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Get set for cheap, or free e-readers

When you bought a book last time, how much did you pay for the paper? Is that a question? Because when we pay for a writer’s work, the cost of the paper is built into it — because it is only a fraction of the total bill, writes N Madhavan.

india Updated: Jun 20, 2010 22:25 IST
N Madhavan

When you bought a book last time, how much did you pay for the paper?

Is that a question? Because when we pay for a writer’s work, the cost of the paper is built into it — because it is only a fraction of the total bill.

The analogy comes to mind as I discuss the future of e-reader devices on which you can store and read books. Originally clunky, e-readers are getting better on looks and design, and are easier on the eye.

Things turned hot last week when media baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp acquired a little known firm called Skiff LLC that makes e-readers. Amazon kickstarted the e-reader with its Kindle. The Sony Reader and bookseller Barnes & Noble’s Nook and India’s Pi (for vernacular languages) all sell at around Rs. 10,000. Apple’s iPad, launched in April, now towers over them all, with the e-reader part of a tablet computer.

It is only a question of time before iPad clones and e-readers both turn cheaper.

If you want proof, look at MP3 music players. My Apple iPod that cost the equivalent of Rs. 18,000 when it was bought now comes at less than half its price, while its clones are much cheaper. Now you can buy an MP3 player for as low as Rs 200.

In Europe this year, I noticed that my prediction in 2009 came true.

Now you have MP3 players bundled with special music selections like Beethoven compositions. You can imagine a similar future for e-readers — and that’s what Murdoch is betting on. His News Corp is defending quality content.

Skiff is significant because it is said to be friendly to various devices — and more important, is basically software-oriented and can possibly be device neutral and easily downloadable.

I expect content (like magazine subscriptions and bundles of e-books) to be sold much like telecom services now, first by the likes of News Corp but eventually by others.

In such a model, the device price will be built into content price because, like paper incidental in a printed book, the e-reader will become incidental to the content.

Much like handsets being offered with service plans in mobile telephony, you can expect e-readers with content service plans.

Effectively, e readers could thus come at cheap rates, or even free.