Asia e-reader scene hotting up

Sony and other Asian e-book reader manufacturers are targeting the region for the next wave of growth, although Amazon continues to be non-committal about its plans for region, say execs.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

The e-reader scene in Asia is hotting up as vendors such as Sony, Acer and Hanwang Technology have either recently introduced new devices or announced plans to do so, but Amazon remains non-committal about its Kindle plans for the region, according to company executives.

A Sony spokesperson pointed out that the company announced in May that it will be making its e-book device--the Reader--available to Asia-Pacific countries such as Japan, China and Australia as it expands its business to newer markets. The Reader was previously available only in North America and some European markets.

He said Sony will be leveraging its relationship with local retailers, publishers and distributors to introduce the Reader along with a host of local content, in order to deliver the best possible reading experience. Details such as general availability, local pricing and pre-order dates for the device will be released at a later time, he added.

"We constantly pay close attention to technology trends in all markets and are tracking the demand of e-readers in the Asia-Pacific region," said the spokesperson. He added that the company anticipates "strong global demand for e-readers and e-books in 2010, specifically within Asian markets".

In the firm's press release back in May, Sony cited analyst firm Nomura Holdings' findings as stating that Asia represents "one of the fastest-growing e-book and e-reader markets", with Japanese e-book sales topping US$500 million in 2009.

Another analyst firm, DisplaySearch, was also quoted in the release as predicting that China will become the world's largest e-reader market by 2015.

"Sony's strategy has always been to make the Reader a global product and we'll take a thoughtful approach to country expansion that will consider not just the hardware experience within these new countries, but the content experience as well," said Steve Haber, president of Sony Electronics' digital reading business division, in the media release.

Fellow vendor, Acer, also recently released its LumiRead e-book device earlier in May, which it displayed at this year's Computex Taipei tradeshow.

According to the company, the device will feature a 6-inch E-Ink display and will be able to hold up to 1,500 digital books. Acer also collaborated with Barnes & Noble, German Internet book retailer Libri.de and Chinese tech company Founder to create a content supply platform--clear.fi--that will allow consumers to access and share e-books and audio books.

Meanwhile, China-based Hanwang declared during Computex Taipei that it aims to become the "largest [e-book] vendor worldwide in two years", according to a Digitimes report.

The company, described as the "biggest e-book reader vendor in China", reportedly shipped 266,000 e-book readers--which are under the company's Hanvon branding--in 2009, and has already dispatched 180,000 devices in China in the first quarter of this year.

Company CEO Liu Yingjian said in the report that the firm is expecting to increase its total units sold by about 300 percent, to 1 million units this year. If its business strategy continues to be successful, it should be able to overhaul market leader Amazon in the predicted time frame, he added.

Digitimes also stated in the report that Amazon for the first quarter of 2010 garnered 35.5 percent of the world's e-book reader market share, while Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader came in second at 18.4 percent. Hanwang's market share was at 13.5 percent, the article noted.

An earlier ZDNet Asia report also stated that Asia vendors such as Lenovo and Creative are planning as well to jump on the e-reader bandwagon, although no specific details of the devices were disclosed.

However, despite all the positive news coming out from its rivals' camps, Amazon had yet to announce anything specific with regard to targeting the Asia-Pacific market.

In fact, when ZDNet Asia quizzed Amazon on its lack of presence in the region and whether it plans to enter markets that its e-book reader does not currently retail in, such as Singapore, the company's senior public relations manager for Kindle, Stephanie Mantello, demurred from commenting directly.

Instead, she simply said: "We are very happy with Kindle sales--both from a device sales standpoint and Kindle book sales."

She pointed ZDNet Asia to its latest Kindle DX device and said that with this e-reader, Amazon has a portable reader which has "wireless access to a global catalog of books available in over 100 countries around the world".

These 100-plus countries presently include far-flung ones such as Lesotho and Nicaragua, but not ones in Asia-Pacific such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, according to information on the company's Web site.

Mantello also responded to a query on how the success of Apple's iPad multipurpose slate has affected e-readers such as the Kindle, saying: "Kindle is purpose-built for reading. For things people love to do, whether it is reading, watching movies or taking [photos], they want devices built specifically for that purpose, with no features that take away from what they love to do."

E-book readers face off iPad
In-Stat senior analyst Stephanie Ethier disagreed with Mantello's outlook, though.

She told ZDNet Asia that the "explosive growth [which] was predicted for e-readers has subsided" and that the market had "lost a lot of momentum" due to the iPad's success.

"I think the initial hope was that early adopters and lovers of technology would buy an e-reader and be satisfied to the point where each replacement device would be another e-reader. But I don't think the replacement market will be strong...[and] I think the iPad and other tablets will be the e-reader upgrade in most cases," said Ethier in her e-mail.

She went on to state that while she does not think the e-reader will go down the dead-end route of personal navigation devices, the device will not experience the "same global success" as the portable media player.

Ethier pointed to the fact that companies such as iRex Technologies have filed for bankruptcy, while others like Plastic Logic, which showcased its Que ProReader at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, have continued to delay the launch date for their product. This could be a sign of a weakening market.

"These dynamics do not seem to promote further company entry," she noted.

The Sony spokesperson, though, painted a more optimistic future for the relationship between slates such as the iPad and e-readers.

"The introduction of other devices that can read e-books is a good thing as it will expand and raise awareness of the e-book market," he said.

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