Why e-books are bound to fail

E-books, those flat electronic tablets designed for reading downloadable, software-based books, are often packed with advanced displays and other leading-edge technology.

Every time a new e-book comes out, a ripple of chatter spreads through the gadget enthusiast community. Technology news sites cover such product and research announcements like major news, similar to the announcement of a new iPod or smart phone. Engadget and Gizmodo blog them without fail. Even The New York Times tech columnist David Pogue and The Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg have taken the time to test and review e-books.

Companies like Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi and Fujitsu have devoted millions of dollars over the past couple of decades developing what they hope will be a device that replaces the paper book -- the first disruptive shift in the way people read books since the Gutenberg Bible in the 15th century.

Here's a lineup of the major e-books on the market (or almost on the market):

  • Sony Reader
  • eRead StarEBook
  • Jinke Electronics HanLin eBook
  • iRex iLiad
  • Panasonic Words Gear
  • Bookeen Cybook
  • Hitachi Albirey
  • Fujitsu Flepia

Unfortunately, these products -- as well as the whole product category -- are destined for failure.

Sure, there will always be tiny, vertical application niche markets for e-books. Wherever space or environmental constraints limit the practicality of paper books, and where lots of information needs to be at hand, e-books are ideal. For example, they're great for pilots or, say, scientists working in the Arctic. E-books that enable maximizing text size are a godsend for visually impaired readers.

E-book makers believe, as do millions of gadget fans, technology pundits, bookworms and journalists, that e-books will soon become a popular alternative to real, paper books for reading novels, nonfiction bestsellers and kiss-and-tell political memoirs. The idea is that once they perfect the display technology and strike the right balance of battery life, sunlight readability and form factor, we'll all start buying these things, and downloading our books.

Not gonna happen.

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Mike Elgan

Computerworld
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