Three E-Readers That Could Change Publishing Forever, and One That Won’t

Okay, we know the e-book revolution is just fomenting beyond the horizon, soon to sweep the publishing world. But which electronic devices will be at the vanguard, and which ones won’t?

Okay, we know the e-book revolution is just fomenting beyond the horizon, soon to sweep the publishing world. But which electronic devices will be at the vanguard, and which ones won’t?


Asustek’s Dual-Screen E-Book, the Cheapest E-Reader?

Asus was the driving force behind the netbook revolution, popularizing the concept of a small, portable, low-powered and incredibly affordable mini-notebook PC with its original Eee PC and a suite of follow-ups. Months ago we learned that the company had an electronic book in mind too, and intends to apply some of the same thinking to it that made the Eee a classic.

Just a few weeks ago, the device resurfaced in the news, with the assertion that it’s very real indeed and will make it onto store shelves fairly soon. It’s first unique feature is two large e-ink touchscreens–mimicking the traditional book format more than any other e-reader yet, or allowing a book to be read on one screen while you take notes or surf the Web for more data on the text on the other screen (perfect for students.) But it’s real killer feature is its price: While the top-end version will cost more, and come with extras like 3G connectivity, the entry level machine should cost just around $160, according to Asus CEO Jerry Shen.

It may be the cheapest e-reader there is. And that, ladies and gentlemen, could transform the e-reader market in the same way the Eee PC transformed the mobile computing one: Selling like hotcakes to a whole new slice of the consumer market.

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch’s Device

Say what you like about Rupert Murdoch’s business practices (no, really–say what you like: Plenty of other people have) but he’s undeniably still sitting in the captain’s chair on the starship Publishing. That’s thanks to the all-consuming power of his News Corporation which is one of the world’s largest media conglomerates, with influence in the newspaper, magazine, book, TV, and film. So when the news hit that News Corp. was investing big money into an e-reader, the world took note.


That’s because when “News Corp.” and “big money” end up in the same sentence, you’ve got to assume the emphasis is on “big.” Little is known about the actual gizmo, other than the fact it’ll have a “bigger screen” than the Kindle (though perhaps not the Kindle DX) and it’ll be capable of four color display, versus the Kindle’s monochrome unit. That straight away sets it up for better presentation of newsprint or magazine-style content than the Kindle family, since it’ll make for a more comfortable reading experience, and News Corp. can command a better price for color ads from its advertising partners.

Adding in the repertoire of already-published News Corp. content, the bullish attitude Murdoch has towards paying for newspaper content online, and the fact that News Corp. is soon to effect a sea-change among iPhone users with a fee for its browsing apps…and it’s pretty obvious that however it turns out, the Murdoch e-reader will be an important milestone in publishing history.

Apple Tablet

Apple iTablet

So many column-inches and pixels have been devoted to Apple’s mystical tablet Mac that there seems little else to say. But it’s worth highlighting the one thing that’s often overlooked in discussions of the supposed device’s media-playing, Web-surfing and game-playing powers: Its e-book potential.

Think about it: When it surfaces, it’ll combine everything Apple’s learned about portable computers from its Mac stable, everything it’s learned about media management from its iPod products, and everything it’s learned about sleekly-designed portable touchscreen devices from the iPhone. Unlike the other e-readers discussed here, it’ll be a truly convergence device, combining a slew of different capabilities into one unique product…and among those will be electronic books. Why buy an e-reader, an iPod and a netbook, when the iTablet can do the lot?

There’s been some discussion about Apple trying to get directly involved in the e-publishing game, but speculation has died down. If Apple does get involved, I suspect it’ll be as the mere gatekeeper to an e-book archive, much as it’s integrated Audible’s spoken-book powers into iTunes and its iPod software. Even without that assumption, it’s worth noting that Amazon’s Kindle App for the iPhone is apparently doing very well, that there are a number of other e-reader apps out there, and the iPhone has a Web browser that’ll give you access to Web-published newspapers in any case.


As soon as you make these logical leaps, then it’s easy to see how the iTablet will change the e-publishing world: It’ll make it explode, the same way the iPod changed the music business and the iPhone’s changed the smartphone business. Because people will buy the iTablet. Apple’s saying nothing, about the tablet or it’s e-book powers, but the evidence is building indicating that it’s on its way.

Microsoft E-Reader

And so we come to the e-reader that won’t change the world: Microsoft’s. Why? Well, for starters, because there isn’t going to be one. At least, there isn’t going to be a physical machine with MS branding, such as the Zune MP3 player.

Microsoft pretty much laid its cards on the table about this last month, when it’s President of Entertainment and Devices, Robbie Bach, said “From a first-party perspective […] we’re actually pretty selective about which ones we want to get into”. MS’s Chief Research Officer Craig Mundie backed this up by underlining that MS doubts there’s even a specialized market for dedicated e-readers out there, considering that PCs could offer many of the same functions. In other words, MS can’t see the margins in spending a big chunk of cash and time to develop it’s own e-reader, when it’s not clear that there’s a market to break into, in the long-run.

Of course MS did imply it would be open to providing the software backbone that made other people’s e-reader devices work, perhaps through a specialized embedded Windows option, or maybe even something as simple as an e-book mode for Windows.

But would MS change the publishing world by doing this? It’s hard to see how. Microsoft’s been in the smartphone game for years, but cellphones carrying various different flavors of Windows Mobile have failed to ignite the market. In fact when Apple came along, it became obvious that WinMo is ridiculously backwards-looking technology. And with that line of argument, it’s difficult to imagine MS’s design, proprietary pro-DRM stance, and mobile software providing anything revolutionary to take e-publishing to the next level.


About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)