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Could an 'iPad' Make E-Readers Irrelevant?

By Mike Pearson MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Dec 18, 2009 5:00 AM PT

Martha Stewart did a somewhat curious thing last week: She talked tablets with her followers on Twitter.

Could an 'iPad' Make E-Readers Irrelevant?

No, not pills, or some arcane French revival furniture piece. Tablets, as in computers.

"Serious question," the crafty decorating and cooking maven asked readers on Dec. 12: "How many of you will read magazines on an electronic tablet (interactive-full color) within two years? three years?"

This is notable, because when Martha Stewart talks publishing, people listen. In 2008, the American Society of Magazine Editors honored her with a lifetime achievement award, crediting her for creating an entirely new genre of magazine that has left an enduring impact across the American publishing landscape.

So it comes as no surprise that Stewart's query opened a new window on the long-running debate over what impact Apple's long-rumored tablet computer will have on the nascent e-reader category currently dominated by Amazon's Kindle.

While Kindle has found some traction among readers looking for a low-power device to read books and little else, some have found the market lacking a multipurpose device that works not just for books, but for newspapers, magazines and multimedia content, as well.

The rumored "iPad," some analysts argue, might fit that bill -- a connected multipurpose media pad that serves up any kind of content a consumer might want, from brainy Jane Austen to mindless YouTube videos.

Others suggest it will use technologies that might be great for video but not so much for reading, and question whether its likely hefty price, possible monthly fees and potentially battery-gobbling nature mean it's not likely to supplant devices such as the Kindle, Barnes & Noble's upcoming Nook, or Sony's anticipated Daily Edition anytime soon.

What's Known

For it's true-to-form part, Apple isn't talking about what, if anything, it's planning to debut. Still, after a couple of false alarms in the last couple of years, plenty of analysts are expecting to see something tablet-related in 2010.

It will be a full-color 8- to 10-inch device that will be more like an oversized ... iPod touch than a downsized Mac, predicts IDC Research, and it should come out by the end of the year.

Such a device would be appealing to existing iPhone and iPod touch users, IDC says in its report, and it would allow users a better platform for watching movies -- not to mention reading books, newspapers and magazines.

"It would take a big bite from the Kindle," the report states.

The device will likely be about the size of a trade paperback and retail for between US$600 and $800, depending on how much cost Apple can squeeze out of the touch-sensitive display, Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, told MacNewsWorld.

There's been speculation in the tech press suggesting the device could retail for $699 or more, might have an OLED screen, might be offered through a cellular carrier -- perhaps at a discount, but also with a monthly fee.

The Current Market

The current market is dominated by readers using electrophoretic technology: Bursts of electric current cause tiny capsules filled with polarized ink to form shapes on the screen. Unfortunately, the currently available commercialized technology only allows for grayscale images, meaning devices such as the Kindle are good for reading books with few images, but not for image- or color-intensive publications.

In 2008, consumers worldwide purchased 1.1 million such units, according to MediaIdeas.

Next year, that figure will rise to about 6 million, and by 2020, sales will reach 446 million readers with a market value of $25 billion or more, the company recently projected.

By 2015, this technology will be supplanted by other methods that will allow for the kind of colorful, bright, but low-powered devices that make current e-readers appealing to book lovers, the research firm expects.

That means Apple's rumored iPad is unlikely to be a Kindle killer in the short term, analyst David Renard told MacNewsWorld.

"The reality is that the people at Apple clearly understand and view the necessity for bringing in the reading experience in the future," he said.

However, what is likely to be a power-hungry backlit display -- the most frequently rumored vehicle for the iPad's screen -- isn't the right vehicle for reading books or even many magazines, said Renard. That will have to wait for the technology to catch up.

'Paginated Media'

Others disagree.

A well-made LED screen can be just as comfortable for long-term reading as e-ink displays, argued Gottheil -- and consumers aren't going to want two devices.

"The idea of carrying around two devices, one for reading and one for browsing and programs is silly," he said.

Rumors that Apple has been approaching major publishers about a content distribution deal suggest it is well-poised to make a disruptive play in the e-reader field, suggested Scott Testa, a professor of business at Cabrini College.

"I think Apple has the potential to do what they have with smartphones and music to the publishing industry," Testa told MacNewsWorld.

One major hurdle could be standing in its way, if the rumor mills are right: The projected high cost of the Apple device could be a barrier to adoption for many enthusiastic consumers.

Unlike an iPhone, which can be had for as little as $99 up front, or a Kindle, with a base price of $259, the rumored iPad could involve an investment of $600 or more -- and it could carry ongoing fees for data access, according to many reports.

"It goes from a great Christmas gift to a luxury item," remarked Testa.

Still, if it does come out next year, the iPad could serve as a tantalizing peek into the future, suggested Renard, when magazines and book publishers might be freed from the shackles of high production costs, and the art of reading may be rediscovered in a new medium.

"It will be called 'paginated media,' and it will show it can be as relevant on the digital platform as it is in print," he said.

Oh, and that question Martha Stewart posed to her followers on Twitter? It's hardly a scientific survey, but she reported 46 percent of those who responded said they'd read magazines on a tablet within the next few years; 29 percent said no.

A quarter said it would depend on cost, features and quality. These were, after all, Martha Stewart followers.

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