Ebooks: not quite déjà vu all over again

6 January 2006

My favourite comment from Gizmodo's coverage of Sony's e-book reader, launched this week at CES, was Tom of MusicThing's "Yay EBooks! Party like it's 1999!". And 1989, for that matter - anybody remember VC Hermann Hauser's Active Book? The design mutated into the EO tablet computer before the whole project disappeared along with Microsoft's first tablet efforts and as Apple's more famous Newton PDA flamed out. But the e-book reader is one of those concepts that just won't lie down and die.

It is not so much that the ebook reader has suddenly, and once again, become an attractive proposition in and of itself: the story is all in the display and what that means for what could be one of the highest volume niches in portable computing. Companies have been striving to find a killer appplication for handheld computers and keep coming up short. It's not just because a lot of the software sucks. They have lacked the two major requirements in any device that seeks to replace paper: the ability to run off a couple of AAA cells or maybe even coin cells not just for hours but for weeks; and a display that does not make your eyes water after a couple of hours.

The story is really about electronic paper: a display that keeps everything visible even when the power has been turned off. That makes for dramatic improvements in battery life for the computer behind the display. It only has to wake up to do the equivalent of a page turn. It can then have a good long snooze, with the merest trickle of battery keeping a clock going or to sniff the airwaves to look for any updates for content you have downloaded. The designs of the 1990s only had liquid crystal displays (LCDs) to work with. They would get no battery life advantage over other handhelds and the contrast ratio was nothing like paper: a non-starter in an environment where displays are still too tiring to read for any length of time.

In the latest crop of products, electronic paper looks as though it might finally be viable in mass-production devices, at least from a reliability and readability standpoint. There is still some way to go before the displays genuinely rival paper, but it is now possible to see a path from where ebook readers go from being curiosities to the one device everybody uses.

At several hundred dollars, Sony's reader is way too expensive for the market the company expects it to serve. But, this is the wild and wacky world of electronic gadgets. This is largely a concept design that is only just about ready to make it as a niche product that a few will fork over several hundred dollars, or rather, 40 000 yen to get hold of. In the Netherlands, a Philips spinout, Irex Technologies, has a more or less equivalent design that the company has decided to aim at business users - namely subscribers to expensive information services. Those early adopters might be enough to give display makers such as E Ink the necessary experience with mass production to start bringing down costs to where people will think, "what the hell, I'll get one".

I don't see a price north of $50 being viable for an ebook reader if these things are to ship millions a year. This is not an all-singing, all-dancing PDA-phone that can command anywhere near a higher cost, and as I argue in another post, there is no subsidy model for an ebook reader long-term, or even medium-term. But the nature of the electronics inside one of these things should make a sub-$50 price target, even sub-$20, possible quite quickly as long as there are no gotchas in the large-scale production of the display technology. The device could well piggyback off a phone for Internet access and other more complex functions. The ebook reader does not need a lot inside it. But the display has got to look right, it has got to be light and it has got to be cheap.

That's the good news. The bad? It depends on your perspective. There are many people who regard newspapers as no more than "dinosaur blogs". This is the device that will put the lid on the coffin of print, an argument I've been making for what must be ten years now. For those who want to see print newspapers wiped from the face of the planet, this is your dream machine. But, anyone planning to get rich off a bestseller should find themselves an advance and a publisher pronto.