Plastic Logic: And it shall be called “QUE”

"Call me 'Q'"

"Call me 'Q'"

Plastic Logic set the unveiling of its oft-discussed e-reader device at the Consumer Electronics Show on January 7, 2010. The device will be called QUE proReader. Interested readers can sign up for updates here. No word on whether the device name is an homage to the Star Trek character “Q,” which is how the press release explains “QUE” is pronounced, but I get the feeling John de Lancie may be on hand. He used to hang around Apple announcements in Vegas, too.

As we already know, the QUE proReader is aimed at business users and will emphasize portability of Microsoft Office and PDF documents as well as periodicals and books users can purchase from the Barnes & Noble online store. Connectivity includes Wi-Fi and AT&T wireless service.

For those of you eager for product porn, a few tantalizing details are added by the press release, as well as the side view of the product below. The 8.5-inch by 11-inch device will be “less than a 1/3 inch thick” and appears to be metal-backed with a black plastic frame on the “shatterproof” Plastic Logic E-Ink display. Que

The CES venue suggests that QUE will probably ship later in the Spring, as the event is the setting for summer and winter retail product promotions to retailers.

I’m wondering how many new e-reader devices can launch simultaneously without creating a glut in the marketplace. Pricing for the QUE proReader hasn’t been revealed, though it has been positioned as a premium product that isn’t likely to be deeply discounted. If, however, two dozen other e-readers hit the market within a few months, like the $400 iRex announced today, mark-downs are sure to be the order of the day.

It would be good to hear what Plastic Logic will consider a success in terms of units sold by December 31, 2010.

B&N will offer iRex device, too

Dropping in from a flu-induced respite to say: Barnes & Noble is trying too hard. According to The Wall Street Journal‘s Peter Kafka, BN.com, in addition to teaming with Plastic Logic to sell ebooks, now plans to partner with iRex, maker of an upcoming iLiad device the features 3G connectivity and an 8.1-inch screen, described here. BN.com will be the e-book store for both devices.

We get the “we’re more open” argument already, even though every e-book format comes with DRM and compatibility baggage, but the challenge is not merely to sell books but to establish a platform customers can rely on. That comprehensive experience of reading goodness doesn’t come from a shallow focus across many devices, but deep focus on the reader’s experience with an e-book.

It would be a better use of Barnes & Noble’s modest marketplace goodwill to focus on making one device a stellar experience while supplementing that experience withiPhone and other smartphone e-reader applications than to try to sell and support e-books across a growing inventory of devices. Individually, any one device will require a substantial amount of BN customer support, which they are not well placed to provide, and as a group of devices that still are incompatible with half of the e-books or more sold, they increase the complexity of the customer’s choice. So, if BN.com fails to support the devices, even if it is the manufacturer’s problem, they will lose a customer. If their books don’t work with a device, it’s BN’s problem.

Now is the time for focused investment in a pleasing end-to-end shopping and reading experience. Amazon is already poised to compete with compatibility, so Barnes and Noble has nothing to win by spreading its bets. Factor in the Apple tablet-of-destiny (the Journal also reports today Steve Jobs is all over that tablet), which will run all sorts of e-reader apps at launch, and BN’s strategy looks very dangerous. It could be overwhelmed on the customer experience front, the e-book choice front and in terms of its relationships with marginally committed partners—in exchange for a largely undifferentiated (“we’re as open as anyone”) win if they execute perfectly.

An iRex Kindle competitor?

iRex’s iLiad e-reader has been the top dog in the “business e-reader” market, selling somewhere in the 60,000 units range to date. Today, CNET’s Crave blog reports iRex will offer a 3G-enabled reader with an 8.1-inch screen this fall. Plastic Logic enters the “business e-reader” business next year, so iRex is mixing a down-market device into its offering to counter the impact expected when that new competition appears.

Will the company find any wiggle room with Amazon, Sony, Samsung and Plastic Logic vying for market share? Instead it looks to me like iRex needs to focus on winning buyers in at least one segment rather than diversifying to meet the rising tide of e-readers. iRex has collaborated to develop specialized devices, such as the aviation-targeted SolidFX e-reader air travel charts. This device looks like another conform-to-compete e-reader.

Crave writer David Carnoy heads deep into speculative territory, saying this sub-DX but supersized consumer device will sell for “less than $400 and possibly less than $350” and that there will be a major bookseller offering e-books through the device, but iRex’s 8.1-inch screen, if it is Wacom-enabled, allowing users to write on the screen, is likely to keep the price near or north of $400. Furthermore, what major bookseller is left to do a deal with iRex? Borders? Perhaps, but that struggling bookseller has already released an e-reader from Elonex in the U.K. Plastic Logic has an exclusive with Barnes & Noble while Amazon has the Kindle.

There is so little information, other than a “mock-up” drawing of the device, that this looks more like a test balloon than a product. Grains of salt taken.

If you need more sodium in your diet: Acer may launch an e-reader, too.

Sony conforms to compete: Low-priced reader and $9.99 e-books ahead

According to The Wall Street Journal, Sony will introduce new versions of its Reader and lower the price of e-books in its store to match the prices at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. The devices, the PRS-300 and PRS-600, as well as their respective prices, $199 and $299, were “leaked” last week, including the pricing (ZD Net’s Larry Dignan has a good summary about the new readers). Sony’s falling into line with pricing of e-book titles is the news here.

Now, what’s got me wondering here is how all the would-be major vendors of e-book readers are competing on price and only price, for both the hardware and content, what’s the opportunity to differentiate? At this point, only connectivity, which Amazon has nailed with the WhisperNet technology it currently offers. Plastic Logic will have a Sprint-enabled WAN service, too, but Sony’s still in the wilderness with its dock-to-sync e-readers—however, The Bookseller reports that Sony is planning a Wi-Fi-enabled Reader for European release this fall.

If connectivity is the only differentiator, the opportunity to extend competitive advantage lies in one of two directions:

  • The iTunes Model—Make a proprietary system so darned convenient that the customer hopefully forgets about the DRM and other downsides, or;
  • The Rich Format Model—Take an open format for e-books and begin adding to it, putting annotation and other “social” features into the titles to begin to add value.

No device succeeds without adding value to the experience its competitors provide. Amazon remains the standard setter in the e-reader business. No one wants to go into the uncharted waters of open and “social” formats where the real wealth lies.

Plastic Logic e-reader will feature AT&T 3G

AT&T will provide broadband connectivity to the Plastic Logic e-reader, the companies announced today. Details about the way customers will pay for broadband service, however, were not announced. In the past week, Plastic Logic has filled out key components of its ecosystem, announcing that Barnes & Noble’s e-bookstore will be the exclusive seller of books to the Plastic Logic device (though it will support books acquired in other channels, the BN.com store will be the built-in source of e-books) and this alliance with AT&T, which is also the provider of data voice and data services for Apple’s iPhone.

This is s win for AT&T as much as for Plastic Logic, as Sprint and Verizon had also been discussed as potential broadband providers.

Plastic Logic’s device is being pitched as a business tool that has the benefit of providing e-book, newspaper and magazine subscription access. That’s a very different point of entry than the Amazon Kindle, which has come to market as a pure “consumer device” designed for the typical reader. It suggest the device will be priced higher than the Kindle when fully configured, but the low-end configuration will probably come to market at or below the Kindle 2’s price.

Since the Plastic Logic device also features Wi-Fi connectivity, it could be the case that 3G service will be available only on a monthly subscription basis through AT&T, similar to the iPhone data plan. If that is the case, and I get the strong feeling it is as I look at the positioning of the Plastic Logic device, then we can probably expect wide-area 3G networking to be a checklist item among the upgrades available for a monthly fee discounted to unlimited AT&T data service for the PC (which costs about $70 a month on average). The iPhone data plan, which is $30, is the likely model.

The question is, how much data will the Plastic Logic device be using on a typical day. If most subscriptions are fulfilled over Wi-Fi when the device is charging, wide-area service would be trivially inexpensive—unless the device is more oriented toward Web surfing than currently described. A Plastic Logic data plan could be less than the iPhone plan.

A Plastic Logic spokeswoman said details of wireless pricing will be released closer to the early 2o1o launch date.

Barnes & Noble moves, embracing Google and Plastic Logic

barnes-noble-e-books-oBarnes & Noble, which introduced its iPhone e-reader back on June 29, launched a vastly expanded e-book store today. The announcement of the “world’s largest bookstore” is actually a combination of several existing catalogs, Barnes & Noble’s previous e-book listings, the ereader.com site and the Google Book Search catalog for a total of 700,000 titles, which may be read on iPhones, Blackberry, PC and Mac client software.

The application, largely a re-skinned version of the Fictionwise e-reader application it acquired, is useful (the user agreement references the ereader.com site as the source of user support). BN.com will store books for repeated downloads. There is no information about limits on simultaneous devices or download limits on the site.

The big news is that Plastic Logic has signed on to link its e-reader device that will ship in early 2010 to the BN.com bookstore, a relationship that BN executives described as “exclusive” during a conference call. This means we can probably expect format conflicts between Kindle and Plastic Logic. Oddly, there was no comment from Plastic Logic about this partnership, which draws a significant battle line in the e-book market.

While B&N has endorsed the $9.99 price point for frontlist titles and bestsellers, the store features books ranging in price from a dollar (including many $4.99 books from Barnes & Noble’s imprint, which has specialized in cheap editions of classic literature) to much more expensive e-books discounted from the hardcover or trade paper price, but well above $9.99. Flexibility in pricing will likely be one of B&N’s competitive strategies with publishers.

DRM is prominent in the application. The manual deals immediately with how to enter an “unlock code” for DRM’d titles.

Usability note about the app on most platforms (iPhone version pictured at right): Once installed, the application displays the title page of the user manual, but doesn’t explain it is a user manual or provide any navigation cues. They should fix that. It would be better if the first thing the app displayed was an “add books” dialog that walked the user right a reading experience of their own choice. Manuals, even good ones, are so 1990s. If your app isn’t intuitive, it needs more work. The PC version of the application opens to the user’s library, which is prepopulated with Last of the Mohicans, Sense and Sensibility, Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Dictionary, Dracula, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice and the user manual.

Strange bargain alert: Windows PC users who download and install the B&N e-reader app get six e-books (all pre-selected by BN.com-described above) free, but the offer apparently isn’t available for Mac users.

In the irony department, the fact that Chris Anderson’s book, Free, which is free on Amazon and Google Books, doesn’t appear in the B&N e-books search suggests that while the site is operating it is not being actively managed with the care one would expect. Either that or it’s a judgment by Hyperion, Anderson’s publisher, that B&N’s store won’t have a material impact on one of its important titles of the season.

There’s no way of telling whether BN will get great traction with the e-book initiative unveiled today. We know free reader applications get a novelty bump in downloads, sales from those downloads aren’t guaranteed. BN may benefit from launching the first business day after Amazon bungled the Kindle 1984 “refund,” but was anyone really waiting for another e-reader before jumping into this kind of reading? No.

Plastic Logic debuts new site

logo_plastic_logicPlastic Logic, developer of an upcoming line of e-book reader devices that could give Kindle a run for the money, debuted a new Web site this week. The video content has been available online for a while, but the product pages are more complete and informative than before. A “content store” will launch with the device, according to the site. The site specifically mentions ePub, PDF, Zinio, and Microsoft Office document formats.

The company’s “two-phased entry into the market” starts in Fall with partnered trials, after which they “expect to accelerate the momentum of our sales in 2010.” Partnering for trials, such as offering a device with a newspaper service, is a dicey way to launch, because it requires the partner to succeed, and a device’s success lies beyond the partner’s ability to sell through its channel.

A word of advice to PL’s marketers: Don’t talk to customers like they are a military target. And don’t expect anything other than setbacks, because this wording sets the launch up as a series of barriers that, if not conquered decisively, will be reported and perceived as setbacks. Readers and most publishers don’t deal with “content,” either. They buy or sell books, magazines and news.

At this point in the pre-launch marketing, when building excitement among readers who are also considering their first Kindle, Sony or other e-reader, Plastic Logic needs to present a very different face than it is, engaging with readers and discussing their expectations. Since Plastic Logic’s device is apparently engineered with user’s workflow (again, the wrong sort of military way of talking about “reading”), it should be positioned to address those thinking about an e-book device purchase today.