E-book readers: Doomed or what?

Posted on by Mike Evans

You only have to look around you in cafes and on public transport to see that real books, not e-books, are the norm. Despite all the frenzied activity and the dozens, if not hundreds, of look-alike e-ink readers, it is still unusual to see someone with a Kindle or a Sony in their hands. But I believe this is changing gradually and the change is accelerating. By the end of the year reading of electronic books will be commonplace.

Manufacturers are thrashing around in all directions and producing weird and wonderful variations on the e-ink theme. We have double, hinged screens to simulate a paper book (why?) and additional colour, backlit screens for doing the things you cannot do on the current e-ink technology. In short, the market lacks focus and, all the while, the new iPad is hovering above like some dark cloud and it hasn't yet hit the shelves.

Devin Coldewey's comprehensive review of the e-book market in CrunchGear today contains a few surprises and is a must-read for anyone interested in the genre. While Devin concludes that he will stick with real books for the time being, I am already a committed e-book reader and don't see a time when I will return to buying books. And after two years of struggling with e-ink, I am now firmly committed to back-lit technology as found on the iPhone and iPad. Synchronisation of bookmarks across devices (e-book reader, smartphone, desktop or laptop) is now a must-have feature. Kindle offers this; Apple will surely offer it. So, for my money, all the rest are out in the cold. 

One thing no one seems to consider, and this is as much a problem with the iPad as it is with all existing e-ink readers, is that you cannot put them in your pocket (unless, of course, you have voluminous pockets). So if you want to read while out and about you are more or less obliged to carry a bag. You can often stuff a small paperback into a coat pocket or you can happily carry a book in your hand because it doesn't get damaged if you drop it. 

All e-readers need a carrying bag and this is precisely why synchronisation over the net is absolutely essential. If I don't want to carry a bag, I can continue reading on a device that is always in my pocket: my iPhone. And, as I've said many times, the iPhone itself is a very respectable e-reader. Anyone wishing to put their toe in the e-book market is recommended to start with a free iPhone app and see how it goes. Nothing lost if you don't like it.

Interestingly, yesterday Sony asked me to complete a questionnaire on the future of e-books. One of the questions was whether synchronisation across platforms (citing the iPhone in particular) was important to me. Darn right. Could it be that Sony is considering entering the market with synchronisation facilities and an iPhone application? If they don't want to be sidelined and lose their existing market share this seems to be inevitable.

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