Sony launched a new Reader last week. Sony is keeping it’s “entry-level” model, the PRS 505, and adding the up market PRS 700. The PRS505 has a 6″ eink screen and sells for $299. The PRS700 has a 6″ eink touch screen and integrated front light and sells for $399. The Kindle has a 6″ eink screen, a keyboard, and cellular access to the internet and sells for $399. The Cybook has a 6″ eink screen and sells for $369.00. IRex introduced its newest model and instead of being smaller and less expensive than its original, its larger and more expensive at 10.2″ for the screen and $799 for the price.
What’s consistent about all these eink ebook readers? The price. There is no real entry level ebook reader. The longer that I pay attention to the publishing market, the more convinced I am that cost is hugely important, particularly when you are selling a single function device. I know that e-ink readers are in their early stages but ebook readers are not. Ebook readers were first developed in 1991 when Sony introduced the Sony Data Discman. Gemstar launched its ebook reader in 2000. This has been revived as the eBookwise Reader, a grayscale LED that sells for $100-$130. Even if we were to peg the ebook readers birth with the release of the eink devices in 2006 with Sony’s first release, the PRS500, why can’t the publishing industry and the corresponding technology industry that overlaps, learn from past market penetration issues.
When Apple first introduced a single function device in 2001 called the iPod. It’s sole goal was to play digital music in a portable fashion. As the iPod has grown and evolved, there is only one single function product left in its lineup. It is the iPod Shuffle and it sells for $49. Every other portable music player in Apple’s lineup is a MULTI FUNCTION DEVICE. I had to shout that. (I feel like pulling a Biden. Let me repeat that, “every other portable music player in Apple’s line up is a multi-function device). From the Nano to the iPhone, the rest of the iPod lineup offers more than one functionality. As the bottom of the scale is the Nano and the Classic, both of which offer the ability to play videos and music, as well as store photos and games.
While all the eink readers have the ability to play music, it’s an afterthought, not an integrated part of the design. Further, because of the tiny memory footprint on these devices (all have less than 1 GB in memory), the music playing abilities do not transform the eink readers into a multi function device.
It’s not that I find it incorrect for manufacturers of ebook readers to put out single function devices. However, to put out single function devices at such as high cost when there are multi fuction devices available at a lower cost, what is the incentive for a person to purchase the single function device? Even those that love to read more than anything balk at paying plus $300 for a device that does only one thing.
While I laud Sony for taking a step forward and to offer competition for Amazon, it seems to me that it is missing a vital part of the market. It may be that the components of an eink reader are so expensive as to not permit a manufacturer from selling a truly entry level eink reader. Astak.com had been touting a sub $200 device that would have a 5” screen, but in a relauch of its ebook reader site (hat tip to Bev QB), Astak has eliminated any reference to the 5″, sub $200 device. Instead, the consumer is told about a 6″ device which will be offered in late November 2008 and will cost $300.
I’m all for more fully featured eink readers. I love the touchscreen and I’ll love the Sony touchscreen + wi fi when it comes out. But is that really what potential ebook readers want? To gain the reluctant, but interested ebook reader, I think we need to have a sub $200 eink device. A $100 eink reader might be one of the hottest gifts of the season. A $400 one is a luxury good and with all the bankers on Wall Street losing their jobs, there just won’t be enough of those buyers to go around. In order for ebook reading to take off, it must have market penetration. why not offer up a device that is the “Must Have College Grad” gift. Because right now what college grad is going to aks for the $400 Kindle/Sony when they can get the $200 iTouch/iPhone?
If eink displays are too expensive, then maybe it’s time to consider other options. Maybe a 6″ LCD screen really won’t be that much of a bother to people’s eyes. It’s true that eink techology makes digital displays look like paper, but perhaps that is simply the wrong metric to use. With more and more people accustomed to reading on their laptops, then an LCD screen isn’t going to be foreign or even off putting to them. I don’t really know, from a technological standpoint, what the solution is. What I do know is that selling increasingly more expensive eink devices isn’t going to break open the ereader market, no matter how feature rich the device is. Either ebook readers need to go multi function or their prices have to come way down. Right now, the ebook industry is missing a major part of the market.