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Smart phones write a new chapter in e-books market

September 07, 2009|Associated Press

A few weeks ago, Pasquale Castaldo was waiting at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport for a delayed flight when a man sitting across from him pulled out an Amazon Kindle book-reading device.

"Gee, maybe I should think about e-books myself," thought Castaldo, 54.

He didn't have a Kindle, but he did have a BlackBerry. He pulled it out and looked for available applications. Sure enough, Barnes & Noble Inc. had just put up an e-reading program. Castaldo downloaded it, and within a minute, began reading Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

As others are also discovering, the North Haven, Conn., banker found e-books quite accessible without a Kindle.

"The BlackBerry is always with me," Castaldo said. "Rather than just sitting there, if I can fill that time by reading a good book, I might do that, in addition to doing the other things I might do, like reading e-mail and Twittering."

Thanks to Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle, e-book sales are finally zooming, after more than a decade in the doldrums.

But the pioneering device may not dominate the market for long. As Castaldo found, many phones are now sophisticated enough, and have good enough screens, to be used as e-book reading devices. In addition, e-book reading on computers is already surprisingly popular.

E-book sales reported to the Assn. of American Publishers have been rising sharply since the beginning of 2008, just after the release of the Kindle. It's the best sustained growth the industry has seen since the International Digital Publishing Forum began tracking sales in 2002 -- a sign that e-books finally could be about to break into the mainstream.

U.S. trade e-book sales in the April to June period this year more than tripled from the amount a year ago, as reported by about a dozen publishers.

Total reported sales at wholesale prices were $37.6 million. That's less than 2% of the overall book market, but the number understates e-book sales because not all publishers contribute to the report.

The most well-known dedicated reading devices, the Kindle and Sony Corp.'s Reader, try to emulate the look of the printed page with a display technology known as "electronic ink."

While many find the result pleasant to read, e-ink also imposes limitations on the devices. They can't be backlighted like other screens. They can't show color. They're also slow to update, making them difficult to use for Web browsing or other computer activities.

The Kindle has a wireless connection directly to Amazon's store, meaning users can buy and download books to the device within minutes, much like Castaldo could do on his smart phone. The Reader lacks a wireless capability and thus needs to be connected to a computer to load books.

Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps said that while the Kindle has sparked interest in e-books, downloads of e-reading applications for smart phones have far outnumbered the Kindles sold.

The Stanza app for the iPhone and the iPod Touch, for instance, has been downloaded more than 2 million times since last summer, compared with Rotman Epps' estimate of more than 900,000 Kindles sold through the first quarter of this year.

"There will be a market for dedicated reading devices, but there's potentially an even bigger market for reading on devices that people already own, like smart phones," she said.

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