At first blush, e-book readers such as the popular Amazon Kindle have no apparent place in business, but take a second look before dismissing them out of hand as mere toys for gadget freaks.
True, they're selling to consumers like the proverbial hotcakes, with analysts at the Boston-based Yankee Group forecasting revenue growth from a respectable $1.3- billion (U.S) this year to $2.5-billion (U.S) in 2013, in the United States alone.
It expects six million of the devices to be sold this year in the United States, with a compound annual growth rate of 34 per cent raising that number to a whopping 19.2 million in 2013.
This growth will be driven in part by declining price points, with $150 being the sweet spot for purchasers. Analyst Dmitriy Molchanov of the Yankee Group says, "We see the average price of e-book readers declining by roughly 15 per cent per year for the next five years, resulting in 55-per-cent increase in adoption rate year over year."
Although in North America, the readers have mainly targeted consumers, there are demonstrated business uses for them as well.
For example, SolidFX has partnered with IREX Technologies and aviation data provider Jeppesen to produce the F10 portable aviation information manager. It's an IREX e-book reader loaded with Jeppesen's worldwide terminal chart database and specialized viewing software that allows pilots to access the charts they need on a lightweight device that sips battery power and can be easily incorporated into the cockpit or tucked into a flight bag.
The display size is similar to that of a paper chart, and according to Robert Goyer, a pilot and reviewer for Flying magazine, the e-Ink display can be easily read in most lighting conditions, unlike that of a laptop.
"Portable computers are an option for displaying charts in the cockpit, but they're far from ideal," he notes in his review. "They draw a lot of power, have limited battery life and can be hard to read in very bright sunlight."
The added bonus for pilots is that, once they're on the ground, the device can be used as a standard e-book reader so they can catch up on their lighter reading on the same unit.
E-Ink technology, upon which most e-readers are based, draws power only when the screen is being changed, providing phenomenal battery life. The F10 gets about 10 hours continuous use from a single charge. E-Ink's downside, however, is that it is currently monochrome only; colour displays are in the works.
If flying is a bit esoteric, consider another area where paper threatens to overwhelm: government. To save trees and reduce its carbon footprint, the municipality of Hardenberg in the Netherlands has issued e-readers to its council members. They can read and annotate documents and take notes on the readers during meetings.
This brings up a fact that e-reader vendors, many of whom are also booksellers, don't necessarily promote too loudly: users can load their own documents on their e-readers. Even relatively inexpensive units support document formats such as PDF as well as traditional e-book formats such as Mobi and ePub, allowing business users to load catalogues, spec sheets, proposals, technical manuals and other documents onto their readers. And if the reader doesn't support a particular format, free open source utilities such as calibre will convert it into something the reader can digest.
Some readers also offer Web browsing, and can be loaded wirelessly, through WiFi or cellular connections. Amazon, for example, provides the service for purchases for the Kindle over its own cellular network, although this is a two-edged sword. It's convenient, but Amazon's licence agreement grants it permission to access customer devices without further warning and harvest information.
Amazon also, without warning, removed copies of George Orwell's 1984 from customers' readers that it had inadvertently sold in contravention of copyright. More recently it shared harvested information about user highlighted passages with other readers of the same book. Especially for businesses, this generates security and privacy concerns. And Amazon is not the only e-book vendor whose licence allows it to monitor its readers. Privacy advocates from the Electronic Frontier Foundation have published a comparison of the privacy stances of several popular readers and e-book providers.
Plastic Logic's coming QUE reader targets business users specifically with its 10.7-inch diagonal display and WiFi or 3G connectivity. It has partnered with publications such as the Wall Street Journal to provide downloadable subscriptions so busy executives can keep track of the news.
Other readers have no Internet connectivity at all, wireless or otherwise, and must be loaded from a personal computer - a little less convenient, but more secure.
Analysts are divided on the future of the standalone e-book reader, with the advent of connected devices such as the iPad (dubbed Mobile Internet Devices, or MIDs) prompting predictions of convergence as prices fall for MIDs. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research firm In-Stat's senior analyst Stephanie Ethier notes in an In-Stat Information Alert, "The differences between the two device segments will blur. They will be defined by either application or the device itself."
Two of the lower-priced offerings are prime examples of basic readers that need never see a commercial book to insinuate themselves into their owners' lives.
First, we have the Kobo eReader, created by a Toronto company whose majority owner is Indigo Books and Music. It hits the Yankee Group's sweet spot at a price of $149 (Cdn.).
It tips the scales at just under 8 ounces, with dimensions of 7.2 x 4.7 x .4 inches. Its display is a 6-inch (diagonal) E-Ink screen, like that of more expensive units, set in a plain white bezel adorned only by a large blue button that's the primary control for book selection and page turning. Four more tiny buttons let the user return to the home screen, pull up the menu, adjust display settings and back out of books or menus occupying the left edge. A quilt-textured rubberized back lets it sit easily in the hand without slippage.
The Kobo comes populated with 100 free e-books (out-of-copyright classics), but has plenty of memory left for additional documents (the preloaded books occupy a fraction of its 1 GB or 1,000 book capacity), and it also has an SD card slot that can cope with up to 4 GB additional storage. Battery life is rated at about 8,000 page-turns (remember, power is consumed only when the display changes).
Readers can select from five font sizes, in both serif and sans-serif typefaces; all are easy on the eyes.
Documents are added via either a USB connection to a PC, or over a Bluetooth connection. The Kobo appears to the computer to be a USB storage device, so it's easy to copy files to it. It comes with its manual and both Windows and Mac software that allow it to connect to the Kobo online bookstore stored on the reader.
The reader supports ePub and PDF formats, as well as Adobe DRM (a copy protection technology). I found that some PDF files did not display well, and required panning to see the whole page; the ePub volumes all worked perfectly.
I did manage to lock up the reader at one point, and had to do a hard reset. The issue turned out to be a corrupt e-book file on my SD card that confused reader software; error handling could definitely be improved. These problems may be a function of the newness of the device, which hit the market only at the beginning of May. There is to be a software update at the end of May to address several such issues, including the impossibility of removing any of the 100 pre-loaded books, which have arisen since the product launch.
The more expensive e-reader, at $249 (Cdn.) is the Sony PRS-600. Weighing in at 10.1 ounces and measuring 6.9 x 4.8 x .4 inches, it's a bit smaller and a bit heavier than the Kobo, and since it's a higher-end reader, it also boasts a few extra bells and whistles.
For starters, it has a touch screen, allowing readers to turn pages with a swipe of a finger. In practice, I found pressing the forward button just as easy, but the touch screen also allows note-taking and handwritten annotation of documents using the stylus sheathed in the top corner. For those whose writing is less than legible, Sony offers a virtual keyboard as well.
Controls are more subtle than the Kobo's - there's a simple row of narrow silver buttons across the lower bezel that control forward and backward movement through menus and books, a home button, a zoom button and an options button. Since this reader also plays music (MP3 and AAC formats), there's a volume control and headphone jack beside the micro-USB connection on the bottom. And since it's a Sony, it supports Memory Stick Duo as well as SD cards for memory expansion. Just as well - it only has about 380 MB of internal memory.
Charging is via USB, as with the Kobo, or using an optional a/c adapter. Battery life is rated at 7,500 page turns, or two weeks.
The Sony supports ePub and PDF formats (and handles PDFs very well), as well as BBeB, Microsoft Word, RTF and text. Adobe DRM handles copy protection here too. There's a built-in Oxford American English dictionary.
Like Kobo, Sony provides desktop software to help manage the reader's library and to download from its online store. And also like Kobo, it looks like a USB drive to the computer, so moving documents around can be as simple as drag and drop.
Either reader can handle basic document display, though Kobo doesn't do as good a job on some PDFs. Both are easy to use, but because of its lighter weight and rubberized back, the Kobo feels a bit better in the hand.
If annotation and note-taking are requirements, the Sony has the edge; it has a lot more functionality - but it's also twice the cost.
(Clarification: In an earlier version of this story, Plastic Logic's QUE reader was described as having an 8.5 x 11 inch display. Those dimensions refer to the body of the device, not the display. The QUE screen will be 10.7 inches diagonally.)