Now, two technology giants appear to be on the verge of betting against the old-fashioned book. As Times reporter Brad Stone noted, next month Amazon.com will unveil the Kindle, "an electronic book reader that has been the subject of industry speculation for a year, according to several people who have tried the device and are familiar with Amazon's plans. The Kindle will be priced at $400 to $500 and will wirelessly connect to an e-book store on Amazon's site."
That alone is a considerable advance, wrote Stone, since older e-books had to connect to computers to download any material.
"Also this fall, Google plans to start charging users for full online access to the digital copies of some books in its database ... . Publishers will set the prices for their own books and share the revenue with Google. So far, Google has made only limited excerpts of copyrighted books available to its users."
Stone couldn't get anybody at either company to comment further on the plans; but even if they do take off, no one expects them to cut significantly into "the $35-billion-a-year book business." Still, these developments may give technology watchers some sense of where consumers stand vis-à-vis digital screens.
Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupitor Research, told the Times that he's skeptical about a profitable e-book market arising anytime soon. "We have had dedicated e-book devices on the market for more than a decade, and the payoff always seems to be just a few years away." He also noted that books continue to represent a good value for consumers.
Stone then traced the "disappointing history" of e-books back to the late 1900s when Silicon Valley start-ups introduced the RocketBook and SoftBook Reader, bulky devices that tanked pretty quickly. But Stone noted that hopes for e-books revived last year with the appearance of the widely marketed Sony Reader, "a $300 gadget, the size of a trade paperback, [that] has a six-inch screen, enough memory to hold 80 books and a battery that lasts for 7,500 page turns, according to the company."
Sony wouldn't say how many they have sold, but the Reader, according to Stone, has apparently done well enough for Sony to have pumped some extra cash into the advertising budget for the device.
Stone also found out that Barnes & Noble plans to compete with Google and Amazon in their forays into electronics.
The field is obviously wide open and raring to go.