is a sensitive boundary. Above that, a reader product bumps up against low-priced laptops, which can also be used to read e-books.

The price is also still a lot higher than the cost of a goose-necked reading lamp, a pair of spectacles and a good magnifying glass, as used by many elderly people to read.

This season’s e-ink readers still have two disadvantages: the image cannot be scrolled smoothly and the screen is still smaller than the print area in a paperback book. That is only really enough space for a single column of text.

Help could be on the way.

Also in Germany, a factory in Dresden is stockpiling an as-yet-unnamed product for a market launch in the first half of 2009.

It is expected to have a black-and-white screen the same size as the print area on a sheet of A4 paper. That’s enough space to fit headlines, maybe three columns, photographs and diagrams. News and textbook publishers are paying close attention.

Plastic Logic, the manufacturer, which is based in the English city of Cambridge, has not yet released final specifications or the price.

The wisdom is that e-ink products will take off once people can actually save money by buying the devices and downloading e-books, instead of buying paper books. Right now, that would only apply if you read books from free sites only, such as 19th-century novels.

If publishers greedily demand the same price for an e-book as for the corresponding paper book, a lot of the incentive for going electronic vanishes, as blogger Krozser frequently notes.

Content manager Ziesch said Sony is recommending that e-books be priced no higher than 80 percent of the paper book price.

Publishers often complain that converting books to electronic form is expensive, yet the effort required to create a rough pirate version of a book, by copying from a paper version on a document scanner, is not great.

The example that worries many book publishers is the music industry, where distribution has gone digital. In hindsight, the release of the MP3 recording format in 1994 set the countdown running.

But instead of getting ready, the industry spent 10 years in denial.

The industry had a period of grace until all the digital technology was in place, but the introduction of the iPod in 2001 and the spread of broadband connections opened up the world of downloading.

It was not till 2004 that Apple’s iTunes Store was offering the full range of music at a price consumers were willing to pay: $0.99 per song.

“That was too late,” said Ziesch, recalling the slow-footed music industry’s dawdling as it fought file-sharing piracy instead of developing a digital business of its own.

To sidestep some of the difficulties of dealing with a conservative industry, Sony has partnered with Libri, a major book wholesaler with long experience of electronic conversions, which will do the technical part of getting e-books to consumers.

Bookworms who read in bed or on the bus going to work are likely to be the main adopters of products like the Sony Reader. In the United States, new ventures are now offering 99-cent short stories to precisely that kind of market.

But a far bigger market may be in play if bigger displays become available at a low price: visionaries suggest that many newspapers and magazines may one day cease printing on paper and only publish on e-ink.

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