One of the hottest new products this year is the e-book reader. While sales numbers pale in significance to smart phones and computers, in a year during which most product sales are flat or down, e-reader sales are experiencing growth of nearly 100 percent. This year's sales will reach close to 3 million units, made up mostly of products from Amazon and Sony.
With e-book readers, the consumer is buying into an e-book ecosystem, not just a device. The number of books available and how they are downloaded can be as important as the device itself. This is why Amazon's Kindle has outsold the Sony Reader by two to one. Amazon has a huge e-book store, while Sony has far fewer books and often charges more for what they do have. In addition, most of Sony's models require loading from a PC or a Mac. The Kindle downloads books directly without going through a computer.
So what's making e-book readers so popular? They offer the ability to easily access, store and read e-books on a paperback-book-size device using a unique paper-like display. The display, based on technology from E Ink of Cambridge, Massachusetts, draws virtually no power while reading, so that the battery lasts for a week or two between charges. Because an e-book is electronic, fonts can be changed in size, a boon to seniors; and books are easy to search and annotate. You can even click on a word to find its definition.
In addition to the display, four other factors have led to their popularity: quick downloads using a built-in 3G modem, best-seller e-books that cost only $9.99, the instant availability of hundreds of thousands of digitized books and the ability to travel with all your books and not be weighed down with physical books.
Two weeks ago there was a significant new entry, the nook e-book reader from Barnes & Noble for $259, the same price as Amazon's Kindle.
(Full disclosure: I have a consulting relationship with Barnes & Noble. I've made a rare exception to my rule of not writing about a client's product because of this product's importance to an emerging and important area of technology).
Barnes & Noble's nook has the same size screen and display as the Kindle, but instead of the Kindle's large physical keyboard that's rarely used, it has a multipurpose color touch display that is about the same size as the iPhone's. It becomes a touch keyboard when needed, but when not, displays touch buttons and lists that make it easy to navigate to their e-book store and through your content and to perform many other functions. It even displays book covers in color as you scan through lists of books.
Downloading an e-book occurs in seconds using the AT&T 3G network. When you visit one of Barnes & Noble's stores with your nook, you'll be able to access and read complete books using the store's free WiFi.
Its e-book store will be stocked with more than 1 million books, as well as daily US newspapers and magazines. Best-sellers and new releases will cost $9.99, the same as on Amazon.
Most publishers have required that their e-books be protected from being copied and shared. But Barnes & Noble's e-books can be lent for two weeks to others who have a nook or even an iPhone. This works just like lending a physical book: during the time your book is on loan, you'll not be able to access your e-book.
The nook also supports ePub, a free and open e-book standard for reading books in the public domain, from Google's vast e-book library, and those books that publishers allow to be open. Barnes & Noble's open strategy extends to the support of other devices. The company is offering its e-bookstore on e-readers from other companies including Paper Logic and iRex. All of the books you purchase can be accessed from any of these devices as well as from iPhones, Blackberrys and most other phones and computers. The nook will be available at the end of November at nook.com and at Barnes & Noble bookstores.
With the introduction of the nook, Barnes & Noble offers formidable competition to the Kindle, but with an even larger and more open bookstore, an easier to use device with more capabilities, and features that take advantage of its nearly 800 bookstores.
Gartner Group, a respected technology research company noted: "Anyway you slice Barnes & Noble's announcement, the Nook is a game changer for the current market and one that will force Amazon's hand even with Amazon's recent release of an international Kindle...
"[It] should not only throw a scare into Amazon but also put somewhat of a damper on the e-reading capabilities of planned tablets/devices from Apple and Microsoft. Barnes & Noble has addressed many shortcomings of existing devices with The Nook by supporting ePub, a major open e-book standard, as well as allowing consumers to loan books to one another."
Where can we expect e-books to go in the future? Amazon and Plastic Logic, a Silicon Valley startup, are betting that e-readers with larger displays will attract those who want to read business documents, textbooks and newspapers. Amazon now offers the Kindle DX with a 9.7-inch screen ($489), and Plastic Logic is developing a product using its own lightweight display, which is expected to be available early next year. Apple's rumored new tablet, due out early next year, will also be useful for book reading, just as reading on the iPhone has proved to be so popular.
What is clear is that e-books are here to stay and, hopefully, will encourage more of us to read more books more often.
Phil Baker is the author of From Concept to Consumer published by Financial Times Press. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others, holds 30 patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. His blog is blog.philipgbaker.com and his Web site is philipgbaker.com. This column first appeared in the San Diego Transcript and is reprinted with its permission.