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Remember back in the 1980s companies were making dedicated word processors that were a hybrid typewriter/computer approach? They were actually fairly popular until PC prices came down and made them redundant. Now, technology is approaching The Written Word from the opposite angle: reading. Before long companies will realize that an all-in-one Written Word solution is needed.

Electronic book readers are a fast-growing gadget market that is just now getting steady on its feet. Since  Amazon introduced the Kindle device, the e-reader is seen as a practical product, pulled along in the wake of the iPod and other music players. E-readers are going through the usual gadget growing pains: limited features, expensive, quirky, even downright buggy. But the early adopters out there are all over them, and something like 7-10 million will be sold in the coming year.

WHAT IS IT?

E-readers allow you to do just one thing – read text (although the latest generation include mp3 playback. Mp3 players are the digital watches of the 21st century). At the moment they use E-Ink’s “virtual paper” technology that has the look of paper and ink, and is low in power consumption and easier to look at than backlit LCD screens. But it’s also limited to black, white, and shades of gray, and its response time is slow (Samsung has color E-Ink displays now, but they are expensive and very slow). E-Ink is so power efficient because it doesn’t have to refresh the display constantly. That translates to long battery life (usually about two weeks) and very low heat output.

Memory is now being standardized in the 2-4 gigabyte range on the latest generation of these devices, allowing storage of 1,500 to 3,500 e-book titles. There’s a tug-of-war going on now over base features. E-readers seem to come down to two design philosophies: 1) the device is a peripheral, and you must use a computer to access memory (the iPod paradigm); 2) the device is independent and can use 3G cell technology and/or WiFi (the cell phone paradigm).

User interface design is all over the map: touch screens, mini-keyboards, arrays of buttons and iPod-like finger widgets, stylus screens a la Blackberry, etc. This will all shake-out eventually as the best compromise between cost and usability is discovered. I’m betting touch screens will win in the long run.

Right now this is not a general consumer product. It’s for gadget monkeys and people who really need the convenience factor: students, executives, even delivery truck drivers are into these things. But as the price drops and the feature sets become richer e-readers will become as common as pocket calculators, and just as inexpensive. I think the wireless abilities will be retained only for high-end devices. Instead you will probably purchase content on disposable media (those weird paper chip things you see in greeting cards look like a candidate). Once you buy the thing you will only have so long to load it on your reader, or only so many loads available, or some such thing.

Right now Amazon and Sony are leading the e-reader market, with some notable European competition from companies like iRex. Barnes and Noble has just muscled its way into the market place with its Nook device, with impressive features at a relatively low price. And of course Apple has its mad scientists locked away somewhere creating the device that will probably blow all of these out of the water.

WHAT MATTERS?

Content is everything in the e-reader market. Early models had a limited number of file formats to choose from, but a big part of the marketing battle now is between “open” and “closed” systems. Amazon takes the closed route – you have to deal with them to get content. Sony and Barnes and Noble are going the open route – you can get e-books from anywhere, and especially free from Google (in memory-eating Adobe .PDF format), or even from Project Gutenberg.

Amazon claims to have 350,000 titles available, while B&N claims a whopping 1 million in their e-book store, plus another 500,000 via Google. Sony seems a bit behind on these numbers. But you have to be careful, because most of these claims are flat-out lies. If you browse either Amazon or B&N you will find they are counting multiple editions, and there can be a lot of these for older books. You also find you can’t actually get to ALL the titles all the time.

Barnes and Noble seem to have hit upon a great strategy. You can buy the Nook in their stores, and every Nook instantly connects to the in-store wireless network, allow ing you to read titles for free as they are streamed to the device. If you find something you like you just buy it and it leaves the store on your Nook. That easy.

Most e-readers are offering free 3G cell connectivity, although how long they can keep doing this is an open question. Amazon pioneered this feature, iRex is offering it, as does the Nook and the high-end Sony device (the Nook and the Sony will be available in about a month). You can buy books, newspapers, magazines, etc. from any location that can get to the network.

Right now the big issue is options, as-in file formats. The big question is how many formats does the device support, and how well does it support them? Reviews will tell you that some readers can load .TXT and .PDF, but they don’t display them properly or support all features. A current standard is the ePub format – but how much staying power any format has is up in the air, like the old VHS vs. Betamax problem. Of course with e-readers companies can release new firmware to add format support, so the standards wars might be a bit less painful for e-readers.

WHERE IS IT GOING?

Device consolidation is a mania in the tech culture, so look for e-readers to expand into calculator-cell phone-web browser-video players in the next five years or so. But I think one direction that seems natural is word processing – writing as well as reading. The ability to plug any USB keyboard into the things would be easy to implement, and getting output over WiFi would be equally easy. For many business people a reader/writer/browser/phone could replace their PC or laptop.

But I think as manufacturers refine the technology and manufacturing expense declines, these things will become as disposable as cheap calculators are now. You’ll be able to buy them for twenty bucks at the grocery store, in that little stationery department they all have. These won’t be the full-featured models, but simple e-readers that can load content over WiFi. Schools will hand them out to students pre-loaded with textbooks. Companies will give them to employees pre-loaded with that employee manual no one reads, and daily updates on company events and policies.

E-readers are destined to become a communication tool, streaming memos and other work-related documents into the pockets of workers everywhere.

This is the next revolution in media storage and handling, just as the music player was over the last ten years. Some of us will jump in feet first, while some wait until the market shakes-out and settles into a standardized format. But eventually these devices will be as common as the ball-point pen.

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