How many e-book readers do we need to make a market?

If Apple announced tomorrow that its long-rumored tablet computer was going to be released as an e-book reader, fans of that platform would be lining up outside the stores and squeaking with joy about how the iRead would totally change, like, everything. If Microsoft or Google unveiled a reader, the bickering about monopolies and long-term implications for publishers and libraries would be deafening.

But is there a less high-profile name that can get the general public interested in electronic readers?

Ross Rubin, a director of industry analysis for The NPD Group, says that a combination of lower price points and new features will attract more potential buyers and therefore more manufacturers, but overall the e-book market isn't apt to shape up like that for, say, the iPod.

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"This has been one of those product categories that has been highly dependent on integration" of content and the reading device, Rubin told Betanews. "Right now, at a price of $300 and up, [e-readers] will remain appealing to a affluent early-adopter audience -- avid readers, someone who's going to invest the time to take advantage of a larger device that doesn't fit one's pocket." Lower prices and more content, especially for niche audiences such as college and high-school students, are "the real key to getting these devices to a mass market."

About those pocket-fitting devices: The Associated Press recently ran a story in which representatives of Verizon and AT&T said that they'd spoken to representatives of various (unnamed) manufacturers looking to light up those un-Kindled parts of the market. (The Kindle includes Sprint Nextel service for book-downloading purposes; the Sony Reader currently downloads fresh texts by connecting to a computer.) And Apple, Rubin points out, "seems to be doing more to support other electronic book vendors on the iPhone."

The market may not potentially be that of the iPod, but there's an interesting parallel between owners of digital music players and, according to Amazon, the Kindle crowd: They buy stuff. Studies of buying habits of music downloaders showed that they actually bought more music than they otherwise would have, since downloading introduced them to more music they'd enjoy. Likewise, Amazon has stated that Kindle owners show no decrease in printed-book buying rates, and they buy 1.5 Kindle books for every printed book to boot.

Numbers like those could be quite attractive to beleaguered publishers. Indeed, Canada's Indigo Books announced this week that it is bringing its Shortcovers digital-book service to customers in 120 countries. Readers, however, are a solitary and cantankerous lot, not given to excitement even over something that changes how they pursue their pastime; if they were, maybe you'd see iPod-style commercials where silhouetted readers dance around with their e-books in front of colorful backgrounds. Not likely.

So who or what would have to get into the market to make it exciting? Microsoft was active in the e-book space a decade ago with its Reader software, but as Rubin notes, "we haven't heard much about it in a long time."

iRex, which makes the iLiad reader was a spinoff from Phillips, and could conceivably take another run at it. Rubin says that Panasonic has at least looked at the market in Japan. "Other entrants may be waiting until we have color [displays]," he says, citing in particular magazine publishers, or those inexpensive paper-thin OLEDs we're regularly promised

And what about Cupertino? "There's always some fascination about Apple entering any kind of electronics market. If the company were to produce a larger device that would be even friendlier [than the iPod]..." he trails off. But no, he says, "At least at this point [the idea] seems to be dismissed."

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