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Phones, PCs put eBooks within easy reach

Eight percent of adults bought an eBook in 2008, according to national surveys.
Eight percent of adults bought an eBook in 2008, according to national surveys.

Thanks largely to Inc.’s Kindle, eBook sales are finally zooming after more than a decade in the doldrums–and students at five campuses this fall will pilot Amazon’s textbook-friendly Kindle DX to read electronic versions of their textbooks. But students without Kindles also have an increasing number of options for reading electronic books–and campus officials say the proliferation of eBooks will accelerate even further as the use of color and embedded video become paramount for eBook makers.

eBook sales reported to the Association of American Publishers have been rising sharply since the beginning of 2008, just after the release of the Kindle. It’s the best sustained growth the industry has seen since the International Digital Publishing Forum began tracking sales in 2002–a sign that eBooks finally could be about to break into the mainstream.

But many phones are now sophisticated enough, and have good enough screens, to be used as eBook reading devices. In addition, eBook reading on computers is already surprisingly popular–and Amazon faces growing competition from rival Sony Corp. and other eBook reader manufacturers.

California-based CourseSmart began offering electronic textbooks in 2007 and reportedly has sold copies to students in more than 5,900 schools. The company says it works with a dozen major textbook publishers to supply electronic versions of their books and claims its prices are typically about half that of print versions.

Students have used CourseSmart texts to read electronic versions of their textbooks on a computer, but last month CourseSmart announced a free application that makes digitized forms of college textbooks available on Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone or iPod Touch devices.

“We’ve seen significant demand from student customers for the ability to get required textbook content in electronic form on an iPhone or iPod Touch,” said CourseSmart Executive Vice President Frank Lyman. “It’s important to students to be able to access textbook content in color with the same page layout as a printed textbook, and now the eTextbooks App allows them to do that.”

CourseSmart’s iPhone program is available for downloading free of charge from Apple’s online App Store, and it could help make electronic textbooks even more popular on campus.

Shanna Vaughn, a university worker and voracious reader in Orange County, Calif., has been reading eBooks on a computer or handheld organizer for at least ten years, but it was only an occasional habit until she got an iPhone last year. It’s mainly the convenience that has won her over: Because Vaughn can buy and download books nearly instantly to her phone, she doesn’t need to plan a trip to the book store.

“I never really wanted something that was a single-function device. I just couldn’t see spending … $300 for a device where I’m sort of locked in to one retailer. Whereas my phone, that does everything,” she said.

Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps said that while the Kindle has sparked interest in eBooks, downloads of eReading applications for smart phones have far outnumbered the Kindles sold.

“There will be a market for dedicated reading devices, but there’s potentially an even bigger market for reading on devices that people already own, like smart phones,” she said.

According to a survey of 2,600 adults by research firm Simba Information this spring, the most common way to read eBooks is on another general-purpose device: the personal computer. It found that 8 percent of adults had bought an eBook last year, a high figure considering that Kindle sales were less than half a percent of the adult population.

Still, analysts credit the Kindle and other eBook reader devices with helping to spur the growth of the eBook market in the last 18 months.

While other digital media like CDs, DVDs, and MP3 songs showed sharp growth rates from inception, eBooks have puttered around as a tiny fraction of overall book sales for more than a decade. In several periods, sales actually declined from year to year as publishers wavered in their commitment and interest.

The most well-known dedicated reading devices, the Kindle and Sony Corp.’s Reader, try to emulate the look of the printed page with a display technology known as “electronic ink.”

Many find the result pleasant to read, but e-ink also imposes significant limitations on the devices. They can’t be backlit like other screens. They can’t show color. They’re also slow to update, making them difficult to use for web browsing or other computer activities.

The Kindle has a wireless connection directly to Amazon’s store, meaning users can buy and download books to the device within minutes. Until now, Sony’s Reader has lacked a wireless capability and thus needed to be connected to a computer to load books. But that’s about to change: Sony plans to offer an eBook reader with the ability to wirelessly download books like the Kindle, injecting more competition in the crowded eBook reader market.

Sony’s $399 Reader Daily Edition will go on sale by December, Sony executives said last month at an event at the New York Public Library. The device has a 7-inch touch screen and will be able to get books, daily newspapers, and other reading material over AT&T Inc.’s cellular network.

Sony has sold eBook reading devices with e-ink displays in the United States since 2006, but has seen most of the attention stolen by Amazon, which launched the Kindle with similar e-ink technology a year later. The latest version of the Kindle–which is not controlled by touching the screen–costs $299 and uses Sprint Nextel Corp.’s wireless network for downloads.

Sony also has begun selling a “Pocket Edition” eBook reader with a 5-inch screen, for $199, and a larger $299 touch-screen model. Neither has wireless capability, so both have to be connected to a computer to acquire books.

Though Sony is following in Amazon’s footsteps by adding wireless capability, its eBook strategy differs in crucial respects.

The only copy-protected books the Kindle can display are from Amazon’s store, and the only devices the store supports are the Kindle, the iPhone and the iPod Touch. Sony, on the other hand, has committed to an open eBook standard, meaning its Readers can show copy-protected books from a variety of stores, and the books can be moved to and read on a variety of devices, including cell phones.

Sony also has announced that its Readers will be able to load eBooks “loaned” from local libraries. A library card will provide access to free books that expire after 21 days.

The library connection “would seem to be something Amazon would never embrace, so that could be a key differentiator,” said Richard Doherty, director of research firm The Envisioneering Group. The feature also could prove popular at colleges and universities.

Campus IT chiefs who spoke with eCampus News said the expanding number of eBook options eventually will bring down the cost of eBooks and the devices used to read them–ultimately making such devices commonplace at colleges and universities.

Susan Metros, associate vice provost of technology-enhanced learning and deputy chief information officer at the University of Southern California, said eBook sales will boom when companies like Sony and Amazon are able to combine the mobility of the iPhone with the screen size of a laptop computer–perhaps as a device students can fold and carry when they’re not using it.

“The whole idea is taking the inherent capabilities of technology and adding features that you just can’t get from the paper book,” said Metros, a chairwoman for EDUCAUSE’s learning initiative advisory board. “We’re waiting for that device with the perfect footprint.”

A major shift will come, Metros said, when eBook companies unveil devices that incorporate illustrations, color, and embedded video, rather than just black-and-white text.

“If you’re looking to really re-establish the textbook market, I think that’s how it’s going to change,” she said. “There should be a big visual component there.”

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