E-readers to face tough fight against color tablets

Black-and-white e-readers have two years to establish foothold or get beaten by tablets

LAS VEGAS -- Up to 40 e-readers could hit the market in 2010, but the real question is whether any of them can grab a major foothold before tablet computers with e-reader functions and brilliant LED color screens obliterate them.

"A problem all the e-readers face is competition from tablets with LED color screens," James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research, said in an interview at the International CES 2010 trade show. "That's going to be a serious threat, and it is going to be hard for e-readers to be a stand-alone product set."

McQuivey estimated that e-readers, which are sold with black-and-white screens and many shades of gray to enhance prolonged periods of reading, have probably two years to stake a claim that lasts beyond the pressure that will come from color tablet displays.

The Skiff e-reader
The Skiff e-reader could face stiff competition once color tablet PCs become available.

The biggest threat could come from a color touch-screen tablet computer from Apple that's widely expected to appear before April, McQuivey said. Lenovo, meanwhile, showed its IdeaPad U1 this week, with a touch screen that can be detached and used as a Linux tablet computer.

The real concern is that consumers and business users will see the newest tablets as offering far superior color and graphics and give up on considering an e-reader, several analysts said.

While demonstrating the upcoming Skiff e-reader from Skiff LLC, President Gilbert Fuchsberg also showed how a Viliv tablet device with full color could also be used to access other content that Skiff will make available, including streaming video. McQuivey noted that when the Viliv demo was shown, the crowd of reporters and analysts gushed at the color quality and functionality compared with the black-and-white Skiff e-reader's. Skiff is also developing an e-reader publishing platform that will provide newspaper and magazine content to mobile devices.

"You can see by the crowd reaction what the e-readers are up against," McQuivey noted.

The Que from Plastic Logic was also announced at CES on Thursday. The device relies on black-and-white images; the high-end version will sell for up to $799.

Fuchsberg demonstrated a prototype of the Skiff using a color screen, but the images were dull and dark, and he said it will take a year to improve its brightness.

Asked why anyone would want a black-and-white e-reader if a full-functioning color tablet to read books and papers were available, Fuchsberg was ready to respond.

E-readers have great gray-scale resolution for displaying text that can be read for hours at a time, Fuchsberg said. They are also lighter to carry than tablets and can hold a battery charge for several days, or possibly a week.

In contrast, tablets might need to be recharged after a half-day or as little as two hours of use. Tablets also could weigh three to five pounds, compared with the Skiff e-reader's 17.75 oz., Fuchsberg said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, send e-mail to mhamblen@computerworld.com or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed .

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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