Welcome to the special CES Edition of State of the eBook! As everyone has reported, there was a huge onslaught of eBook reading devices this year, from dedicated e-ink devices to tablets! What does this mean for the eBook market? Let’s find out!
But what does it all mean?
Content, content, who’s got the content?
Alex picked up Google Books support, but several other readers already offer the same content (including the Barnes and Noble nook). What really is exciting for Spring Design is their deal with Borders; not only will the Alex pick up the content from Border’s deal with Kobo/Shortcovers, but they’ll also gain retail exposure. At Barnes and Noble’s biggest rivals.
At first, I honestly thought this was a terrible idea. In fairness, I used to work for Borders, so I tend to be harder on the company than is necessary. So I take back my initial response (for the record, it was “When has anything Borders touched actually worked long-term?”), and I wish Alex the best of luck. I still think pricing is too high, especially once the nook is readily available down the road at Barnes and Noble. Borders has been in a highly unfavorable position compared to their rivals over at B&N in the retail space, and they have long since lost ground to Amazon on the web. If they can pull this off, the Alex at least gets them closer to equal footing in a growing field. Spring Design and Borders are both underdogs in this fight, though. It will certainly be an interesting device/partnership to watch!
Then, of course, we have the RCA Lexi. This announcement sort of slipped under the radar, but the big news is the Barnes and Noble eBookstore integration. Interestingly, it will sell for $229, though there’s no news on whether they will be carrying it in stores. Here’s where it starts to get fuzzy. It’s one thing for B&N to have hardware partnerships that fill out places their dedicated reader doesn’t extend (like the Que, which we’ll get to in a bit). But this isn’t SO different from the nook. It offers B&N, plain ePUB and PDF support. So, as I’ve asked many times before, exactly what is Barnes and Noble’s plan? Is this part of their big plan to rule by as many business plans as possible? Throw it against the wall and see what sticks? If the many readers format works, they’re already in the game, and if they really only see sales in the nook, yank the others and call it a day?
Finally, on the content side we also have Skiff and the magazine partners. After newspapers, magazines have long been seen as the next domino to fall. With the push to instant information, the idea of waiting a week or even a month for your news has become passe. While e-ink is somewhat successful for newspapers, magazines have suffered from the smaller size of ebook reader screens, as well as the lack of color. Skiff plans to change that with big screened readers, future color readers, and an ad-supported system. We haven’t really seen a push for ads in e-reading content, and while it’s great as a way to subsidize cost, it remains to be seen if people will be willing to accept that as a tradeoff for more content and lower prices. It sounds like the kind of idea companies tied to the “old media” business model can tolerate. But will consumers accept it? Would YOU want to pay $200+ for an eBook reader and then be bombarded with ads?
Hardware…Oh Color Where Art Thou?
The Plastic Logic Que debuted, and will be carrying a sky-high price tag for a non-color device. On the other hand, it’s also supposed to be a laptop replacement tablet, with PDF, word, ebook and input support. Judie had some hands-on time with it, and thought it was fabulous; hopefully businesses looking for a good content reader will agree.
Entourage Edge is a funny one; is it an ebook reader, or just a dual screened Android tablet? Whatever it is, Dan, Judie and Larry were very impressed with it when they saw it at CES. Apparently it weighs in at only 3lb, impressive for such a complex device. It looks a bit awkward from the video, but hopefully the two screens will seem more natural in person.
Then we’re into the pure tablets, like the Dell Mini 5 and the HP slate devices. Obviously these are not dedicated ebook readers, but they can be used to read eBooks. In fact, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer used an HP prototype running KindleforPC in his keynote at CES. These tablets fall into a place somewhere between smartphones and netbooks, and for some they may be more attractive than pure ebook readers. Not even for functionality reasons, but simply because the best way to avoid being tied down to a particular format is to choose a device that supports multiple formats. Currently, your best options there are Windows, Mac OS X and the iPhone OS, as all three support most major DRM and non-DRM formats.
And where the crossover point of eBooks and tablets really is starting to occur is in screen technology. First up, the Notion Ink Adam tablet. [Aside: What's up with the naming this year? Alex the eBook Reader, Adam the tablet...I'm waiting for Alice the Smartphone to come along...] The Adam uses the Pixel Qi screen, and the hands-on reports say it refreshes faster than e-ink, and paired with the NVIDIA Tegra chip, performs flawlessly at video and games as well as reading. Sadly, the Adam isn’t set to come out until at least June, but hopefully by then they’ll have more details and content ironed out. Because the Adam runs Android on a very non-standard size (10in screen), it will require a special “Notion Ink App Store” in place of the Android Marketplace, so exact content is a bit of a wildcard. Positioned right pricing wise, though, they could sell it as a “eBook reader+” type device, and any special apps would just be gravy.
The story at CES seemed to be Qualcomm; their smartphone chips were getting a lot of buzz, but also sneaking into the mix was their Mirasol display. This display is similar to the Pixel Qi; an e-ink style screen in color, with low power and black and white options. Qualcomm demo’d it with just the promise that it was going to arrive on a major device in 2010, but Engadget claims to have scooped that Mirasol is head to the Amazon Kindle.
If you step back and think about it, this actually makes a great deal of sense. Amazon has a head start in the eBook world, but eBooks (and all of technology) are very much a “what have you done for me lately” kind of industry. Kindles need to strike back from the assault on two fronts; they’re facing off against an army of e-ink options, from Sony Readers to B&N nooks to the Spring Design Alex and every other generic e-ink reader out there. On the other side, tablets are the buzzword of the day. Android is gaining steam and eBook reader software, plus now Microsoft is once again marching an army into the tablet/slate world. If Amazon adopts Mirasol, not only does it give them a leg up on the competition as far as bragging rights (better battery life, ability to turn off the backlight, etc), it also gives them the chance to showcase their other media offerings like Amazon Video. AND they have a proven format to woo magazines and newspapers away from newcomer Skiff.
What comes next
It’s going to be a very interesting year in eBook-land. If I had to make a prediction based on CES and what we’ve seen, I think tablets and e-ink readers are going to both lose to Pixel Qi and Mirasol devices. The versatility and battery life alone gives them a leg up over their tablet and e-ink counterparts. I also think the benefit is that with most eBook readers, the OS is very much in the background (even on the nook, Android is basically invisible unless you root it). If they evolve from eBook reading to magazines, video, and web browsing, but keep the same general “feel”, then readers will be the holy grail of media consumption that tablets wish they could be. Of course, all this remains in flux pending a certain 800lb fruit company’s announcements in a few weeks…
What do you think? Did anything that debuted at CES make you really excited for the future of ebooks, or are you still waiting for something else to come along?