With one in 40 adults in the UK receiving an e-reader as a gift over Christmas, what are the latest trends in the e-reader market?
Like chocolate oranges and gaudy jumpers, books are a staple Christmas gift given and received by countless Brits each year. With e-readers proving to be one of this season's most popular presents, could the humble paperback be on its way to becoming a ghost of Christmas past?
According to estimates from market researchers YouGov, 1.3 million e-readers found their way under UK Christmas trees last year. An online survey carried out between 28 December 2011 and 3 January 2012 indicates that one in 40 adults received or bought a device over the festive period.
The bulk of the sales, more than 90 per cent, were down to Amazon, with the Kindle becoming the online retailer's biggest selling product for the second year running.
Despite not eventually taking the plunge, I too considered asking for an e-reader for Christmas. Turning back the clock 12 months, to when I was researching an article on display technology, an e-reader was nowhere near the top of my Christmas wish list. In fact it wasn't on it at all.
Back then, ownership of e-readers was largely limited to techies and early adopters. Today, with the increased availability of content and prices starting at as little as £67, the devices are a common sight in cafes, on trains and even on beaches.
New market data about e-readers is published on a daily basis and the reports all say the same - sales are growing at an amazing rate. Juniper Research has projected that global e-reader shipments will reach 67 million by 2016, up from 25 million in 2011, despite the threat from tablet computers such as the iPad.
In Europe, UK consumers seem to be leading the way. According to Futuresource Consulting, Brits generated close to half of western Europe's entire spend on e-books last year, despite them accounting for only 15 per cent of the region's spend on print titles.
E-readers seem popular in Germany, too. According to German company Bitkom, sales of e-readers were forecast to grow by 33 per cent from €24m to €31m by the end of 2011.
Another survey has found that the demographics of tablet and e-reader owners is changing, trending away from early adopters towards the mainstream. The study, by Nielsen, compared e-reader owners between Q3 2010 and Q2 2011 and found that the proportion of female e-reader owners jumped from 46 per cent to 61 per cent. The study also found that the average age of e-reader owners is increasing.
Over the last 12 months several developments have made me wonder if it's time to join them. Author JK Rowling has finally been convinced to publish electronic versions of her Harry Potter novels; furniture store IKEA is changing the depth of its bookshelves so that they can be used for ornaments, rather than books in dead-tree format; judges of the 2011 Man Booker literary prize were given e-readers loaded with the more than 100 books in the running, and Russian president Vladimir Putin wants schoolchildren in Russia to use e-readers in the classroom.
More than a reading device
There are many different reasons to make the switch from hardback to hardware. For expats living in foreign countries, good English books can be extremely difficult to come by. Provided one has access to an Internet connection though, e-books can be downloaded from anywhere in the world. Travellers who get through several books over a holiday can save on valuable luggage space by taking a digital device. Those with eye conditions that make reading on a backlit screen difficult and those with poor eyesight can also benefit from the clear e-ink display and the ability to increase the font sizes.
None of the e-readers currently on the UK market, however, fully meet the needs of those looking to use them for more than simply reading novels. I read research papers, magazines, market reports, presentations and much more. Most of it is A4 size, so I want an A4 e-reader that behaves like paper - I want to be able to write on it, put stars and question marks in the margin, copy and paste bits and also store reams and reams of documents.
With its 9.7in screen, the Kindle DX could be just right for reading work documents but, without a touchscreen, its appeal is limited. There are speculations about Amazon launching a Kindle with a stylus - the company recently registered the domain name 'Kindle Scribe', which has started the rumour mills. But so far, there are no signs of this device on the market.
There is, however, a company that seems to be a few steps ahead of Amazon. The eQuill from Ricoh has a 9.7in screen with an e-ink display and is aimed at business users. It has a touchscreen and enables consumers to mark up documents, fill out forms, capture signatures and even annotate pictures taken with its integral camera. Users can then send these documents via Wi-Fi or 3G to an appropriate email address. It can be leased from the company for around $80 per month, which is comparable with a monthly business mobile phone rental or ink and paper costs for one employee.
Traditionally a photocopier company, Ricoh threw its hat into the e-reader ring after deciding it was unwise to be a business that relied on paper in an increasingly digital world.
Outlining the company's aims for the product, CTO Kurt Piersol says: "The eQuill is aimed at anyone who uses a clipboard or moves around during their working day. For example, in a hospital doctors can use the eQuill to amend patient records while on their rounds, or on a building site inspectors can fill out paperwork on site and send it off instantly. It is also useful for editing documents. In fact, our CEO used it to mark up our annual report."
The data on an eQuill is also constantly backed up, so if a device is lost or broken, the user simply logs on to another and all the information, including any annotations made, may be accessed.
In order to make the eQuill attractive to a business market, Ricoh has had to make a number of improvements over consumer readers. Conventional e-ink display technology has been criticised for its relatively slow refresh rate when flipping pages. While this may be little more than a minor nuisance when reading novels, it can be a grave hindrance for business users who need to frequently flip backwards and forwards in a document. Similarly, when writing with the stylus, the page needs to update quickly to make the experience as real as possible. Ricoh has addressed these issues and now holds several patents that cover its faster refresh rate technology.
Unsurprisingly, these features place an increased strain on the eQuill's battery. While it cannot boast a battery life measured in weeks, as with the smaller conventional e-readers on the market, it does claim to function for up to two whole working days on a single charge, which is still impressive. "The eQuill uses some aggressive power management techniques," admits Piersol. "For example, the radios are turned off when not in use and the CPU speed is reduced when not needed."
Ricoh is launching the eQuill, which it calls an e-writer to differentiate it from regular e-readers, in the US in the coming months. However, the company is yet to finalise a Europe launch date.
Piersol would not comment about the possibility of colour technology being used in the eQuill. He says: "So far we have not been able to find a colour technology that has a high enough contrast and low enough power consumption to meet our needs."
E Ink, who recently launched their Triton colour active matrix imaging film, are also struggling with the challenge of producing vivid, high-resolution colour displays. Sri Peruvemba, chief marketing officer for E Ink, says: "While Triton is a great reading experience, you won't be reading your National Geographic on our display.
"Our technology uses a colour filter on top of our e-ink technology. When pixels are small, not enough light gets into the device. However, if you increase the pixel size, the colour saturation is fantastic. This is why we are primarily aiming our Triton imaging film at the signage market."
Another company rising to the challenge of producing colour e-reader displays is Qualcomm. Its Mirasol displays use interferometric modulators (IMODs) as pixels. This technology not only means colour filters are not needed but it is also bistable, which means that, just as with e-ink technology, power is only needed when the image is changed. Qualcomm also claims the technology is ideal for video applications because the deformable IMOD membrane only has to move a short distance – a few hundred nanometres – in order to switch between two colours.
After many years of promises, a Mirasol device was finally launched late last year. The Kyobo e-reader (5.7in) features Qualcomm's Mirasol display technology as well as the company's 1.0GHz Snapdragon S2 class processor and has recently been launched in Seoul, South Korea.
Commercialisation of the Mirasol technology is just beginning and the company is focused on low-volume applications such as the Kyobo e-reader until its new factory in Taiwan comes online later this year.
While Qualcomm's technology is impressive, the colour saturation in the images of the Kyobo e-reader is far from perfect. Defending these limitations, Cheryl Goodman, Qualcomm's director of marketing, says: "We did not set out to replicate LCD displays. Our technology provides the same reading experience as paper."
E-readers in the classroom
The Kyobo has been designed to address the needs of the education market. This is likely due to the fact that the South Korean government has announced plans to transfer all its traditional paper textbooks to digital textbooks by 2015. "Koreans are traditionally early adopters of technology and literacy rates in Korea are incredibly high," says Goodman. "Education content tends to be in colour and digital reading in education is the way the industry is heading."
E Ink's Peruvema agrees. "The killer applications for e-readers, especially all-plastic e-readers, is textbooks," he says.
The Russian government is also planning to move towards digital textbooks and is currently trialling a variety of readers. One device it is investigating is Plastic Logic's PL100, which boasts a 10.7in e-ink screen and'is aimed specifically at the education sector. Unlike other e-readers on the market, the PL100 is made entirely from plastic, which enables it to have a large screen while remaining lightweight.
Should the Russians end up adopting the PL100, it would mark a significant reversal of fortune for Plastic Logic. In 2010, the company was very close to launching its Que e-reader but was forced to change course following the emergence of tablet computers.
"We decided to abandon plans for the Que, which was a device aimed at the consumer, and decided to concentrate on the education market and the PL100 instead," says Daren Benzi, Plastic Logic's vice president of Worldwide Business Development and Sales. "We want to build a new factory in Russia this year and are concentrating on the Russian market at the moment. We plan to do a lot more in the US and Europe in 2012."
As with Amazon's Kindle DX, Ricoh's eQuill and the Kyobo, the PL100 is not available in the UK so any Brits hoping to receive a more fully featured device will likely have to keep their fingers crossed until next Christmas. *