Thursday, August 19, 2004

Next Generation eBook Hardware -- Cool Gadget, but Where's the Content?

After months of hype, I finally got to handle the new Sony Librie ebook reader manufactured by Philips using e-Ink technology. Paul Spijkers, the general manager for electronic ink displays, for Philips, spoke this week at the Red Herring Conference on Publishing a Magazine during the Seybold 2004 Seminar in San Francisco. The device itself has a nice feel--lightweight, slightly larger than a DVD case with a Chiclet style keyboard running below the screen. Very low power requirements means it runs with readily available AAA batteries for months, rather than requiring heavy, expensive batteries. The e-Ink technology significantly improves the screen reading experience, with nearly ordinary paper quality contrast. The demonstration unit had only Japanese content, including anime, which looked crisp in both low light and bright light.

Afterwards, we discussed the content issues. The device has both a memory stick and USB port to download books, so the physical component is there. However, the rights issues are a major stumbling block. The Japanese model is to "lease" books for 60 days, which rules out any library lending business. And right now there are only about 1000 titles available in their proprietary format, hardly enough for commercial success. Paul indicated exploration with a Chinese publishing group that would potentially have 50,000 titles available, a critical mass for commercialization.

Solving book format and rights issues will be key to moving into the European and U.S. markets. De facto, PDF is the standard format, not just for ebooks, but also for unencrypted business reports and periodicals, all of which could be nicely read on such a device. Tellingly, Joel Dreyfus of Red Herring demonstrated reading an ebook on his PDA--admittedly, not as attractive as the Sony device, but with far, far more available content in an open format, plus it fits into his jacket breast pocket. Functionality and content will win the ebook market!
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