E-readers are a lightweight and portable substitute to lugging around books. A look at the nascent Indian market for these devices.

It is estimated that nearly half the world's electronic readers, popularly known as e-readers, are made out of China. And we're not talking about a manufacturing base for multinationals but home-grown Chinese mainland technology companies that have stormed the e-reader market in the past two years: news reports indicate that China has 41 e-readers in the market, compared to a total of over 80 worldwide.

India, however, made its maiden entry into this segment early this year when an Ahmedabad-based e-commerce firm, Infibeam, released India's first e-reader Pi. Close on its heels was another product released last month by EC Media, the technology company started by DC Books, a Kerala-based publishing house. For DC books, that has been in the publishing world for 36 years, creating a device that is “accessible and for the Indian market” was about embracing technology. But its USP was what it was best at, the regional market, which is why its first release provided language support for 15 regional languages for at least 14 different file formats (subsequent releases of Pi too offer language support for up to 13 languages).

As niche as this segment may be, makers of Wink believe this is an important one, one that they believe will drive the transition for book lovers from ‘paper ink' to e-ink (the display technology that e-reader screens work on).

So, Wink — short for the concept that aims at doing away with traditional printing ink ‘Without Ink' — is a multi-functional e-book reader. Though we have not seen the reader Pi, a short preview of Wink reveals that it is an easy-to-use reader with a six-inch screen, GPRS and wi-fi connectivity options, USB 2.0, internal memory of 2 gigabytes (expandable to 16 via SD card) and throws in a range of features — from MP3 player and in-built speakers to a few games. It is powered by an ARM processor and uses a Linux 2.6 operating system. It offers a wide range of titles, around 300,000 till date, and has tie-ups with around 30 publishers.

No less than 10 per cent of this content offered are titles in regional languages, says Rajesh K.S., associate vice-president, EC Media Private Limited. Rajesh also points to a news aggregator that is provided that subscribes to news feeds for which it has partnered with news wire agency IANS (Indo-Asian News Service). “What we want people to know is that it's not a Tablet, nor is it a computing device. Yes, we understand that the Indian consumer wants features, so we offer features that allow you to browse, check e-mail or listen to music. But primarily, we want people to get used to using this as a lightweight (it's around 260 grams) and portable substitute to lugging around their books,” says Rajesh.

How does Wink work? It's simple. Like the Kindle, the device that transformed the way people read abroad (devices before Kindle were only able to tickle the curiosity of the more tech-savvy), Wink offers a Wink Store (Pi too has one on Infibeam.com). So you get connected through wi-fi, mobile internet or a landline connection and browse. Add books to your cart, and once the purchase is made you can read offline.

If connectivity is an issue you can also purchase the books on your desktop and later transfer it to your device. The Wink can store up to 4,000 books at any time.

Ecosystem

Rajesh points out that Wink's greatest advantage is that they are “book people.” If we look at e-book reading in India, content is a huge challenge. “We have a dedicated team that is working on digitising content, particularly vernacular content. We believe that we can help small and independent publishers by helping them embrace a new platform. Driving this change is important to us,” he says emphatically. “Like the Kindle did when it was launched (given it belonged to Amazon.com), we have the ecosystem for it. And therein lies our advantage.”

Pi, an e-reader that was released earlier this year, may not have this readymade ecosystem but it did well. Company sources said that it sold close to 10,000 readers in just a few months.

An initiative by Vishal Mehta, who had worked with Amazon.com before starting this venture, it is tied to the Infibeam e-book store which offers around 500,000 titles, says Neeru Sharma, who heads corporate development at Infibeam.

However, how will a device priced around Rs. 11,000 get readers to make this switch? Moreover, bigger brands such as Kindle are priced in the same range. So why Wink?

Here's why: While Kindle has reduced its device price over the past year, the cost of e-books (which is what you will be spending on in the long term) has gone up. “When they started, Kindle's USP was that their books are in the range of $ 9.99. While they reduced device cost, they upped the book cost to $ 14.99. This did not deter consumers in the U.S., but in India I think that's a huge amount to pay for many titles.”

So, several titles that are priced at $ 14.99 on Amazon are on offer for 60 per cent of the cost on the Wink store. Classics are particularly cheap with many books available for as low as Rs. 50, he points out. Further, Kindle offers neither language support nor the wide range of features that these devices offer.

Non-proprietary alternatives

Even in China, where devices are aplenty and the market is competitive, the price of devices continues to be high. Around 40-45 per cent of the device cost lies in the proprietary e-ink technology. Currently, an open source alternative to this technology called Sipex is under way. “If Sipex delivers, e-readers will become cheaper and we'll see some real transformation in the market.” Another game-changer could be the introduction of touch-screen to e-ink screens, something that is on the anvil.

Privacy concerns

Last year, when Amazon ‘remotely deleted' two book titles ‘Animal Farm' and ‘1984' by George Orwell from Kindle devices following some copyright issues, it sparked a controversy. The irony was not lost on angry users who termed the move Orwellian and claimed that once purchased companies cannot control their data. More importantly, it brought to the fore the fact that on an e-platform companies could actually track what you are reading.

However, given that the Indian devices are meant “more for offline use,” these issues may not be as important. Rajesh concedes that they will analyse trends and reading patterns, that is to see what people are buying and what kind of content works in the market. But the bigger privacy issue here is that of DRM (Digital Rights Management) protection for publishers. “We have our own DRM encryption technology. So, once a book is received, we ensure its metadata is captured at our server level and file format is locked in a particular algorithm. When a download happens the server authenticates if it is a genuine purchase from a registered device.”

This is important because if there are leakages at this point, publishers will be reluctant to be part of this technological endeavour as they stand to lose, he explains.

Keywords: The Edgee-readere-books