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Why e-books are bound to fail

Electronic books pack bleeding-edge technology, too bad they'll never catch on

April 27, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - E-books, those flat electronic tablets designed for reading downloadable, software-based books, are often packed with advanced displays and other leading-edge technology.

Every time a new e-book comes out, a ripple of chatter spreads through the gadget enthusiast community. Technology news sites cover such product and research announcements like major news, similar to the announcement of a new iPod or smart phone. Engadget and Gizmodo blog them without fail. Even The New York Times tech columnist David Pogue and The Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg have taken the time to test and review e-books.

Companies like Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi and Fujitsu have devoted millions of dollars over the past couple of decades developing what they hope will be a device that replaces the paper book -- the first disruptive shift in the way people read books since the Gutenberg Bible in the 15th century.

Here's a lineup of the major e-books on the market (or almost on the market):

Sony Reader

eRead StarEBook

Jinke Electronics HanLin eBook

iRex iLiad

Panasonic Words Gear

Bookeen Cybook

Hitachi Albirey

Fujitsu Flepia

Unfortunately, these products -- as well as the whole product category -- are destined for failure.

Sure, there will always be tiny, vertical application niche markets for e-books. Wherever space or environmental constraints limit the practicality of paper books, and where lots of information needs to be at hand, e-books are ideal. For example, they're great for pilots or, say, scientists working in the Arctic. E-books that enable maximizing text size are a godsend for visually impaired readers.

E-book makers believe, as do millions of gadget fans, technology pundits, bookworms and journalists, that e-books will soon become a popular alternative to real, paper books for reading novels, nonfiction bestsellers and kiss-and-tell political memoirs. The idea is that once they perfect the display technology and strike the right balance of battery life, sunlight readability and form factor, we'll all start buying these things, and downloading our books.

Not gonna happen.

Why e-books will fail

There are many subtle, minor disadvantages to e-books. For example, they're expensive. The hardware costs hundreds of dollars. Worse, books tend not to be hugely discounted in electronic form. The paperback version of "The Google Story: Inside the Hottest Business, Media, and Technology Success of Our Time," by David A. Vise and Mark Malseed, costs $11.20 on The same book in electronic format on costs $9.95. You save $1.25. The reason is that the value of a book lies mostly in the intellectual property, not the wood pulp that constitutes the physical book. So e-books aren't cheaper.

Another huge barrier to the growth of the e-book market is that everyone already has alternatives. You can read written content on your PC -- in fact, you're doing it right now -- on tablet PCs, laptops, cell phones and PDAs.

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