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New e-readers get a big push

Amazon's Kindle, the electronic book reader

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Kai Ryssdal: Entrepreneurs have been trying to figure out better ways to get the printed word into people's hands ever since Gutenberg printed that first Bible 500 years ago. The latest evolution -- the e-reader -- has been around for a while. And so far, sales have been fine. But that may be changing, as Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman tells us from the Entrepreneurship Desk at Oregon Public Broadcasting.


MITCHELL HARTMAN: When you go looking for e-readers these days, there are only two choices with any depth on their e-bookshelves: Sony and Amazon. In spite of its clunky buttons, Sony's "Reader" has been dubbed "sleek and sexy" by tech reviewers. As for Amazon's Kindle 2, company VP Ian Freed says it offers lots of market muscle, and all the benefits of Wi-Fi.

IAN FREED: We put an advanced cell phone radio in the Kindle, which means wherever you are, you can actually shop from the Kindle and get books delivered in under 60 seconds.

It even knows how to read out loud!

E-BOOK: On the island once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. And it has been told in another book called "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," how they had a remarkable adventure...

Imagine that for 250 pages. Still, Wall Street analysts seem impressed with the rest of the Kindle's technology, as well as a new app for the iPhone. But new competition is coming. Fujitsu is launching a $1,000 color reader, it'll be great for graphic novels and surfing the Web. The game-changer, though, could come from Silicon Valley start-up Plastic Logic early next year.

RICHARD ARCHULETA: You can bend it, you can roll it, and the image stays on there.

Plastic Logic CEO Richard Archuleta is waving one of his e-reader prototypes in the air. It's like a letter-sized pad of paper and just about as flexible. The screen isn't glass so it won't break if you drop it or jam it in a briefcase. It's got Wi-Fi and a touch screen. You can load and annotate textbooks, Word documents, whatever.

ARCHULETA: What you see with the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader and other products on the market, is they don't do a great job at letting you work with the documents that you create yourself.

Sounds like Archuleta wants to offer us more or less, a laptop computer, instead. Which technology analyst Carl Howe of the Yankee Group says makes perfect sense.

CARL HOWE: If people can stop thinking about them as it's a way to read a book, and start thinking about them as a way that they can read not only books but also newspapers and Web sites and blogs, then I think we might be seeing a more mainstream product.

And mainstream media companies are already getting involved. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp is reportedly working on a large-format color e-reader. The Hearst Corporation's got one in the works as well. They're hoping to sell paid subscriptions for their online newspapers and magazines. One possible model: you'll get the media content as a package deal for the first year. News would update and download automatically to the company's e-reader, which you'd have to buy first, of course. Figuring out what to charge won't be easy, though. David Carnoy of CNET thinks putting the right price on the Kindle, has been Amazon's biggest challenge.

DAVID CARNOY: It's over $400 to buy one of these things, and obviously a lot of people are saying, well, in a year I don't buy $400 worth of books.

I asked Ian Freed if Amazon's price might come down?

FREED: No. The Kindle is a great value, being able to take 1,500 books with you, getting New York Times bestsellers and most new releases for $9.99 or less. We have no plans to do that.

Yankee Group analyst Carl Howe thinks the right price is more like $100 to $200, if that.

HOWE: The best way to market these products is simply, if you buy enough books from my bookstore, then you get the book reader for free.

It might take a giveaway to get consumers to cart around yet another electronic device for their reading material. After all, why pay a few hundred dollars just to read stuff you can increasingly get on your netbook or even your cell phone.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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