Are enterprises ready for e-readers?

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

The players

If there is a family tree for today's e-books and e-readers, the root is Franklin. Started in the 1980s, the company launched its eBookman device during the dot-com crash of 2000-2001. Not surprisingly, given its poor timing, eBookman wasn't a success.

Jump to 2005 when Sony introduced its US$300 Reader, a device that looks like a book and uses a six-inch E Ink display. Sony updated its US$300 reader in 2006. Late in 2006, after much fanfare, Amazon -- which got its start selling books online - introduced its Kindle e-reader. This US$400 device allows people to peruse periodicals such as The New York Times, blogs, books and other text-based material. Unlike Sony's Reader, the Kindle includes a free 3G wireless connection for downloading books and other publications from Amazon. Also unlike Sony's device, Amazon doesn't offer native support for PDF e-books, a shortcoming it overcomes with a service that converts documents to Kindle's proprietary format for a small fee.

A third e-reader, the iRex Iliad (US$700), offers a large 8.1-inch, 768 x 1024 screen. The device has built-in Wi-Fi, along with support for HTML and PDF files. The larger screen and Wi-Fi connectivity make this particular e-reader attractive to corporate users, according to Ross Rubin of the market research firm NPD.

Business applications

Given that publishers are selling e-books to consumers, it follows that the publishing industry is among the first to give e-readers a try for their internal operations. If the experience of publishers is any indication, e-readers should have a bright future in the enterprise.

Simon & Schuster sells e-books for the Sony Reader and it also uses the devices in its sales and editorial departments. In the past, distribution of manuscripts to sales representatives was accomplished through snail mail. Today, the publisher uses a pull distribution model. Sales reps connect to a database, choose the manuscripts they want, and download the material to their e-readers. Editors use Sony's reader to share manuscripts and obtain opinions.

"Using the e-reader really cuts down on the amount of copying and schlepping involved for the editors," said Simon & Schuster's Rothberg. "The reaction has been very favorable. Once you begin reading, the content takes over and the fact that you are scrolling rather than turning pages is quickly forgotten."

Besides publishers, a number of schools are adopting e-readers as a way for students to save money. Earlier this year, The University of Massachusetts began selling e-books along with paper-based textbooks. One biology book that normally costs a hefty US$161 now costs only US$61 in e-book format.

Another nascent use of e-books is in the healthcare industry. CliniComp International, which develops electronic records systems, recently was awarded a US government contract to convert patients' charts to PDF files that can be easily sent to hospitals in the US or worldwide and read with e-readers. The company is now working with the Veterans Administration to develop a way to transfer medical records directly from the Iraqi battlefield to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany.

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