Rumors Foreshadow the Next Chapter in E-Reader Projects


eBook devices represent the ultimate in convergence, marrying millenia-old written language with modern telecommunications technology. Right now, Amazon offers the Kindle and Sony the Digital Book.


There may soon be other entrants. The Street and other sites and publications report that Barnes & Noble is working with a device vendor and Sprint on an eBook reader. The story says the chain had been in discussions with Verizon, but the discussions ended. AT&T is also mentioned as a possible partner.


Barnes & Noble is the biggest book chain in the country, and the way it approaches e-readers-both from the technical and business points of view-is critical. The chain partnered with Microsoft and Adobe on a tablet-style device earlier in the decade, but demand was limited and the partnership ended. The fact that the company is ready for another stab at the concept is evidenced by not only the eReader rumors, but by the purchase last month of Fictionwise, an electronic bookstore. This would give it a source of content for its electronic content distribution initiatives.

In parallel to the publishing indusry's activities and the great increase in cellular and wireless coverage, the fascinating science of flexible displays is moving ahead rapidly. <strong>In late January, I took a look at activities in the field</strong>. Flexible displays and e-readers overlap but are not synonymous: It's possible to use a good, old-fashioned rigid screen for an e-reader. The coming of screens that can fold, be rolled up and even sewn into clothing certainly will extend the field, however.

At the beginning of the month, The Associated Press looked at the possible eBook options for Verizon Wireless. The piece reported that Tony Lewis, who leads non-phone device activities for the carrier, said that he had been contacted by five companies. The piece is a bit sketchy on details, but said that indications are that a product would focus on book types that Kindle does not empahsize, such as college texts. Lewis wouldn't confirm or deny if Sony-whose device lacks a wireless connectivity option-is one of the five companies.

All signs are that Barnes & Noble is intensely interested in the sector. Besides the fact that it simply makes sense, the purchase of Fictionwise and the rumors of development of a device for use on the Sprint network, the company late last month released a beta of a free e-reader application for BlackBerry. This Computerworld story, which benefits from analysis from Enderle Group principal and IT Business Edge blogger Rob Enderle, confirms that use of smartphones for eBooks is at best a stopgap due to limited screen size and the high demand the application puts on batteries.


Another player in the eBook reader sector could be Rupert Murdock. T3 reports that News Corp. is interested in producing a device aimed at newspapers instead of books. The story raises the interesting issue of how an e-reader could help salvage newspapers. The poor economy has accelerated the decline of the industry. Conceivably, e-readers could be a converged solution that enables at least some version of traditional newspapers to survive. Plastic Logic is reported to be designing the device to be released early next year. Plastic Logic announced an e-reader deal with The Detroit Media Partnership, which this Editor & Publisher story gingerly identifies as "the joint operating agency" of the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.