Plastic Logic unveils E-reader that’s everything Kindle isn’t

At the Demofall08 conference that was held this week in San Diego, (“72 companies. Each with six minutes to show their product to the world. It doesn’t get any more straightforward and fast paced than that.”) a company named Plastic Logic introduced a new type of e-reader that looked like it featured nearly everything the Kindle doesn’t, at least in its current incarnation. Take a look at this video:

Demo08 Plastic Logic

Some of the oustanding features of this yet to be named product are:

  • Touch screen
  • 81/2 by 11 inch display
  • as thin as a pad of paper
  • durable, unbreakable plastic (not glass) display screen
  • virtual keyboard
  • Bluetooth and Wi-fi capable
  • allows notes and annotation on a document
  • handles PDFs and other open format content

Some reviewers have commented that it lacks content, when compared to the Kindle’s library of 170,000 or so titles. But the device was presented to the crowd as a “Business reader”, in contrast to the Kindle, which they referred to as a device for “recreational reading”. Elsewhere they  mentioned that their device allows them to work with publishers to create “new business models”. Perhaps they could find an intrepid textbook publisher that would be willing to offer textbooks on the device. Its form factor and durability would appear to make it far more suitable for the high school and college market than the Kindle. Whoever gains the first mover advantage in this market will be able to write their own ticket when Jeff Bezos comes calling.

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Sony’s E-reader opens up, sort of

The buzz in the e-book world is all about Sony’s announcement this week of its forthcoming support for a more open standard of e-books, called “e-pub”:

From Gizmodo:

A firmware update scheduled to drop later this week will allow Sony Readers to use the .epub format, an open standard (with DRM support) that has the backing of several major book publishers. This means you’ll be able to get books from sources other than Sony’s own Connect store, which currently only has one third the titles of Amazon’s Kindle store. The Kindle, however, currently uses the Mobipocket format for its Kindle Store books, and does not yet support .epub.

More from PCWorld:

…EPUB. It is known more technically as “the International Digital Publishing Forum’s XML-based standard format for reflowable digital books and publications.” Many book publishers apparently are already publishing upcoming ebooks in this format and this is something Sony wants to capitalize on by making the Reader the first device of its type to support this. The Reader model PRS-505, starting next month, will be able to let users access ebooks in the EPUB format. It will also support, said Sony, Adobe ebooks with DRM protection as well as “the capability to reflow standard text-based Portable Document Format (PDF) eBooks for improved flexibility and readability.” These Adobe updates will be possible with the use of Adobe Digital Editions 1.5 software.

[For an earlier discussion of this standard, see my May 19 Post]

To paraphrase another, admittedly more significant milestone, that took place nearly forty years ago this week, “That’s one small step for a reader, one giant leap for e-books.”

Adopting an open format can only help accelerate the range of choices for readers, which in turn will help drive demand for more titles, and other documents that could be stored on an e-reader. Note that the E-pub standard allows for DRM to be applied after the conversion process, which makes it up to the publisher whether the content is protected or not.

It remains to be seen whether Amazon’s rumored Kindle 2.0 will support this standard. One piece of information was notably absent from all the hoopla around the Sony announcement this week. Sony recently made a major announcement about their corporate strategy and it contained the following quote:

Ensure that 90% of our electronics product categories are network-enabled and wireless-capable by the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011 (“FY2010”)

No mention this week about when the Sony Reader will have this capability. To my mind, this is the feature that most differentiates Sony’s reader from the Kindle. Despite Kindle’s less than elegant form factor and interface, the ability to download content wirelessly, at no extra cost, puts it miles ahead of anything else in the category. When does Sony plan to incorporate the wireless feature into their reader? (The PSP already has it, and so do a couple of their TVs.) Until they do, they will remain a distant second in the e-reader world, despite their adoption of a more open format of e-books.

bitTorrent, e-books and piracy – NYT Tech guru David Pogue’s experiment

For the last month or so, David Pogue, the New York Times technology columnist, has been posting his views on the debate surrounding the effect of ebooks on sales of the dead-tree variety. He’s one the technology world’s most prolific authors, having created the “Missing Manual” series of user-friendly help books. Every time a new gadget or software program is released, you can count on a “Missing Manual” to be published at about the same time. But Pogue has resisted making his books available in electronic format, apparently after being burned a couple of times by the file sharing sites that illicitly obtained copies of his books and spread them all over cyberspace, ostensibly having a negative effect on his royalty income. He has received volumes of email from readers suggesting this is a shortsighted strategy. Well yesterday he announced that he is willing to take a dive into the digital pool, along with his publisher, O’Reilly Books:

Early next month, the company will also start selling electronic versions of certain books with no copy protection. For a single price (cheaper than the printed-book price), the package will include the book in three formats: PDF, Mobipub (compatible with the Amazon Kindle), and Epub (soon to be compatible with the Sony Reader). Anyway, I’ve agreed to try an experiment involving one of my books (“Windows Vista: The Missing Manual”): to offer it as part of that buy-the-electronic-versions program.

Pogue writes that he’s not sure how the experiment will turn out, and that he’ll report back in a few months, and concludes his column:

But at least I’m defusing the argument that says, “The only reason people are pirating your books is that you’re not offering e-versions for legitimate sale.”

I suggest that authors like David Pogue view their readers in much the same way that public radio regards its audience. Public radio, like all non-satellite programming, is free to anyone with a receiver, and anyone can listen to it. A typical ratio of listeners to paying public broadcasting subscribers is ten to one. So if a station averages 100,000 listeners, then it can expect to have about 10,000 paid members. So if through some well orchestrated viral marketing campaign, the number of listeners of a given station doubles to 200,000, the result of this increase in audience reach could be expected to yield a doubling of dues paying members during the next membership campaign. (It would also have ancillary benefits to the station, if it charges its underwriters fees based on audience size.) Most stations would regard this outcome as a good thing, and would expend considerable effort to double their audience size.

While few reliable studies have been conducted in the publishing world to determine the relationship between downloads and book sales, data collected by O’Reilly Media (publisher of Pogue’s Missing Manual series) reveals a similar result with another title:

As part of our continued effort to understand the impact on book sales of the availability of free downloads, I wanted to share some data on downloads versus sales of the book Asterisk: The Future of Telephony, by Leif Madsen, Jared Smith, and Jim Van Meggelen, which was released for free download under a Creative Commons license.The quick answer from this experiment is that we saw no definitive correlation, but there is little sign that the free downloads hurt sales. More than 180,000 copies were downloaded yet the book has still been quite successful, selling almost 19,000 copies in a year and a half. This is quite good for a technical book these days: the book is far and away the bestseller in the category, far outperforming books on the same subject from other publishers.

So here we see a similar, approximately ten to one ratio of free-riders to paying customers. If it costs the author nothing to implement a viral marketing campaign that leads to a tenfold increase in the number of downloads (via file sharing networks such as bitTorrent), it’s reasonable to expect a corresponding growth in the number of readers who are willing to buy the actual book.

This approach actually yields additional benefits to the author who is willing to emulate the public broadcasting underwriting model. If the “free” (pirated?) downloads included the name of the underwriter (“this free e-book is brought to you by Ford”), the sponsorship method could generate substantial income to the author based on the number of downloads – which can be accurately tracked via the file-sharing sites. This is the great thing about the web, even the illegal file sharing sites have more precise metrics than Arbitron and Nielsen.

So if sales of Mr. Pogue’s book, “Windows Vista, the Missing Manual” track much higher than his other titles, he can probably attribute at least some of the incremental volume to its availability in a digital format, even if some copies are pirated. Of course, if sales are much lower than all his other books, that can only be due to poor customer acceptance of Windows Vista!

The Kindle at BEA: “She moved through the fair…”

I just returned from Book Expo America, a confab of 25,000 book publishers, sellers and authors, which wrapped up Sunday in LA. One of the highlights was an address by Amazon’s chief, Jeff Bezos. If Bezos was to choose a song to describe the Kindle’s debut at BEA, he might adapt the lyrics of the traditional Irish folk song “She Moved Through the Fair”:

She stepp’d away from me and she moved through the fair,
And fondly I watched her go here and go there,
Then she went her way homeward with one star awake,
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake
.

Few tech gadgets have had such a low signal to noise ratio as the Kindle at Book Expo. The debate surrounding global warming is like a playground tiff compared to the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) swirling around the Kindle and the effect that e-books are predicted to have on the publishing business. “They’ve only sold 10,000 – no, they’ve sold 100,000 – No, it’s going to be a $2 billion business by 2010.” “They’re losing money on every e-book they sell, but in five years, there’ll be no more books – no, actually nobody really wants to read anything on a screen”. (Of course, to Steve Jobs, it’s all much ado about nothing, since “nobody reads anymore anyway.”)

The NY Times summarized it nicely yesterday:

But excitement about the Kindle, which was introduced in November, also worries some publishing executives, who fear Amazon’s still-growing power as a bookseller. Those executives note that Amazon currently sells most of its Kindle books to customers for a price well below what it pays publishers, and they anticipate that it will not be long before Amazon begins using the Kindle’s popularity as a lever to demand that publishers cut prices. Amazon sells most Kindle books for $9.99 or less. Publishers say that they generally sell electronic books to Amazon for the same price as physical books, or about 45 percent to 50 percent of the cover price. For a hardcover best seller like Scott McClellan’s “What Happened,” the former press secretary’s account of his years in the Bush White House, that would mean that Amazon appears to be selling the selling the book for about 25 percent below its cost.
Yet, in a textbook case of clinical denial, the publishers are circling the wagons to protect their margins at all costs. The Times article continues:

 Electronic readers have nevertheless gained many fans in the publishing industry. Random House and Penguin, among others, have equipped their entire sales force with electronic-book readers, allowing them to avoid having to lug around as many preview editions of books. Editors at many of the larger publishing houses also use the devices to read manuscripts submitted by agents and authors.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/02/books/02bea.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5087&em&en=16d43579fc53efb0&ex=1212638400

Now I doubt that i’m the only one that sees the cruel irony here. But this development strikes me as strangely similar to the case in the early 1960s of the Gestetner company using Xerox machines for its own internal correspondence, all the while heralding the virtues of the stencil duplicator to its customers, because that’s what they sold. When was the last time a stencil duplicator has been seen, outside a museum of office automation? 

Let me see if I can get this straight. The publishers feel they are entitled to the same margin on a product that consists entirely of digital bits, with no costs incurred for printing, shipping, warehousing or retail display. And their own employees see the benefits of the electronic versions over their dead tree counterparts. Have they tried to find a door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica sales person in the last five years? That’s because there aren’t any. The only customers remaining for the hard-bound version of EB are libraries. That’s why EB is about one tenth the size it was before Wikipedia came along. Maybe Simon & Shuster’s CEO should send out a memo to her employees accompanying her triumphant announcement of 5000 more titles available on the Kindle this year. It would suggest they take their blinders off and read the writing on the wall. Maybe it should be mimeographed for more effect.

For another example of resistance to new technology, one need look no further back than the inventor of the modern printing press Johannes Gutenberg, and what he had to deal with. According to his Wikipedia entry:

In the decades after Gutenberg, many conservative patrons looked down on cheap printed books; books produced by hand were considered more desirable. At one point the papal court debated a policy of requiring printing presses to obtain a license, but this could not be decreed.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg

So to close on a somewhat sombre note, I quote from the very text that Gutenberg first produced for “mass consumption”. While I doubt the author was referring to the book publishing industry, it somehow seems befitting, if just a tad dysphoric:

The mountains will be overturned, the cliffs will crumble and every wall will fall to the ground.

Ezekiel 38:20

Breaking up is hard to do… Borders and Amazon part company

Like Brad and Jennifer, Tom and Nicole, the rumors surrounding the breakup of Borders and Amazon’s seven year partnership are true. Today, Borders launched its own website, after it terminated an alliance with it had Amazon since 2001. The execs at Borders probably watched the film “Sleeping with the Enemy” and got nervous. Good coverage can be found on this mashable post:

http://mashable.com/2008/05/27/borders/

An interesting part of Borders new strategy is their e-book offering. The website shows a tab for e-books, which takes the customer to the following page:

 

 

 

which is simply a link to Sony’s Ebook Reader, and its online store.  By distancing itself even further from Amazon, and hitching its wagon to the Sony platform, it merely hastens its slide into oblivion. E-books can actually drive customers into the store, instead of out of it, if the correct strategy is in place. For example, many readers will still be willing to purchase a physical copy of a book even if they’ve already downloaded it in an electronic format, perhaps to give to a friend as a gift. Borders could offer to apply some or all of the purchase price of the e-book toward the cost of the dead tree variety. Their challenge is to get customers in the store, and then offer them reasons to shop there. A coupon for a healthy discount off a book in the store (at least 25%) might do that, and this could easily be delivered as part of an ebook download. It could be for a backlist title from the same author. They may choose to adopt this pricing model in their alliance with Sony, but it doesn’t look too promising at this point. I can personally count the number of visits I’ve made to a bookstore on both hands since I got my Kindle, and that’s a drop of probably 90% over a six month period. So by embracing all e-book formats, bricks and mortar retailers like Borders can look at this new technology as much of an opportunity as it is a threat.

In related news, Amazon announced a price drop for the Kindle to $349. Curiously, though, it’s without fanfare. You’re not told the price until you click on the item. Maybe they don’t want to create another stampede?

E-Books everywhere: Read maps and books on the same device

More driver distractions:

Engadget reports today that MD Sound introduced a Personal Navigation Device (PND) that allows the user to listen to mp3 files, view pictures, view videos, navigate the continental United States and read e-books, all on a 4.3 inch touch screen. As if yakking and texting on cell phones wasn’t enough of a distraction, now you’ll be able to find your way to Peoria and then read up on the attractions, all on the same gizmo. (Assuming you don’t drive off the road while checking out the restaurant reviews.)

http://www.engadget.com/2008/03/24/md-sounds-ko-gps4-navigator-includes-e-book-reader

News Flash: Book lovers have emotional bond with paper

As reported by Ars Technica on March 4, (http://biz.yahoo.com/prnews/080211/aqm136.html?.v=27), people are more attached to their books than they are to their satellite television, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, social networks, video games, blogs, DVDs, and P2P file-swapping. And it’s not like this high rate of affection for the book occurs only among a small group; books came in second only to “listen to the radio” in terms of the number of people who engage in those activities.

In a comment on this item, an anonymous poster summed up the pros and cons of the Kindle this way:

My Amazon Kindle generally offers books at 30-50% lower cost (including shipping & tax) than paper. I also get to read through the first chapter for free and only pay if I want to read more – and get the rest of the book in less than a minute. Classics in the public domain are free from the web. I am buying more books and don’t buy books that I am unhappy with – despite the lower cost per book my total spending on books has increased.I am more than happy to give up my ability to sell or give away a book for the lower cost and free samples of ebooks.

Keep in mind that the driving force in the book business (non-text book) are consumers who frequently buy new books – not libraries nor used book store.

Kindle eBooks are great for consumers who are frequent buyers of new books – but they hurt buyers of used books – by reducing the supply.

By Anonymous Anonymous on March 06, 2008 7:30 PM