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For serious readers, products like Amazon’s Kindle 2, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, and Sony’s Daily Edition are a godsend. It’s not just that these electronic reading devices are handy portals to hundreds of thousands of trade books, textbooks, public-domain works, and best-sellers, all of which can be wirelessly downloaded at a moment’s notice, and to scores of magazines and newspapers, which show up on subscribers’ devices automatically. They’re also giving adventurous authors and publishers new ways to organize and market their creations. A California startup called Vook, for example, has begun to package cookbooks, workout manuals, and even novels with illustrative video clips, and it’s selling these hybrids of video and text to iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch owners through Apple’s iTunes Store.

Unfortunately, you can’t get away with charging hardcover prices for an e-book, which makes it hard to see how traditional publishers will profit in a future that’s largely digital. As a result, book publishers are facing a painful and tumultuous time as they attempt to adapt to the emerging e-book technologies. The Kindle, the iPad, and their ilk will force upon print-centric publishers what the Internet, file sharing, and the iPod forced upon the CD-centric music conglomerates starting around 1999–namely, waves of cost cutting and a search for new business models.

Publishers are lucky in one way: the reckoning could have come much sooner. From 1999 to 2001, I worked for NuvoMedia, a Silicon Valley startup that developed a device called the Rocket eBook. The Rocket and its main rival at the time, the Softbook Reader from Softbook Press, prefigured the current generation of e-book devices. Owners could shop for books from major publishers online, download the publications to their PCs, and then transfer them to the portable devices, which had monochrome LCD screens that showed one page of text at a time.

But three factors conspired to kill these first-generation e-readers. First, book publishers, fearing that digital sales would cannibalize print sales, offered only a limited catalogue of books in electronic form and charged nearly as much for Rocket and Softbook editions as they did for hardcovers. Not surprisingly, consumers demurred, which in turn discouraged publishers from offering more titles digitally. Second, the technology wasn’t quite ready for mass adoption. The devices weren’t small or thin enough to be truly portable, and the book-buying process was convoluted. Third, NuvoMedia and Softbook Press were acquired and then combined by a larger company, Gemstar, that was distracted by other issues and let its new e-book division languish, eventually closing it down.

Business conditions are very different today. For one thing, there are more big players with an interest in seeing the e-book business blossom, including Sony, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and now Apple. Using their pull with publishers, these companies have assembled huge catalogues of e-books–Amazon has nearly half a million commercial titles–and they’ve kept prices lower, in the $10-to-$15 range for new trade books.

Just as important, mobile computing technology has improved drastically. Cheap 3G data access is the biggest advance. Now that readers can browse, purchase, and download e-books and periodicals directly on their devices, they can access new material almost instantaneously, without having to be near a desktop or laptop computer with an Internet connection. Having owned a Kindle 2 since May 2009, I can testify to the allure of this feature: I’ve bought a couple of dozen more e-books for my Kindle than I would ever have ordered from Amazon in print form in the same period.

Today’s wireless e-reading devices fall into two groups, each with its strong points. The “electronic ink” devices all use black-and-white electrophoretic displays manufactured by Prime View International. (The Taiwanese display maker acquired the company that developed the technology, MIT spinoff E Ink, in 2009.) The $259 Kindle 2 is the best-known of these products, but Barnes and Noble’s identically priced Nook and the $400 Sony Reader Daily Edition offer similar functions. The Kindle DX ($489) and the forthcoming Plastic Logic Que proReader (expected this summer, starting at $649) have larger screens and are intended mainly for reading textbooks and business documents. The Prime View screens on these devices depend on reflected ambient light, which gives them two advantages: they’re easier on the eyes than backlit LCD screens, and they use far less power. Their batteries can last for days, and sometimes weeks, between charges.

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Tagged: Computing, Apple, iPad, Sony, e-readers, e-books, Plastic Logic, Amazon Kindle, Nook

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