The year 2009 has been an exciting one for electronic devices. In a little more than two years, the iPhone has redefined the mobile phone in the United States, and Apple Inc.'s iPod Touch has done the same thing for music players.
Now comes the e-reader. Amazon.com's Kindle, iRex's large-display readers and Plastic Logic's forthcoming display are being adopted by book and newspaper publishers in Europe and in North America.
In Asia, Sony, Samsung, Fujitsu and LG are all marketing e-readers, some solar-powered and one, Fujitsu's, sporting full-color display.
Meantime, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. is reported to have held talks with Japanese and Korean suppliers about forming a joint venture to manufacture an e-reader suitable for his large stable of newspapers and books.
It's a long way from 1981, when Roger Fidler, now at the University of Missouri, first promoted the concept of a portable digital display. When I first watched his enthusiastic e-reader presentation, I was skeptical. I was wrong. Roger was right.
Amazon's Jeff Bezos recently stated that 35 percent of the books now available on Kindle are sold only as electronic versions, an extraordinary percentage. This comes as a number of U.S. publishers report that new subscribers favor e-editions rather than printed papers when offered the choice. These subscriptions also usually generate higher levels of conversion and retention.
In France, a number of national publishers are now working together to offer readers broad e-reader access to their newspapers. The services now under consideration include comprehensive content and other information tailored to the user's specific device.
Still, the most important indicator measuring the success of e-readers is the most basic: sales. Amazon said it expects to sell more than 1.7 million Kindles this year, with total device sales expected to top 6 million in the United States alone, more than double 2008's total.
And this doesn't even take into account the e-reader wild card: Apple Inc. Having already transformed the mobile phone and music player, Apple is widely expected to introduce its own e-reader next year. If the Apple mystique can be transferred to an e-reader, then sales could explode.
Today, around 1,500 newspapers worldwide produce a digital edition of their paper that could readily exploit the e-reader concept.
The easiest route forward is to believe that current print formats or even Web sites can easily migrate to the e-reader environment. This might be a good, inexpensive start for newspapers to consider, but it will not exploit the advantages the e-reader interface offers.
In the meantime, more research is required to more accurately pinpoint how readers - and advertisers - can benefit from digital displays.
Additionally, e-readers give newspaper publishers the opportunity to redefine digital distribution pricing models. Should the reader pay per story? By title? A package of articles or pages, from a range of titles?
There is also the issue of how e-readers might be offered to consumers. Should newspapers provide the devices for free, or at a greatly reduced price, akin to how telcos traditionally marketed mobile phones?
A final factor, which is an ongoing theme of mine.As the French have discovered, by working together as an industry, publishers can save money, maximize their marketing ability and even gain some leverage from both the device manufacturers and the greedy telcos.
Perhaps there's a chance for publishers worldwide to band together to create a body that could advise manufacturers and telcos about the standards they need as well as posit pricing models.
And who knows? Someone might actually get paid for their digital efforts.
Jim Chisholm is a principal of iMedia, WAN-Ifra's joint venture advisory service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org