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Has the e-book arrived at last?

20 February 2006


Does the recently-announced Sony Reader finally herald the breakthrough on the e-book technology front many have been anticipating? The device is expected to be marketed in the US this spring and in the UK next year and will sell for around $299/$399 (£200 in the UK).

The electronics firm is attempting to win back the initiative it had with the Walkman, but has lost to Apple's iPod. The Sony Reader will be able to store 100 books. Pages will be read on a monochrome screen and the device uses battery power only when turning the pages. No internal illumination is provided, so the Reader needs to be read in normal light, just like a book, reducing eye-strain. Taki Sugiyama, in charge of the Sony Reader project, said that: 'The project boiled down to whether we could make a device that offered the same emotional content as books.' Maybe this time they have succeeded.

Publishers certainly seem to think so. Victoria Barnsley, CEO of HarperCollins UK, said: 'This could be a big market and provide opportunities for publishers. Sony has got the product right this time.'

Perhaps the key factor is whether the market is ready for the device. In the years since the e-book was first mooted and various unsuccessful prototypes were launched, the book business's approach to all of this has changed radically. Not only do the publishers have the rather ominous example of the music business to consider, but they have also started to embrace digitisation in a large way, most significantly because Google Print has forced them to do so.

Many readers are still sceptical about the idea of reading novels on a reading device, however well designed, when paperbacks are so user-friendly and portable. But, if it catches on, the Reader should finally find one obvious market, that of travellers who won't need to take a suitcase full of books on holiday.

There's also a great difference in the way people use different kinds of books and non-fiction and reference may work particularly well on the device. Paul Carr, editor-in-chief of web-to-print publishing house The Friday Project, says: 'Imagine a student having 50 law textbooks stored on their e-paper reader. They'll be able to see a case reference in one book, click on it and find the full text of the case in another book.' Legal and academic publishers may be in the front line, but, if the device finds favour with readers, publishers will need to make sure that they control the digitised content it makes available. It will need to be licensed in such a way that publishers and authors can still make money from downloads made available on the Reader.