By Michael Fitzpatrick
The Kindle DX is designed for newspapers and periodicals - but is only black and white
Amazon's launch of its first dedicated e-reader for newspapers and magazines points to a future when digital and analogue publishing begins to merge.
Nearly double the size of the book giant's existing e-reader, Amazon's wireless Kindle DX has adopted a tabloid-like format for ease of reading newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times and the Washington Post which have announced they will launch pilots editions on Kindle DX this summer.
Although others, most notably the Japanese and the Dutch, have trials underway that publish tabloid-size digital editions for other handheld e-reader devices, Amazon with its mighty marketing clout represents the first mainstream commercial stab at the market.
Increased graphics resolution and the larger size of the tablet-like, the $489 Kindle DX is also a departure from previous e-readers on the market, although Japan's Fujitsu has a similar sized colour reader on the market for twice the price.
"Cookbooks, computer books, and textbooks - anything highly formatted -shine on the Kindle DX," claims Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com Founder and CEO underlining the new Kindle's purported better handling of detail and graphics.
Amazon already has a hit on its hands with the Kindle 2. The same heft as a paperback, weighing about eight ounces, such e-ink readers are basically handheld screens on which you can read words page by page reasonably comfortably.
Amazon says it has already sold more than 500,000 of its $359 Kindle e-readers, which buyers use mostly as a portable library downloading print media via a wireless connection.
The new Kindle DX, like other popular e-readers such as the Sony reader, employs "e-ink" technology that far enhances the reading of digitized print.
Sony has a rival e-reader on the market
As there is no backlight and no glare, the effect is not unlike reading a page in a regular book. Publications are bought online making paid subscriptions, along the lines of paid for music on iTunes, a possibility.
Such benefits have not been lost on newspaper editors who are desperate to find alternatives to today's failing business models of newspaper publishing.
Alan Rusbridger, the editor of UK newspaper The Guardian, for one, has predicted there might be an "iPod moment" for the industry with the coming of a handheld device on which reading a newspaper will become commonplace.
However excited some in the ailing newspaper and magazine industry are over the new Kindle, there are still severe shortcomings, not least that content offerings still come only in black and white.
Vastly superior to reading off a computer monitor or conventional mobile phone screen Amazon's e-readers and their ilk are products of electronic-ink technology that creates clear, easy-to-read text even in sunlight.
With electronic ink, charged particles migrate under the influence of an electric field. Depending on the field applied, either the white or the black particles move to the front of the screen to make up the image.
The technology used in most e-readers are adaptations of this form of "ePaper" and "e-ink" that create bubbles of e-ink by pushing ink-like particles around under its light-grey plastic skin.
As a leader in the field of e-paper development Japanese researchers at Fujitsu Frontech have attempted to sidestep the mono-chromatic drawbacks by creating colour e-ink and went to market last month with a full colour e-reader.
Dubbed Flepia, the three-quarters of a pound device displays 260,000 colours - good enough to display magazine-like graphics, is slightly smaller than a sheet of A4 and just over a centimetre thick.
Fuji sells a colour e-reader - but it is expensive
Colour for such e-ink technology does not come cheap, however, and Flepia retails at $1,000 in Japan.
Looking at the Flepia, the future of e-ink digital e-readers, says Tokyo-based new media journalist Nobuyuki Hayashi, has a long way to go, not least on price.
"Flepia has a too slow refresh rate (1.8 seconds), users have to use a stylus to turn pages and its user interface is no-frill, no-fun and non-intuitive. In my opinion this does not look like a serious consumer device," he says.
"An easier-to-use device from outside of the country such as Kindle (or the iPhone), will probably eliminate this somewhat alien product."
Whatever the outcome of both Fujitsu's and Amazon's new formats the rivals have entered an increasingly crowded marketplace for the e- reader.
Sony and a Dutch firm iRex have both experimented with newspaper subscriptions on their paperback sized e-readers.
The Kindle DX has a 9.7 inche screen and can display Adobe Acrobat files
Since Christmas, iRex has offered over 800 newspapers from 81 countries on its new monochrome but high- resolution iRex Digital Reader 1000 series.
Meanwhile French telecoms provider Orange has just finished an e-reader trial in partnership with five French newspapers, including Le Monde and Les Echos, and will be looking to start a proper commercial service by the end of the year.
But despite having success with using an e-reader with its e-reading clients, Orange is undecided which platform is best suited to delivering daily print media subscriptions "as the market is moving too fast to tell".
With smartphones and net books falling in price, such all in one devices - suitable for anything from book reading to watching TV - might prove a more convenient platform for publishing and even present better business models for publishers as Japan has found.
"Expect a slow beginning and a period of rapid evolution before e-reader's become ubiquitous, " says Japanese media consultant David Kilburn.
"They will also need to compete successfully with what people can already do using their mobile phones."
Already "keitai culture", the pervasiveness of mobile phone usage, as generated by Japan's early embracing of mobiles is making its impact felt in other activities such as newsgathering and newspaper reading.
The popularity of Amazon's Kindle and the Sony e-book reader suggests there is a market that has been poorly exploited so far by smartphones in the west while Japan is racing ahead with manga by e-mail and paid for newspaper subscriptions by phone.
Ryo Shimizu CEO of applications developer UEI in Tokyo says the phone as book, magazine or sketchpad is already something that has taken off in Japan.
"The killer application in Japan is CGM, such as novels or comics, which can be read by mobile phones. Here, mobiles are already a true alternative to paper."
Looking at Japan's reach for the handier keitais, going bigger isn't always going to be better, even for Amazon.