LAS VEGAS — E-book readers have reached critical mass as evidenced at last month’s International CES, where more than two dozen exhibitors vied for a piece of a mushrooming market.
Sales may reach 6 million units this year, market research firm Yankee Group projects, and the category could billow into a $2.5-billion business by 2013.
But growth could also be blunted by new classes of convergent devices that incorporate e-book capabilities, including smartbooks – a hybrid of netbooks and smartphones – and tablet PCs and media devices, led by Apple’s iPad.
In the meantime, e-reader entrants at last month’s electronics show ranged from major CE players (Samsung, Audiovox) to a phalanx of smaller suppliers that warranted their own TechZone section at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
The devices they showcased were differentiated by form factor (clamshell and ultra-thin tablet designs); functionality (color-, touchscreenand handwriting-capable displays); and connectivity (Wi-Fi-, 3G- and Bluetooth- enabled).
But perhaps the most critical distinguishing factor was content, as companies play catch-up with market share leaders Kindle, from Amazon.com, and Sony’s Reader.
To that end, at least three suppliers, Skiff, DMC Worldwide and the aforementioned Audiovox, announced comprehensive content strategies to support their hardware.
Hearst subsidiary Skiff introduced what it described as the first e-reader optimized for newspaper and magazine content, along with a service and digital store that, like Kindle, will allow consumers to wirelessly purchase and access a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, books, blogs and other content from multiple publishers over Sprint’s 3G network.
The quarter-inch-thick Skiff Reader measures 11.5 inches diagonally, weighs in at 1 pound, and features a flexible 1,200 by 1,600-pixel UXGA e-paper touchscreen supplied by LG that’s made of stainless-steel foil. The device is also Wi-Fi-enabled, can go more than one week between charges, and will be sold through Sprint’s retail and online stores, although pricing and additional distribution channels were not disclosed.
Skiff, along with semiconductor supplier Marvell, has also introduced a reader development kit designed to encourage the creation of other reading devices that can be supported by the Skiff store platform. The kit features software and a reference design that includes Marvell’s Aarmada systemon- a-chip (SoC), which integrates an application processor with a high-performance controller for driving an epaper display.
Meanwhile, DMC, which helped pioneer sub-$100 calculators and LED wristwatches in the 1970s, and produced and distributed Bell South phones in the 1980s and 1990s, has developed a device-agnostic Web platform called The Copia in conjunction with the debut here of a six-model line of wireless reading devices. The e-readers, branded Ocean and Tidal, include both monochrome e-paper-based touchscreens and panels with Wi-Fi or 3G wireless connectivity, and advanced color e-readers designed for rich content.
The e-readers can instantly connect to TheCopia.com, a social-networking, content delivery and e-commerce platform that enables readers to purchase, share and comment on books, newspapers, magazines and other entertainment content. Books include bestsellers, popular titles, textbooks and public domain titles, with new content added regularly.
According to executive VP Ben Lowing, students, book groups and other readers can highlight, annotate and connect to each other directly from the company’s e-readers to the online Copia community. A private, limited-invitation beta test of TheCopia.com was slated for this month, with a public beta launch expected in March.
The e-readers themselves feature 6- inch and 9-inch capacitive touchscreens, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi connectivity, four-directional tilt-sensors, 4GB of internal memory and MicroSD card slots. The models will be available for direct purchase online in April and at retail by June with suggested retails ranging from $199 to $299.
Elsewhere, Audiovox entered the e-reader fray with an RCA-branded line called Lexi that’s supported by content delivered through Barnes & Noble’s BN.com e-commerce storefront. The platform, which also fuels the Best Buy-funded iRex reader and the bookseller’s own Nook device, offers more than a million e-titles as well as an expansive library of periodicals.
The Lexi itself features a 6-inch E Ink display with 800 by 600 pixels of resolution and 16-level gray scale, plus 2GB of onboard memory and a rechargeable battery that delivers 7,000 left- or righthanded page turns. The device will be preloaded with Barnes & Noble’s desktop reader Windows/Mac software and will also contain Adobe Reader Mobile technology, making it interoperable and fully compatible with PDF and ePub formats. Lexi will carry a suggested retail $230 and is expected to hit stored in May.
“We believe the key to success in the e-book market is the combination of highquality readers with unique features coupled with a comprehensive catalogue of digital content,” said Tom Malone, president of Audiovox Electronics.