The following is a guest post from Henry Tischler, who's attending CES and filing occasional dispatches for FastCompany.com
Encouraged by the success of Amazon's Kindle and others, EnTourage Systems, Inc, an e-book company based in McLean, VA, unveiled its new dual-screen reader at CES this week, hoping to get an early jump on the multi-million dollar college textbook market. It's promising, but manufacturers still haven't found a way to overcome the main hurdle in making these gadgets appealing to students: price.
EnTourage's dual-screen device functions as a large screen e-reader, with a netbook. The left side of the folding device displays the textbook pages, which can be underlined and annotated, while the right side can be used to receive Web content including publishers additions to the textbook. All good so far.
Corey Podolsky, EnTourage's VP of strategic partnerships, noted "The company's partners include educators, publishers, institutions, and organizations committed to developing new and innovative technologies specifically designed to reinvent and rejuvenate secondary and post-secondary learning..."
What's missing from this list? The most obvious market of all--actual consumers of the product, namely college and university students. For a product like this to get traction, students will have to be convinced that it makes sense to buy a $500 device to read their textbooks. They will then have to purchase each textbook in an ebook format for an additional average of $50 per book. Most of these ebooks will disappear from their reader after six months. No selling the book after the semester's over to try and recoup some costs.
The advantage of the gadget is that all your books for each semester are on the device and are easily portable. But about 30% of students never bother buying any textbook at all. They typically rely on class notes and hope that guessing or writing marginally acceptable answers will earn them a passing grade.
Professors and higher education institutions also need to be part of the equation. For a gadget like this to get broad acceptance, they need to make ebooks one of the college's requirements. Many institutions did just that when they required all students to own a laptop. Those that had trouble paying for it were subsidized. It did not take much for students to see that owning a laptop made sense. They could use it for their classes, download music, email their friends, etc.
For ebook readers to succeed, students will need to be convinced that springing for the device is worth the cost. At CES 2010, this happy confluence of needs, costs, and markets is still a distant goal.
Henry Tischler is a sociology professor at Framingham State College, and the author of "Introduction to Sociology" (Cengage), now in its 10th edition.