E-Books Squabble, But They Don't Sell Out

A new lawsuit makes one wonder why there's a frenzy over electronic readers

By Owen Thomas
|  Tuesday, Nov 3, 2009  |  Updated 2:15 PM PDT
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E-Books Squabble, But They Don't Sell Out

A host of lookalike electronic readers are sparking legal action, if not sales.

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There's a Vook, a Nook, and a Que. There's a handful of Kindles and Sonys -- and something Cool-ER. And don't forget Alex!

The supply of electronic readers -- gadgets that let you read books, newspapers, and magazines -- is exploding, with Amazon.com, Sony, Barnes & Noble, and a host of publishers either entering the business or strongly considering it.

But where's the demand? Readers of books, physical or virtual, are hardly a growth market; the audience for literary works has long been declining, at an accelerating pace in recent decades.

Even more ridiculous than the profusion of e-book readers is a lawsuit filed by a Silicon Valley startup over one of them. Spring Design, a Cupertino, Calif.-based company, is suing Barnes & Noble over its Nook device. Both the Nook and Spring Design's hastily introduced Alex have dual screens, and Spring claims that Barnes & Noble "misappropriated" its design after the companies met in the spring of this year.

Even if Spring proves its allegations, so what? Being a pioneer in the e-book market strikes me as a poor prize indeed.

Take Amazon.com, maker of the Kindle. By one bullish Wall Street estimate, Amazon might sell 2.7 million Kindles next year. But even at those numbers, spottings of Kindles in the real will remain scarce. Unlike Apple's ubiquitious iPods and iPhones, sightings of celebrities toting Kindles are few and far between.

Indeed, the most successful e-reader may prove to be the iPhone, not the Kindle. Amazon smartly hedged its bets by introducing a software version of the Kindle that runs on the iPhone. And as netbooks get smaller and cheaper, it's hard to see why people would load their backpacks and purses with separate devices.

The Kindle may end up finding a niche, especially on college campuses where it might replace a heavy, expensive load of textbooks. But niches don't make for big markets. And as Spring Design and Barnes & Noble are likely to find out if their lawsuit drags on, only big markets are worth fighting over.

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