Sunday, January 10, 2010

eInk Today But Gone Tomorrow?

It now appears that anyone electronics firm standing has created their own ebook reader. Everywhere you turn you find a new one and as we have said many times, differentiating between them is very difficult and even keeping tabs on them is now getting ridiculous. So is this a good thing or a bad one? Does it herald the dawn of ebooks or merely the commodity of technology? As a consumer why would you buy one model and not buy another? Is the device changing the market demand for ebooks or merely flooding the market with readers? Will prices now drop dramatically as competition is forced to slug it out for consumers and the basic technology reaches an economic scale which itself drops the price of the raw material – eInk.

We were asked on Litopia After Dark last Friday what we thought of POD technology and if predicted by some this New Year, POD was finally going to become ubiquitous? Our answer was that a few years ago it offered much and certainly looked the technology to watch, but today it appears to have missed the plot and be past its sell by date. What happened was that publishers merely used the technology to shorten their print run and reduce their risk. Some such as Ingram used it to build a digital repository. Self publishing used it to create low risk publishing. There are many winners such as Cambridge University Press. We failed to shift the paradigm from ‘print then distribute’ to ‘distribute and print’. We merely replaced the press with another more economic one. The channel didn’t change and the economics remained too high to effect change. You can count the number of retailers who installed them on one hand. The likes of public domain, out of print, self publishing who saw POD as their answer to the market may now have a far better solution in full digital. The espresso just went cold and not many people like cold coffee.

So what will happen now with the eInk devices that litter the electronic world?
We hope that the price will drop, not by a few dollars but dramatically and similar to what happened with MP3 player. We hope that all adopt a common standard approach so become interoperable and commodity and stop trying to be something they aren’t. There will be those that believe in their own divine right and push the technology envelope, but the reality is that if they don’t offer something significantly different, the consumer will opt on price and availability. The ones with the most to loose are the likes of Sony, as first to the race can be as much a disadvantage as perceived advantage.

The greatest challenges facing the ‘lookie likies’ is convergence. It hasn’t changed and they now face major wars on the smartphone and emerging tablet front. Some have recognized this an created hybrid 50/ 50 devices with two screens, but the reality is that this costs twice as much in technology and materials and shows the limitations of eInk today. Its like admitting that the technology isn’t up to meeting the consumer needs, but kidding them that two is better than one. By the time eInk goes colour, superior technology such as OLED will have dropped in cost, sorted battery life and become a viable and far more practical offer.

The final challenge is still content and the only thing today that separates one ‘lookie likie’ from another is access to content. Some have started to get exclusive deals to content – ‘we will digitise it but we own it’. Restrictive deals only frustrates consumers, encourage piracy and in a market such as books are dumb. As this becomes access to content increases, then these devices just become even more commoditized. The question is then how big is this segment of the digital market? Will it be overtaken by the online and streaming market? Will devices be less important and access a broader media offer of video, games, music, papers, books, magazines, TV and radio be a greater pull.

Would we as a consumer buy a friend a ebook eInk reader today – we doubt it.

1 comment:

BVan said...

I don't believe that the current development of eInk is the killer app for today, nor is it the technology I believe that will drive the future killer app. When one looks back on devices like the PDAs from Palm, Handspring and even Apple's MessagePad, they had their short-life and died. At the same time, however, there were many things that were learned from those technologies that eventually made their way to today's smartphones. For example: calendaring, applications, media players, etc.

eInk is a testing technology that will be dead in no more than three years, opening up a market for something new that may resemble something like the tablets that are just starting to be presented. Netbooks have been out in the last couple years, but they have not reached its final form. With smartphones becoming more and more popular and more and more powerful, the idea of a single use device such as many of the e-readers that have been released seems to have less appeal to people. The devices have to be smarter and be able to converge many content types together.

Conclusion: eInk will be gone tomorrow, but there are lessons we will learn from it. Some of these may include ideal typography, or open up research for more legible or faster, higher resolution, and color eInk displays, or something entirely different. eInk the e-readers are a baby-step to something much bigger.