A Chinese company is developing an e-reader, it hopes will emulate the success of the Amazon Kindle. (Not a good machine and not the device that will lead the revolution. At the moment the iPhone and the iPod Touch are showing the way it can be done and next month, almost for certain sure, will be available in a larger format.)
Hanwang Technology is aiming for an October launch of the e-reader, which will have a 6-inch screen and support China’s homegrown 3G mobile standard.
Lu Jianying, a product manager in Hanwang’s international business section said the company is cooperating on the device with China Mobile which is promoting — or, if you prefer, lumbered with — TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access). But Lu Jianying added Hanwang could switch the device to support other 3G standards for sale outside China.
And other makers should be a tad worried for this has a fair chance of success because of the immense experience and expertise that lies behind it. So far it only offers e-readers that plug into a PC to load books and other content but the company’s e-readers include entertainment and other functions uncommon in rival devices.
Hanwang’s latest e-reader, targeted at students, plays songs and displays comic-style cartoons in addition to e-books. It also has language study features such as multiple Chinese-English dictionaries and an option to display translations beside the original text for some books.
Hanwang e-readers also let users scribble notes in their e-books with a stylus and store or erase them later. They allow voice recording and playback and can read e-books out loud to users. Hanwang also aims to launch an e-reader with a 9-inch screen in October.
Sadly Hanwang e-readers use digital paper display technology from E Ink, the same technology used by the Amazon Kindle which, as the Bible tells us, allows you to look at the type darkly. But there are new technologies like that of Apple which allow you to do it face-to-face. That is the first problem, but can pretty easily be overcome.
The devices are expensive. Hanwang’s e-reader for students costs RMB2,880 (US$422) which is a silly and unattractive price. Something nearer a quarter of that would be the go.
As Hanwang looks to sell half a million readers in China this year, plainly the savings of scale and competition from other makers will bring that price down with a run.
Frances Guan, an analyst at In-Stat China says that competition from free content makes it more difficult to earn revenue by selling e-books in China. Perhaps. Possibly. Maybe. That is what publishers have been telling him.
The Luddite attitude towards e-readers of the world’s publishers is not as surprising as one would think. They do not want their cozy worlds disturbed.
When Penguin books were launched in Britain in 1935, no bookseller in the country would touch them. They were warned by book publishers that these were devices of the devil. Designed specifically to bring down a glorious — and highly profitable — industry. What saved Penguins and brought paperbacks as we know them was Woolworths. As so it was a cheapjack chain that started the paperback revolution that made book publishers so much money. Booksellers came later. They pretty much always do.
The same attitude is arising with e-readers.
Publishers are aghast that these devices might be used to copy books and cut into their profits. That they will, there is no possible doubt. Publishers have to bite the bullet and find a way to work with the new technology.
Books, like computer software and DVDs, are widely pirated and sold at subway entrances and indoor bazaars in China. Pirated copies of everything from the Harry Potter series to self-help books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People are peddled on street corners in major cities, sometimes for little more than $1. But this is also true of countries outside China. Not peddled on street corners but certainly available all over the internet.
Many Chinese consumers are already seriously into reading material on their mobile phones. Beijing commuters often stand lined in subway cars with their heads lowered toward text-filled screens on a mobile phone or Sony PSP.
Yahoo Tech asked how Hanwang would combat competition from pirated e-books (a singularly daft question from a reporter who plainly knows sod all about the situation).
Lu, the company product manager, said it could not block users from downloading certain online content but that its future e-readers will have some sort of digital management control.
Providing the price is right it will work. And work very well.