E-Books Take Center Stage

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It’s been over a year since the Amazon Kindle e-book reader was introduced. And the electronic-ink-based device--which in many ways has transformed the e-book category--has spent much of that time in high-demand: The Kindle was on backorder and sold out during the holidays. Today the Kindle remains on backorder at Amazon's site, by three to five weeks.

Rumor has it that the second-generation Kindle will be introduced at an Amazon event in New York on Monday. Last fall, images purported to be the Kindle 2 surfaced on The Boy Genius Report.

The first-generation Kindle cost $359--when you could buy it. “The Kindle has spurred much interest in the e-book category, not only because of its wireless capabilities, but also because it extends the footprint of Amazon nearly anywhere," notes Ross Rubin, NPD Group director of industry analysis. "It's been one of the first wirelessly connected consumer electronics products to offer fast connectivity at no end-user cost to the consumer.”

That connectivity--an integrated 3G cellular radio and Kindle’s free, Whispernet EvDO wireless connection provided in partnership with Sprint--allows immediate access to the Kindle store for on-demand e-book purchases. Plus, you can use Whispernet to subscribe to and receive blogs and RSS feeds, as well as to browse basic Web sites (text pages, not graphics-heavy sites, so it's handy for quick news and weather checks, or for Wikipedia lookups).

A second-generation Kindle has the opportunity to correct some of the design flaws of the first-gen model--it was too bulky, and handled PDFs and other document files less than gracefully--while making the device more competitive and appealing, given new competition.

Sony, for example, has added backlighting and a touch screen, on its slim second-generation Sony Reader Digital Book PRS-700BC. Meanwhile, Google announced that the 1.5 million public-domain books in its Google Book Search will be accessible via mobile handsets such as the Apple iPhone 3G and the T-Mobile G1. And Amazon has countered by saying that it is working on making Kindle e-book titles accessible on cell phones as well.

Cell phones could be the ultimate mobile e-book reader, by virtue of their portability and ubiquitous nature. “There's a relatively small market for a dedicated device for reading best-sellers, and we're seeing more development on e-book initiatives for the iPhone, with offerings such as Shortcovers and Zinio for the iPhone,” says Rubin. Add in the Google Book Search and Amazon mobile Kindle initiatives, and cell phones could become the next big platform for e-books, beyond the dedicated electronic-ink screens.

Rubin says that one area Amazon could potentially mine is that of electronic textbooks. “There's a tremendous opportunity for the first e-book provider that can tap into the textbook market,” he says. “At the appropriate price, that could transform these devices from frequent-flyer folios into a staple in the homes of students.”

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