E-readers seek frame and fortune

Multifunction e-readers are, in some ways, an evolution of the digital picture frames of years past. Will they turn out to be a fad overtaken by multimedia slates such as the iPad?

Before the iPad, it was often said that there has never been a successful electronics device in a screen size between the cell phone and the laptop. Indeed, the form factor and functionality of such devices have been tough nuts to crack, but there have been a few successes.

While the most widely adopted of these was the so-called "portable" DVD player embraced by many top-tier consumer electronics brands, a more modest success story has been the digital picture frame.

Cleverly branded, overgrown multimedia players that had undergone battery removal surgery, the digital picture frame was a star of the 2007 and 2008 holiday sales season. And companies such as Kodak are seeking to keep them fresh with products such as the affordable and connected Kodak Pulse.

According to NPD's 2010 Household Penetration study, though, digital picture frames may have begun to fade from the scene; U.S. household penetration of digital picture frames actually dropped in 2010 to 18 percent from 19 percent in 2009.

Kodak Pulse digital photo frame
Kodak Pulse digital photo frame Kodak

Still, the products have been noteworthy for reasons beyond their medium screen sizes. They were popular as gifts, embraced by women, and successful at nontraditional electronics outlets such as department stores, and home specialists such as Bed Bath & Beyond. In these respects, they bore many similarities to e-readers, which appear to be emerging as the heirs apparent to the devices. The iPad, for example, can serve as both kinds of devices. And Pandigital, which made its name in digital picture frames, recently released the Novel, a 7-inch $200 color device .

Indeed, in many ways, the e-reader, particularly one based on the surging Android operating system , is the next logical step for the digital picture frame. Like the iPad, the Pandigital Novel is based on an LCD (albeit with a resistive rather than capacitive touch screen). And like the iPad, it can also function as a Wi-Fi-capable digital picture frame that can even access the Web in a pinch.

Like their digital picture frame forebears, an LCD-based e-reader is simply being sold for one of its features, just like the music-playing capabilities of the iPod Touch are, but with a small taste of its broad capabilities. On the other hand, LCD-based e-readers are using a ubiquitous--but not ideal--display technology.

Unlike prints, images in a digital picture frame glow brightly enough to obviate a nightlight, leading many manufacturers to create special dimming or timed sleep modes. Similarly, LCD-based e-readers can't compete with e-paper displays for readability in sunlight. Both devices would benefit from reflective display technology that is in the pipeline but that will be expensive at launch.

Pandigital Novel
The Android-based Pandigital Novel includes the Barnes & Noble eBooks store. Pandigital

If e-readers such as the Pandigital Novel are just more evolved multimedia and Web access devices than digital picture frames, why keep these limiting category names? First, remember the appeal to women. Early adopters will seek out the price and value of these products, regardless of what they're called, and history shows that some of them are even willing to hack the functionality they want right on to it.

Second, these products stand for a simple content experience. Just as one didn't need to use a PC to get digital pictures onto the frames, all you need to get a healthy dose of literature onto an e-reader is a willing bookstore, and retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Borders have been stepping in to supply it to a host of underdogs in the market.

Will e-readers go the way of the digital picture frames and fade from the spotlight? Perhaps in name, but the connectivity and capabilities of the high end of these devices will prove relevant, even to consumers who aren't avid readers, while the lower-end devices have an enormous opportunity to provide students with an alternative to heavy backpacks dragged down with piles of pages.

 

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