New big-screen Kindle could threaten textbook publishers

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Our sister blog Engadget.com is reporting that Amazon (AMZN) will unveil a new, larger Kindle electronic reader tomorrow. Students at several universities are to participate in a trial of the reader's usefulness to academia, using e-versions of their textbooks. The new reader should also be of interest to newspaper and magazine readers too. Having used the Kindle 2, I can testify to the shortcomings of the smaller format for newspaper browsing.

The new Kindle will feature a 9.7 inch screen vs. the Kindle 2's six-incher. Engadget reports that selected students at Case Western Reserve University and several other schools will receive new Kindles preloaded with texts for classes such as Chemistry and Computer Science.

The replacement of paper with electronic textbooks is as inevitable as the annual alumni fund-raising plea. The e-readers can deliver content at a lower cost, with ease of revision, inclusion of video content, and one-touch linking. The only question is, what device will win the market? Will the Kindle offer an acceptable platform?

Its monochrome display and awkward presentation of graphical elements might disappoint those used to their laptops. On a practical level, it could also detract from the clarity of book illustrations. I wonder about the device's durability in the hurly-burly of campus life. Also, the price of the reader, at $360 not much less than that of a basic laptop computer, could also be an issue. If it had more computer-like features, such as a better, faster internet interface, it might fare better.

The newspaper world will no doubt be watching this launch with interest, hoping that the electronic subscription model that has worked for the Wall Street Journal may work for them too, once the right device gains traction. Amazon may be first to market, but a large and growing pack of competitors is at its heels preparing to market their own e-readers for this purpose.

I suspect Amazon may find that business behind the cloistered walls of higher education is a tougher nut to crack than the bestsellers market. When every professor can write his or her own textbook, many of them probably will. After all, why share the proceeds and the glory with Amazon?

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