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Tech Report – Are e-readers becoming obsolete?

By Michael Connolly

By all accounts, electronic reading devices – or e-readers – are going to be one of the hottest items of the holiday shopping season that kicked off last week with Black Friday. Manufacturers are rushing to get new devices into stores and the giant electronic retailers are setting aside dedicated areas just for e-readers and the inevitable accessories.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble says the Nook is out of stock, and customers ordering today won't take delivery until the New Year. Similarly, Sony says that it can't guarantee delivery of its high-end Reader in time for Christmas.

Prices for e-readers are also dropping. The global wireless Kindle now sells for $259, the same price as the Nook. Sony sells its entry-level Pocket Edition reader for $199.99. Other companies like iRex, Plastic Logic, and China Mobile are joining an increasingly crowded marketplace.

There's only one problem with this rosy picture: all these devices may soon become obsolete.

The reasons are many. First, there is the problem of proprietary software and transferring between devices. Amazon, which started the e-reader revolution with the Kindle, has jealously stuck to a format which won't allow Kindle owners to read copyright protected files from other bookstores or libraries. At the same time, if a Kindle owner decides to move to another device, they can say goodbye to their entire collection of e-books. They're not transferable.

Sony and Barnes & Noble have embraced a more open approach, adopting formats that allow for fairly easy transfer between other mobile devices, as well as PCs and Macs. But therein lies the second problem. If you can read a book on a PC, why do you need an e-reader? Particularly when you can buy a top-brand netbook that allows web surfing, e-mail and multimedia handling for less than $300!

There are two other factors that have e-reader manufacturers nervously looking over their shoulders and some tech-savvy customers sitting on the sidelines: Google and Apple.

Google is close to finalizing its much-delayed settlement with authors and publishers that will allow it to continue electronically scanning and archiving millions of books. Once that deal is inked, expect Google to quickly announce a delivery mechanism that will make books, newspapers, magazines and every other kind of manuscript wirelessly available at the click of a mouse.

Meanwhile, Apple continues development on the worst kept secret in technology – a tablet device that can be used for reading, watching movies, surfing the web, and every other interactive task that be handled on-the-go.

While it would be too much to expect either Apple or Google to end up dominating electronic books the way Apple dominates music with iTunes and its iPod range, it's clear that stand-alone e-readers are going to have a very limited shelf-life. If you're in no hurry to trade in that dog-eared paperback for the digital version, you may want to sit back and wait a year!         

Comment by RachelintheOC, posted 12/6/2009, 11:25 PM:

It's probably worth mentioning that both the itouch & iphone have an app that allows for portable reading. Yes, the screen is smaller than the e-readers, but you can enlarge the print.

I have an HP netbook & find it too cumbersome (& hot!) to read on for any length of time, so I would like to get an e-reader. However, I'm perfectly happy to hang on to my old-fashioned books. My ten-yr-old daughter (w/ ten-yr-old eyes) is thrilled to use her itouch.

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