How businesses can benefit from e-readers

More than a decade after the first clunky electronic books appeared, a new push is underway to get readers to curl up with digital versions of their favorite best-sellers. But despite backing from heavyweights such as Sony, Amazon and a handful of publishers, the idea has yet to catch fire with consumers.

For now, there isn’t a huge amount of interest in e-readers in the enterprise, either. A spokesperson for Amazon, which is at the heart of the latest e-reader push, was stumped when asked whether any enterprises are using its Kindle e-reader.

“Sounds interesting, but we haven’t heard of that,” said Amazon’s Andrew Herdener.

However, those few enterprises who have tried e-readers express enthusiasm. After all, e-readers can lower costs and provide previously unthinkable benefits such as putting easily updatable shelves of technical manuals in the hands of field workers.

“It’s a win for us in terms of convenience, speed, saving paper and (lowering) mailing costs,” said Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for publisher Simon & Schuster, which not only sells e-books but also uses e-readers internally.

But are these potential advantages enough to persuade other large organizations to switch from paper to digital documents?

E-reader advantages

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the Kindle e-reader last fall, the device was often described as an iPod for books. Although the Kindle is bulkier than Apple’s hot-selling music player, its footprint is smaller than a laptop’s, it weighs just over 10 ounces, and it holds more than 200 books.

Even priced between US$300 to $700, e-readers are an inexpensive alternative to a bookshelf of technical manuals, which can be costly to print and update. And e-readers are less expensive than devices such as smart phones, laptops and ultra-mobile PCs, which some companies now use to send documents into the field.

Another advantage is that the latest e-readers employ “electronic paper” technology from vendors such as E Ink Corporation. For static pages such as those in a book, electronic paper has significant advantages compared to laptop and cell phone LCD displays. In particular, E Ink’s technology doesn’t require backlighting, which results in roughly the same reflective quality as paper. That makes e-reader screens easy on the eyes.

This type of display technology also requires far less power than traditional displays. For example, the Readius, an e-reader from Dutch company Polymer Vision, claims to last 30 hours between charges.

Yet another advantage is that e-books are simple to update. Instead of waiting for a publisher to print a new edition or tech support to distribute an updated printed product manual, e-reader users can simply download updates. And up-to-date information is a key to success for many applications in the field, noted Michael McGuire, media analyst at Gartner.

“The challenge (for enterprises) is the frequency with which some content could change,” McGuire said.

The players

If there is a family tree for today’s e-books and e-readers, the root is Franklin. Started in the 1980s, the company launched its eBookman device during the dot-com crash of 2000-2001. Not surprisingly, given its poor timing, eBookman wasn’t a success.

Jump to 2005 when Sony introduced its $300 Reader, a device that looks like a book and uses a six-inch E Ink display. Sony updated its $300 reader in 2006. Late in 2006, after much fanfare, Amazon — which got its start selling books online – introduced its Kindle e-reader. This $400 device allows people to peruse periodicals such as The New York Times, blogs, books and other text-based material. Unlike Sony’s Reader, the Kindle includes a free 3G wireless connection for downloading books and other publications from Amazon. Also unlike Sony’s device, Amazon doesn’t offer native support for PDF e-books, a shortcoming it overcomes with a service that converts documents to Kindle’s proprietary format for a small fee.

A third e-reader, the iRex Iliad ($700), offers a large 8.1-inch, 768 x 1024 screen. The device has built-in Wi-Fi, along with support for HTML and PDF files. The larger screen and Wi-Fi connectivity make this particular e-reader attractive to corporate users, according to Ross Rubin of the market research firm NPD.

Business applications

Given that publishers are selling e-books to consumers, it follows that the publishing industry is among the first to give e-readers a try for their internal operations. If the experience of publishers is any indication, e-readers should have a bright future in the enterprise.

Simon & Schuster sells e-books for the Sony Reader and it also uses the devices in its sales and editorial departments. In the past, distribution of manuscripts to sales representatives was accomplished through snail mail. Today, the publisher uses a pull distribution model. Sales reps connect to a database, choose the manuscripts they want, and download the material to their e-readers. Editors use Sony’s reader to share manuscripts and obtain opinions.

“Using the e-reader really cuts down on the amount of copying and schlepping involved for the editors,” said Simon & Schuster’s Rothberg. “The reaction has been very favorable. Once you begin reading, the content takes over and the fact that you are scrolling rather than turning pages is quickly forgotten.”

Besides publishers, a number of schools are adopting e-readers as a way for students to save money. Earlier this year, The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth began selling e-books along with paper-based textbooks. One biology book that normally costs a hefty $161 now costs only $61 in e-book format.

Another nascent use of e-books is in the healthcare industry. CliniComp International, which develops electronic records systems, recently was awarded a U.S. government contract to convert patients’ charts to PDF files that can be easily sent to hospitals in the U.S. or worldwide and read with e-readers. The company is now working with the Veterans Administration to develop a way to transfer medical records directly from the Iraqi battlefield to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany.

Obstacles For E-Readers

Although E-readers are starting to appear on the radar screens of businesses, obstacles to widespread adoption remain.

NPD’s Rubin noted that the perfect business-oriented e-reader would have the wireless connectivity of the Kindle and the power of a tablet PC. However, he added that it also would need better search capability and support for both PDF and HTML.

One key roadblock to adoption is that e-book vendors are focusing on consumers, not on business. As a result, many books on the New York Times bestseller list are, or soon will be, available as e-books, but that isn’t the case for thrillers such as ‘The Field Manual For Satellite Dish Realignment.’ One reason for that is the widespread use of other types of devices.

“For vertical market apps, a tablet PC or good old notebook PC might be better,” Gartner’s McGuire said.

Another issue could be called the consumer-first policy for technology adoption in the enterprise. As was the case with the iPod, Wi-Fi and Skype, support within companies for new types of devices often evolves only after employees start using those devices on their own for work-related tasks. Given that tendency, enterprises may well wait for e-readers to be used more widely by consumers.

“As folks buy these devices, enterprises will begin to publish to them — as we’ve seen with the iPod,” Melissa Webster, digital media analyst at IDC, said.

Yet another problem blocking the e-reader’s path into business is poor graphics quality. For instance, NPD’s Rubin, who tested the Kindle, said he was disappointed when reading an e-book by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert. Graphs and images available to readers of the paper version were missing from the e-book, he said.

To address this failing, Adobe, the vendor behind the PDF format, is introducing a e-book software suite with enhanced graphics.

E-readers, then, are in that early stage in their appeal to enterprises: There are many potential advantages to companies, but also many impediments to adoption. So the question remains: Will e-readers ever span the gap between paper documents and laptops in the enterprise? As more big players like Sony and become involved, and as more enterprises dip their toes in the e-reader waters, that answer may become clear before long.

Ed Sutherland is a freelance writer who for years has commented on the rise-and-fall of countless technologies.


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