Should libraries get into the e-reader hardware business in time?

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I’m rooting for Good E-Reader to succeed with the proposed Ultimate Android e-ink tablet. Props to TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows for the generosity he has shown in his analysis of the Ultimate.

If a small e-book site can indeed pull this stunt off—Chris correctly notes the scary obstacles and isn’t betting on it—imagine what this could mean for libraries. A library consortium could contract with an e-reader manufacturer and first-rate techies to create Android hardware optimized for e-reading and other library and K-12 apps.

Unfortunately the Ultimate won’t offer text to speech, a feature AWOL from Amazon’s recent E Ink readers, but a library-marketed e-reader could include TTS. Also, the library version could come in different screen sizes.  And privacy could be baked in from the start—or at least more than Amazon and friends offer.

Given the thousands of school and public libraries out there, not to mention the higher-ed variety, a library e-reader could enjoy a built-in marketing advantage that the Good E-Reader project lacks.

No, the idea wouldn’t be to supply a library e-reader for every patron or expect every patron to buy the devices, especially at a time when so many people read e-books on tablets and smart phones rather than on Kindles and other dedicated e-readers.

But again, if Good E-Reader can defy the skeptics and succeed, libraries would at least know that some kind of market existed. And not just for libraries, but small companies beyond the current ones offering Android-capable E Ink readers.

Those competing against Amazon, B&N and Kobo will have to struggle hard to deal with issues such as technical support—could this be contracted out?—but they also will have a built-in tailwind. The big boys offer the readers to encourage purchases of the books these companies sell. That means limiting easy access only to their own book inventories. But a library e-reader or one from a small entrepreneur wouldn’t face that same challenge.

As for prices, they are high right now—the Ultimate e-Reader is to go for $189.99. But eventually they will drop. Hardware will matter less; software and content choices will count more.

Meanwhile TeleRead’s Joanna Cabot has nicely summed up the challenges as she sees them: “…most general readers don’t care about eInk all that much—and even here in Canada where the $50 Fire Tablet has yet to arrive, my full-colour plain vanilla Android tablet came in at $30 less than this device’s proposed price. I just can’t see most people paying more for a black and white device. There is a niche market of die-hard eInk lovers out there who perhaps do care enough, but I think it is very small compared to the quantity of people who will just buy a cheap tablet and glory in its versatility and full color.”

Exactly. That is no small part of what makes the Good E-Reader project so iffy right now. But if e-paper technology improves to the extent I expect and if color and faster-responding screens becomes truly affordable, then the landscape could change.

So library organizations such as the innovation-friendly Colorado Library Consortium, as well as the New York Public Library and the Digital Public Library of America, would do well to watch the Good E-Reader project very carefully to see what lessons they can learn.

The DPLA has been encouraged people to create apps for it. The existence of a library-promoted and –marketed hardware platform could only whet interest  in DPLA-related hacking. More importantly, it could make the library e-reading experience more seamless, Amazon fashion, while still granting readers access to Android apps from many sources. Including E Ink-optimized ones.

For the Good E-Reader’s campaign on Indiegogo, the fund-raising goal is $220K. That is a fraction of what the millions DPLA has spent so far. Moreover the DPLA has focused more on libraries for research than on libraries as sources of material for immersive reading. A really good e-reader could promote the latter goal. And not just in the U.S., once prices decline enough. Think of the developing countries where millions could benefit from affordable, book-friendly E Ink devices with long battery lives and thus no need for frequent recharging at home.

Detail: The original TeleRead proposal in 1992 called for an e-reading-optimized library tablet.

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