Conversation: The Latest in E-Readers

Going on this week in Las Vegas is the annual International Consumer Electronics Show — the world’s largest consumer technology tradeshow — where one of the most popular products has been e-readers. From new devices with color capability to two screens — or sometimes both — sales of e-readers are expected to surge even more in the next year.

The enTourage eDGe; photoIn another in our series, “The Next Chapter of Reading,” I talked to Wired staff writer Priya Ganapati, who is at the CES, about what she’s seeing in the latest e-reader products:


(Full transcript after the jump.)

Editor’s note: “The Next Chapter of Reading” is our ongoing series about the future of literature and literacy. Read more about it here. Past topics include Google’s controversial plan to offer millions of books online and Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with Andy Hunter, co-founder of Electric Literature, and author Rick Moody, who recently published a short story on a Twitter feed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Priya Ganapati of Wired, welcome.


JEFFREY BROWN: How about an overview first, just in terms of how much action is there now in the world of electronic books?

PRIYA GANAPATI: Electronic books and electronic readers are one of the hottest consumer electronic product categories right now. Just to sort of go a little bit into the history, Sony was the first company to introduce an e-book reader and this was way back in 2007. But it was only after Amazon introduced the Kindle that e-books slowly took off. E-book readers have become very popular. Last year alone about 5 million e-book readers was sold, so this is a very, very hot category. And we have seen a new product being introduced almost every few weeks. I would say, every month I hear of a new e-reader hitting the market.

JEFFREY BROWN: And before I ask you about particular products, what’s the trend in terms of what manufactures are trying for, what have they learned so far about what works or what doesn’t or what grabs people and what doesn’t?

PRIYA GANAPATI: Broadly, I think if you look at the e-reader products available today, it’s split into two categories. You have 6-inch sized screens and displays that are all black and white, and they’re kind of the size of a paperback book, you know, so they’re small, they’re compact, they have good battery life, you can read for hours on it without significant eyestrain. So that’s one category and that’s where we see a lot of the new products that have been introduced till date. There is Amazon Kindle, there is the Sony reader, so all of these are the 6-inch screen devices. The second category that’s slowly emerging this year are the larger sized e-readers, so we are talking about 9-, 10-inch and sometimes 11-inch screens. Amazon tried to that last year with the Kindle DX. It has a 9.7-inch screen, so it’s about the size of a large notepad. The idea is you have a bigger screen so you can, you know, you don’t have turn pages more often, it’s easier on the eyes, and you can, it displays documents better. So we’ve seen that trend start with the Kindle DX, but we’ve really seen new products being introduced there rapidly. About an hour ago, Plastic Logic, which is a new company, introduced a device called the Que, which has a 10.7-inch screen, which is pretty large, but it’s really lightweight. It weighs less than a pound, it’s very slim, even slimmer than an iPhone, and the idea is they want to give users a bigger screen to look at.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the demand? What about the market? What’s happening there?

PRIYA GANAPATI: E-readers are becoming very popular with users, consumers. The whole idea of, you know, sort of giving up physical books and going towards digital editions is taking off. Amazon last month said that for the first time, on Christmas Day, they sold more e-books than they did physical books, and that’s a huge step forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a big change.

PRIYA GANAPATI: That’s a truly big change. It shows that consumers are sort of willing to give up on the idea of holding a real book. They like the idea of digital books, and e-readers make reading digital books convenient, so you can sort of see how the trend is building up. Like I said, last year, that is in 2009, 5 million e-readers were sold and the market is growing really rapidly. This year analysts expect sales to almost double, so you know, it’s going to be a very, very hot product.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is there research on who it’s taking off with? Who’s buying the e-readers?

PRIYA GANAPATI: Surprisingly I haven’t seen any real data so far, but anecdotally I’ve seen older consumers go for e-readers, and that surprised me because I would think that, you know, consumers in the age group of 30 to say 50 would say, well we like books and we want to, you know, stick to physical books, but they just find e-books convenient. You can have thousands of books on one device and you can carry it around, read it at the airport, read it while you’re waiting for a train. It’s very convenient and we’ve seen older readers adapt it as enthusiastically as some of the younger consumers.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so you are out at the conference. Last question, I guess, here. You’re there at the conference, you’re expecting more to come out in the coming days?

PRIYA GANAPATI: One product category that I haven’t mentioned so far and one that I expect to hear a lot more about in the next few days are color e-book readers. So far if you look at the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony E-reader, all of these have black and white screens, which is kind of great for text, but it’s not so much fun if you try to look at graphics or pictures or anything else beyond the printed word. So we’re going to see companies talk about color displays. It’s not going to be a bright display like what you see on your smart-phone, but it’ll have enough capability so you can sort of comfortably view pictures, you can see images, you can see basic graphics, animation, so we are going to hear a lot more about that. The color screens might not make their way into products until the end of the year, but we’re going to just get a glimpse of that in the next few days.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Priya Ganapati from Wired Magazine talking to us from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Thanks so much.

PRIYA GANAPATI: All right. Thank you.