Are enterprises ready for e-readers?

E-readers offer cheaper documents, faster updates -- so where are they?

More than a decade after the first clunky electronic books appeared, a new push is underway to get readers to curl up with digital versions of their favorite best-sellers. But despite backing from heavyweights such as Sony, Amazon and a handful of publishers, the idea has yet to catch fire with consumers.

For now, there isn't a huge amount of interest in e-readers in the enterprise, either. A spokesperson for Amazon, which is at the heart of the latest e-reader push, was stumped when asked whether any enterprises are using its Kindle e-reader.

"Sounds interesting, but we haven't heard of that," said Amazon's Andrew Herdener.

However, those few enterprises who have tried e-readers express enthusiasm. After all, e-readers can lower costs and provide previously unthinkable benefits such as putting easily updatable shelves of technical manuals in the hands of field workers.

"It's a win for us in terms of convenience, speed, saving paper and (lowering) mailing costs," said Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for publisher Simon & Schuster, which not only sells e-books but also uses e-readers internally.

But are these potential advantages enough to persuade other large organizations to switch from paper to digital documents?

E-reader advantages

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the Kindle e-reader last year, the device was often described as an iPod for books. Although the Kindle is bulkier than Apple's hot-selling music player, its footprint is smaller than a laptop's, it weighs just over 283 grams, and it holds more than 200 books.

Even priced between US$300 to US$700, e-readers are an inexpensive alternative to a bookshelf of technical manuals, which can be costly to print and update. And e-readers are less expensive than devices such as smart phones, laptops and ultra-mobile PCs, which some companies now use to send documents into the field.

Another advantage is that the latest e-readers employ "electronic paper" technology from vendors such as E Ink Corporation. For static pages such as those in a book, electronic paper has significant advantages compared to laptop and cell phone LCD displays. In particular, E Ink's technology doesn't require backlighting, which results in roughly the same reflective quality as paper. That makes e-reader screens easy on the eyes.

This type of display technology also requires far less power than traditional displays. For example, the Readius, an e-reader from Dutch company Polymer Vision, claims to last 30 hours between charges.

Yet another advantage is that e-books are simple to update. Instead of waiting for a publisher to print a new edition or tech support to distribute an updated printed product manual, e-reader users can simply download updates. And up-to-date information is a key to success for many applications in the field, noted Michael McGuire, media analyst at Gartner.

"The challenge (for enterprises) is the frequency with which some content could change," McGuire said.

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Ed Sutherland

Computerworld
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