E-readers could push growth in e-textbook market, analysts say

By , Computerworld |  Personal Tech, ebooks, education

With more e-readers hitting the U.S. market, analysts predict a big uptick in device sales in late 2010 with a strong surge in the popularity of electronic textbooks used in high schools and colleges in time for school in the fall of 2011.

The market for e-textbooks is considered a rich one, but is also governed by many factors, including the cost of e-readers. They can run about $400 -- the price of the new Irex DR800SG announced yesterday -- putting them out of the reach of many students.

How fast and large the e-textbook market grows depend on a diverse array of more than 20 textbook publishers in the U.S., many of whom are weighing the use of proprietary or standard e-publishing technology and evaluating whether students will rely on e-readers to purchase expensive textbooks and other books, analysts said.

"It's a two-year window for e-textbooks before there's significant market traction," said Gartner Inc. analyst Allen Weiner in an interview. "But it's a fertile market."

Weiner predicted that a number of major vendors, including Google Inc. and Apple Inc., could enter the market with devices and marketing plans that involve textbook publishers and, possibly, college bookstores.

Apple has long been rumored to be working on a tablet computer , perhaps with a 9-inch screen, for debut in February. That hardware could be targeted at college students accustomed to dropping $100 or more for traditional hardback texts, Weiner said.

"An Apple tablet could be the sweetest college textbook reader you've ever seen," Weiner said. "Apple is letting the e-reader market simmer and will come into it when the market's ready to boil."

The market in the U.S. now includes the Irex device, which has an 8.1-inch screen and goes on sale at Best Buy stores in October. It will use the Verizon Wireless network for downloading books and newspapers. Sony Reader devices are being sold at Best Buy to work with AT&T's wireless network. And Amazon.com has produced several Kindle e-readers with wireless connections via Sprint Nextel Inc.

"While we've just seen three vendors in the U.S., there will be a lot of activity in the next year," said Vinita Jakhanwal, an analyst at iSuppli. Plastic Logic is planning to introduce an e-reader in the U.S., while Asian manufacturers are expected to launch products -- though not necessarily in the U.S., she said. "There's also a lot of speculation about whether Barnes & Noble will launch their own e-reader or use existing ones," she said.

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