Can eReaders carve out a business niche?

The eReader is being sold as a business tool, but with smartbooks and netbooks its a hard value proposition to sell.

After a year that has seen the eReader options explode from "which version of the Kindle would you like?" to a virtual smorgasbord of devices from a diverse array of vendors, the challenge now is for the eReader to define itself better and justify its cost. Some vendors, like Plastic Logic and its Que eReader, are counting on establishing the device as a business tool.

Business value

Amazon has been relatively successful with the Kindle. In fact, all of the emerging eReader devices owe a debt of gratitude to Amazon for blazing the trail and evolving the eReader concept from a mere novelty to a mainstream consumer gadget.

Similar to the way Google has coined the term "superphone" to describe next-generation smartphones, Plastic Logic has dubbed its Que a "proReader" to differentiate it from other eReaders as a next-generation device aimed at business professionals rather than consumers.

Apparently, one of the primary differences between an eReader and a proReader is price. While Amazon has whittled the price of the standard Kindle down to $259, and Barnes & Noble matched that $259 price with the Nook, the Que proReader will come in two versions priced at $649 and $799.

Granted, the Que is a larger form factor than the Nook or the standard Kindle--about the size of a standard 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper, and it has a shatterproof plastic screen which may appeal to some professional road warriors and help justify its cost. However, the Amazon Kindle DX also has that larger form factor and still costs only $489.

The Que attempts to carve out a business niche, and justify the higher price, by displaying a wide variety of document formats including Adobe PDF's, Microsoft Word docs, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and even Microsoft PowerPoint presentations.

Competing with PCs

From a business perspective, there is certainly more value in a device that lets you view electronic books as well as common business document types. However, business professionals and intrepid road warriors already have devices that provide that functionality and more.

The eReader--or proReader--is much thinner and lighter than a full-size notebook computer, but since the eReader does not provide a complete computing platform, it has to be carried in addition to a netbook or notebook when traveling.

As slim as they are, the device still takes up space and since its functionality is duplicated by the notebook, the eReader is the first to get bumped when space fills up in the carry-on bag. Business professionals have a growing number of ultra-portable computing gadgets that combine the portability of the eReader with the more comprehensive functionality of a notebook to choose from.

Netbooks continue to be a growing market segment, and now smartbooks and tablet PC's are emerging as options as well. The Lenovo Skylight smartbook is a mere $499, Freescale unveiled a new breed of tablet PC's at $199, and the HP Slate tablet is expected to be under $1000.

With such a diverse collection of portable devices that can view most, if not all, electronic book formats, as well as Microsoft Office formats and Adobe PDF's, surf the Web, check e-mail, play solitaire, and more, it seems harder to justify investing $799 in a proReader, or even $259 for an eReader--at least as a business tool.

Becoming a commodity

I think the attempt to package the eReader for business is doomed for failure. Computers are already becoming smaller and more portable, and smartphones are blurring the line between mobile phone and smartbook. Business professionals want fewer gadgets to carry around, not more.

What is more likely to happen with eReaders is that many of the emerging array of devices will fade away, and the gadgets that are left will become consumer commodities. A report from Forrester Research claims that eReaders need to hit the $50 mark to gain mass-appeal.

The devices themselves should be given away, more or less, with the revenue being generated by some sort of subscription model--similar to the way mobile phones and some netbooks are currently subsidized by wireless service providers.

The Forrester Research report says "Device makers should partner with companies that have incentives to subsidize the device in exchange for a content subscription (newspapers like the Detroit Free Press) or service subscription (mobile carriers like Verizon, which already has a similar model for mobile phones and now netbooks)."

The eReader revolution is already underway and I believe the devices are here to stay. But, in my opinion the potential role they could play in the business world is already occupied with more robust tools at the same or less cost. The eReader is a consumer commodity, not a business tool.

Tony Bradley tweets as @PCSecurityNews, and can be contacted at his Facebook page .

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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