E-readers: Beyond the hardware

According to a survey commissioned by Retrevo, e-readers are going to be a hot gift item this holiday season. 21% of the respondents said they were planning on getting an e-reader this year. Now of course, we don't know who took part in the survey, and 21% sounds pretty high to me unless the survey was targeted at gadget freaks, but it does seem like the e-reader is finally getting ready to move beyond being a curiosity (my co-workers and I still keep track of "in the wild" Kindle sightings, just for grins) into something a bit more mainstream.

[Update: Retrevo has supplied me with more data about the survey:

The data for this report came from a study of online users conducted by an independent panel. The sample size was 771 distributed across gender, age, income and location in the United States. The responses have a confidence interval of 2.8% at a 95% confidence level.

So that 21% figure is legit and wow, that's a huge number. Thanks to Retrevo for supplying these survey statistics!]

Right now the Amazon Kindle is dominating the marketplace, but Sony seems to finally be treating its Sony Reader line as a serious product. Sony just announced partnerships with Smashwords and Author Solutions in order to give small publishers (and individuals) a way to get their e-books onto the Sony e-book store. ReadWriteWeb covers the deals in detail. In general terms, the Sony Readers seems more open (or is it more accurate to say "less closed"?) than the Kindle. For instance, purchasers of e-books from Shortcovers can move their books onto a Sony Reader, but not onto a Kindle.

But beyond Sony and Amazon? We looked at the iRex DR 800SG last week. It will offer content through the Barnes & Noble e-book store, as will the upcoming Plastic Logic device. The Times Online also suggests e-readers are the next big thing, speculating that Microsoft and Apple will have competitors on the marketplace in the near future. In both these cases, the Times Online is referring to a more general purpose tablet device (like the widely rumored iTablet) rather than a dedicated rumor. If these devices become a reality, where will content come from? In Apple's case, using iTunes to distribute e-books is the obvious solution, but what about Microsoft? Will they partner with someone or open their own store?

And what of the many other, lesser known e-readers on the market or coming soon? Where will their owners get content from? I'm starting to envision a future where a potential buyer will first decide which content source they like best, and then will choose an e-reader that supports that source. This is a throw-back idea: back in the early days of personal computers the accepted answer to "Which computer brand should I buy?" was "The one that runs the software you need." Because let's face it, an e-reader is just a paperweight without a rich content source full of things you want to read. It should be interesting to watch as the competing sources up their game in order to best the competition. Will iTunes be able to topple Amazon when it comes to e-books? Can either Sony or Barnes & Noble really compete with these two? Microsoft remains the wild card, as we have no idea what, if anything, they have planned in the e-book space.

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