Mobile Tech

Asus’ E-Reader Mystery: Low-Cost, Dual Screen Device

Just as Robert Langdon gets ready to take his fans on another thrill ride in the forthcoming new Dan Brown novel, The Lost Symbol, another tantalizing mystery has popped up: Is Asus getting ready to unveil a low-cost, dual-color-screen e-book reader just in time for the holidays?

The Sunday Times of London quotes a UK Asus executive as saying the company, manufacturer of what could arguably be called the first netbook computer, would introduce a device before the end of the year that skirts the line between netbook and book reader. Dual screens that open like and actual book would give the user a more “normal” page-turning experience, but one of the screens could also be used as a Web browser or virtual keyboard. A built-in camera and microphone opens up a world of cheap Skype Internet phone calls, and color screens means the ability to peruse graphics-rich pages like one would find in newspapers like USA Today — as well as in school textbooks.

Asus told the Times that the company would likely introduce two such devices, a lower-cost basic version and a more feature-laden premium reader. It’s not clear if the Web-browsing and color screens are destined for either device, but the price of the budget version could scrape US$165.

If that is indeed the case, then e-book reader-leaders Amazon and Sony — in particular Amazon and its highly publicized Kindle — may feel the same kind of scary footsteps dogging their efforts as Langdon does just as he’s closing in on vital clues.

Devil in the Details

Robert Langdon — and for that matter, Dan Brown — do a lot of research for their mysteries; so do real-life technology analysts. That’s why the Asus news is proving to be a tad frustrating. The devil is indeed in the details, which are scarce at this point. A TechNewsWorld request for comment from Asus was not received by press time.

“What we’ve seen is that they’ve shown a prototype we think was likely going to be a notebook-type of PC,” IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian told TechNewsWorld. “But as the e-book reader space has heated up in the last several months, it’s likely that Asus said, ‘Let’s get it to this market as well, with a device we market as an e-book reader.'” That makes sense for the company, since the market is still in its nascent phase, despite Amazon’s early dominance. “There’s certainly opportunity for device vendors out there.”

However, if the color screens are liquid-crystal diode (LCD), then backlighting, eyestrain and battery life become substantial technology hurdles. “Color screens are really the next technology frontier,” Kevorkian said.

A Web browser and Skype features indicate connectivity, but will they be as consistent as Amazon’s Whispernet technology, which allows for near-instant downloads of content on the go? “There’s already a lot of competition with e-book readers with substitute products like smartphones and laptops,” Kevorkian said, “If this device acts and looks more like a notebook than an e-reader, consumers will catch on pretty quickly.”

Turning the Page on Form Factor

The dual-screen concept has intrigued Yankee Group analyst Carl Howe. It’s something he’s recommended since the e-book market’s ascent into the mainstream. “There’s a lot to be said for really honest-to-goodness emulating a book, namely having two facing pages,” Howe told TechNewsWorld. However, the analyst is having trouble balancing price points and features. “I can’t make the number add up in my head. Here is a manufacturer that has not done this before, and yet they’re saying, ‘We’re going to put two screens in a device and we’re going to sell it for half the price (of a Kindle.)’ It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless they have some source of really cheap screens.”

Both Howe and Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies agree that when it comes to e-readers, the new-media cliche rings true: Content is king. It’s what has kept earlier Sony reader efforts from keeping up with Amazon’s Kindle Store. “It’s a question of who has the largest library,” Kay told TechNewsWorld. “That’s what makes an e-book reader interesting — what it connects to. Some are larger, some work in lower light, but it matters what it connects to.”

It’s not surprising, Kay said, that Asus would be looking at this category, which up until late last year was considered “a no man’s land, a Sargasso Sea in which no product could stay afloat. But now there’s a lot of competition because it’s on the border, the frontier of phones and computers,” he added. “At the frontier, they turn into each other.”

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