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iPad vs e-book readers: price matters

Do you want cheap as chips — or Apple?

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Analysis Apple would have been daft not to embrace e-books when planning the iPad, but will its new offering hinder the likes of the Kindle?

If your definition of an e-book reader is a tablet equipped with a monochrome E Ink screen, then the answer is likely to be in the affirmative. E Ink screens have just one advantage over the iPad’s display: power conservation.

It’s also said by some users that they’re easier to read for long periods of time than LCDs, and will almost certainly be easier to read outdoors in bright lighting. No doubt, Apple hopes its use of an IPS LCD in the iPad will improve its chosen display technology’s reputation here.

E Ink only requires power when it changes, but that change is slow and subject to a ‘flash’ of black that some users dislike. Even greyscale screens also look old compared to colour ones. We used to have monochrome screens on phones, but on one has ever seriously suggested since the advent of colour that we go back.

Put an Amazon Kindle, iRiver Story or Sony Reader alongside an iPad and, on screen alone, the first three will have a tough time winning over buyers. Add in the fact that the iPad has Wi-Fi, an web browser, email software, mapping and full media playback in addition to e-book reading, and you have to wonder why anyone would bother with e-book only devices again.

Cost is one reason. Here in the UK, a good e-book reader will cost you around £250. That's around £100 less expensive than the iPad in its most basic, 16GB, no 3G form. And manufacturers have scope to lower prices further.

A device that has a tiny amount of storage — you add your own with after-market memory cards — just enough CPU power to drive the minimal UI and maybe maintain MP3 playback — is considerably less expensive to make than the iPad. Apple will have higher manufacturing volumes, which in turn allows it to keep the price down to netbook level, but not to the kind of prices e-book readers can reach.

We've long hoped for a £100 e-book reader, and we’re sure that’s possible. Certainly, Sony, Amazon, iRiver, Cooler and co. could and probably will cut prices to under £200 once the iPad ships and then down to £150 if they start to panic.

Get the price to £100 and it hits that point at which punters will happily risk the device quickly becoming obsolete. And, at that price, if it gets broken, lost or stolen on holiday, who cares? iPad owners, on the other hand, will be more wary of risking their pricey purchase.

But it’s a short-term measure. The inevitable progress of technology means the successors to today’s e-book readers will accrete new features, including e-mail access, web browsing and the wireless linkage needed to make these apps work, plus broader media support and, not too far down the line, colour screens.

Taiwanese hardware makers like Asus and Acer are already working on colour tablets, and you can bet that Computex, Taiwan’s IT and CE vendor showcase, will have hundreds of iPad clones on show from no-name and big-name suppliers alike. Computex takes place in June, by which time the iPad will have been on sale for a little over two months and fresh, iPad-specific apps will have begun to appear.

And that’s the iPad’s hidden strength: the ability to adapt to any given user’s specific needs through applications. Even when all e-book readers look like the iPad — by which time we probably won’t be calling them ‘e-book readers’ any longer — the Apple will be able to deliver a broader experience that few, if any, rivals will be able to match.

The sound you can hear is Google bosses rubbing their hands in anticipation of all those new, suddenly very desperate Android licensees... ®

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