In China, reading has evolved from historic oracle-bone inscriptions, to bronze inscriptions, to writing on bamboo slips, to writing on paper - and now comes another once-in-a-millennium revolution, the dawn of the e-paper era, said BenQ vice chairman Jerry Wang recently. And while those in ancient China who were learned were dubbed "having read five cartloads of books," the updated compliment may be measured by "5G (gigabytes)" worth of books, which is the equivalent of 50,000 books, Wang pointed out.
The development of e-paper is expected to eventually replace most printed media – from books, newspapers to magazines, and everything from black & white to color materials. Some types of related display screens are also being implemented as electronic tags and/or information display panels.
The rise of e-books will restructure the publishing industry, with paper mills, print shops, conventional publishers, book distributors and bookstores having the potential to gradually disappear, while makers of e-paper and display panels will help publishers integrate and market content online, and non-professionals will take a DIY approach to publishing their writing.
However, the recent launch of the iPad has caused uncertainty for the business outlook of e-books. Compared with tablet PCs, e-book readers require no backlight sources, have minimum CPU and memory requirements, feature low power consumption and weigh only about 230 grams. But although e-book readers and tablet PCs are different in functional appeal and usage environments, the segments can still work together to develop the market, despite having some unavoidable competition. The launch of the iPad is expected to jump start demand for e-books. In addition, the production cost of e-readers may drop as the market becomes more competitive and e-paper technology improves, resulting in ever increasing demand for the hardware.
Market opportunities and challenges
The market for e-books consists of two segments – e-book content and e-readers – and there are different business models in play by companies looking to tap the market. Some firms sell e-reader hardware only, while other sell e-readers preinstalled with e-books, or just sell content, or market a service-oriented subscription that integrates hardware and software.
According to Wang, the annual sales value of various publications in Taiwan is estimated to be NT$40 billion (US$1.24 billion) currently, with 2% of the total attributed to e-books. There are 8,000 publishers and 40,000 new books published a year in Taiwan currently, with 6,000 or 15% of the new books being best sellers of which more than half are translated from foreign-language books. While some publishers are interested in the Taiwan e-book market, others are just keeping an eye on developments, but most are technologically incapable of converting printed books into digital content for use in e-books. Therefore the total volume of e-books is increasing slowly.
The current annual market value of publications in China is estimated to be 40 billion yuan (US$5.9 billion) including 170 million yuan for e-books, and copyright protection is a complicated issue. In China, the Ministry of Culture, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television as well as the General Administration of Press and Publication are in charge of publication content, but the Internet is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, resulting in a lack of integrated authority for administrating e-book business operations. In addition, content sales are often based on franchises and foreign companies are unable to obtain licenses to publish in the market. There are about 10 such licensees currently, with two being for private enterprises and the others being state-run businesses. In addition to these problems, an e-book sells for only 2-7 yuan only and there are many pirated editions, making business operations for companies looking to profit on e-books substantially difficult.
Reading Experience Is Essential
The successful development of the e-book market and related technology hinges on consumers' reading experience, namely, the combination of content and readers. There have been various types of content, including conventional media, online novels, blogs as well as multimedia incorporating text, data, images and even music.
Apart from the diversity of content, reading comes in many modes. For example, consumers can purchase needed content to edit into personal travel handbooks based on their travel plans; publishers can sell content by separate chapters/sections or topics; consumers can finish reading a book using e-readers, PCs, handsets or other devices at any time and any place. This will be a brand-new reading experience for consumers.
In order for consumers to have such reading experience, commercial models should provide "one-touch e-book shopping," a simple user interface to finish purchases, reading and collection of books without a complicated procedure. This accounts for the success of the Amazon Kindle.
As for reader hardware, the user interface should be based on an intuitive operation and should be equipped with functions such as smart search, remark and comment as well as multi-language support. Readers can be pocket sizes for being conveniently held in one hand; able to store up to 30,000 books; as light as a real book; and able to last as long as two weeks before charging with a USB connection.
One-touch book shopping entails engineering integration of hardware with content, involving operating systems, middleware, application programs, online bookstores and digital data processing. BenQ is establishing the world's first Chinese-language integrated online bookstore, the eBook, to provide library services based on cloud computing and quick page-editing tools, allowing consumers to use one touch to connect their e-book readers with eBook.
The eBook platform entails input of many technologies, including DRM (digital rights management), a high-definition and high-compression conversion process, marketing management for selling content by chapters/sections of a book to broaden scope of choices for consumers as well as support for various formats including ePub, EBI, PDF, TXT, PNG and JPG to minimize costs of converting formats.
BenQ will continue enriching the content at eBook, with 7,000 simplified-Chinese books, 100 cartoon books, three Chinese-language magazines and 40 seller magazines becoming available in July 2010, as well as daily additions of a list 1,500 traditional-Chinese books. There will be 100,000 books in English and other European languages in September and 1,000 cartoon books at the end of 2010.
The efforts aforementioned are to maintain the enjoyable experience users currently have with purchasing and reading printed books. BenQ hold the concept that reading is the actual purpose while being in electronic form is merely a means to that end.
(This article was based on a speech given by BenQ during Computex Taipei 2010)