An iPod moment for e-readers?

While BDRA’s DUCKLING project investigates the viability of using e-readers / e-book readers for advanced delivery and enhanced presentation of curricula for remote learners, yesterday unveiled the Kindle DX version of its e-reader.

The DX is suggested as being just the thing for reading a range of media-like textbooks, newspapers, magazines and documents, as well as ‘a step in the direction of a paperless society’.

Primarily aimed at students, and heralded as a potential saviour by some voices in the newspaper industry, the device is 250% bigger than Amazon’s current offering of the Kindle 2.

The focus on the student demographic is an initial, encouraging sign for teams like ours which are engaged in exploring the effectiveness of e-readers for the delivery of learning content. Research, it seems, can walk in step with industry even in such a fluid technological age.

The Kindle DX, which goes on sale in the US this summer for $489 (£325), has a bigger, 9.7-inch screen (compared to the Kindle 2’s 6-inch screen) that displays larger pages, in better detail, from academic textbooks and newsprint titles.

‘You never have to pan, you never have to zoom, you never have to scroll. You just read,’ Amazon’s Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said at the New York launch. The DX can hold up to 3,500 books and currently claims access to 275,000 titles.

The device has a built-in PDF document reader and the company announced deals with three leading textbook publishers – Pearson, Wiley and Cengage – to put their content on the DX.

This, it is claimed, will give DX-users access to about 60% of higher education textbooks, an industry worth around $8 billion annually. For students, Bezos suggested, having access to hundreds of these titles in one device could be a ‘life-changing experience’.

The experience comes at high price and £325 or more would seriously dent the purchasing power of the average UK student in Higher Education. Never mind top-up fees, crushing student debts, shrinking employment prospects and the prevailing credit crunch, just the thought of stumping up £325 presents a steep price barrier.

What could a user get for the £325 then? Though vastly superior to reading off a computer monitor or mobile phone screen, the DX and their ilk are products of electronic-ink technology that creates clear, easy to read text even in bright sunlight.

However much excitement the launch of the DX generates in the ailing newsprint industry, there remain severe shortcomings, not least that content on the DX displays only in black and white and that it does not do video. So limited multimedia capability, then?

At the DX’s launch, Amazon also announced arrangements with three US news media giants – The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe – to put their editorial content on the device.

It is, however, not yet clear whether downloading a daily newspaper to an e-reader, rather than buying it in print, will be the panacea for the newspaper industry, already struggling with the cost of distributing paper products as well as facing plummeting circulation and advertising revenues in the face of online competition.

Why would someone, for instance, spend the equivalent of a year’s worth of newspapers on acquiring the DX when the same newspapers could be accessed on a smart-phone off the internet? Admittedly, the print would be smaller, but the reader is likely to get much more functionality out of a smart-phone.

Despite the high-profile launch, Amazon appears to be no closer to releasing the device in the UK. Amazon are locked in negotiations with mobile phone networks around Europe to try to agree a deal that would allow the Kindle’s Whispernet feature – which allows the device to update automatically using mobile phone technology – to work across Europe. Thus connectivity is a chimera, too!

Whether the DX storms the market or not, accompanying volumes (in print editions only!) that promise fuller use of the gadget, like The Complete User’s Guide to the Amazing Amazon Kindle and Kindle Formatting: The Complete Guide to Formatting Books for the Amazon Kindle are already available… on!

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2007, Alan Rusbridger (Editor, The Guardian) had predicted that ‘For the newspaper, there will be an iPod moment where someone creates a device that is so brilliant at reading text, that the newspaper becomes irrelevant’.

The DX might promise a small step in that direction, but as long as price, multimedia capability and connectivity remain barriers, all of which the iPod ‘family’ of gadgets effortlessly surmounted, Rusbridger’s seminal ‘iPod moment’ for e-readers appears some distance away.

Jai Mukherjee. 8 May 2009

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  1. New Gadgets | An iPod moment for e-readers?

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