e-Reader boom kindles variety of new options

eReader use is growing daily, especially in education.
eReader use is growing daily, including in education.

When most people think of electronic book readers, Amazon’s thin, white Kindle probably springs to mind. But that could be about to change: A cascade of new eBook readers will hit the market this year, taking the devices far beyond gray-scale screens with features such as touch navigation and video chatting–and probably lowering prices, too.

It’s happening as other gadgets, such as mobile phones and tablet computers, give people even more choices for diving into their favorite books electronically.

This week, nearly two dozen companies that make the devices or deliver reading material to them are showing products at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the first time it has devoted a section to eBooks.

In a good sign for the mainstream status that eBook companies hope to achieve, they are clustered at a prime location in the Las Vegas Convention Center often taken over by the likes of Microsoft Corp. And Amazon isn’t even at the exhibition.

eBooks still make up a tiny portion of book sales, but their popularity is growing rapidly. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, which organizes the trade show, 2.2 million e-Readers were shipped to stores in 2009, nearly four times as many as the year before. This year, the group expects 5 million will be shipped.

“It’s an incredible growth category,” said Jason Oxman, senior vice president of industry affairs at the electronics association.

e-Readers from Sony and other companies were around before Amazon released the Kindle in 2007, but the Kindle was the first to offer wireless downloading of books, making impulse buys easier.

Since the Kindle debuted at $399, Amazon has lowered the price to $259 and lured buyers with inexpensive material, such as new releases of books for about $10 each. On Christmas Day, Amazon sold more eBooks than physical copies for the first time.

To keep up, Barnes & Noble has come out with its $259 Nook, and Sony Corp. has stayed in the game with its Readers, with an entry-level model at $200. Each offers hundreds of thousands of titles, with relatively few exclusives–publishers have shown little interest in favoring one device over another so far.

(Of course, that could change–and some eBook fans are worried that a recent deal between Amazon and author Stephen Covey could be a sign of things to come: Amazon snared the exclusive rights to sell Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Principle-Centered Leadership in eBook format. The deal essentially freezes out makers of rival eBook readers–and if other authors sign similar deals in the future, that could limit the options available to users of a particular e-reader technology.)

Now other companies are getting in the game as well. Samsung Electronics Co., the leading maker of phones and TVs in the U.S., will launch an e-Reader this year.

Samsung will be launching two models with 6-inch and 10-inch “electronic ink” screens, similar to the sizes of Amazon’s Kindle models. Users of the devices will be able to download public-domain books from Google Inc. via Wi-Fi, and the e-Readers will come with styluses so users can write on the screen.

The models will cost $399 and $699, respectively. Samsung didn’t say who would provide for-pay eBooks for the devices.

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