While 2009 marked the first growth spurts of the e-book reader segment, 2010 will be the year the niche segment takes off, according to a new report by research firm Gartner.
In fact, Gartner says the consumer electronic devices will culminate in "e-reader mania" for the 2010 holiday season.
The reason? The burgeoning market is finally showing signs of maturity, moving from its infancy to adolescence, marked by the entrance of leading book retailer Barnes and Noble and second and third versions of hardware from Amazon and Sony.
For consumers, that means heightened awareness and more choice -- in device manufacturers, in bookstores and in file format, Gartner said.
Though some of the e-readers connect to the Web wirelessly and can sync content across devices, interoperability remains a challenge.
That hurdle is partially mitigated by new development on mobile e-book reader clients for popular smartphones -- Kindle and B&N for the iPhone comes to mind -- but Gartner says it's "too early in the evolution of the e-reading market" to see if consumers will be drawn to dedicated e-book readers or clients on devices they already own, such as laptops and smartphones.
"Book applications for smartphones have the potential to become a bridge to other devices such as tablet readers and netbooks," said Allen Weiner, research vice president at Gartner. "Apple, for example, could migrate the more than 500 book applications in the iTunes store to a tablet device and Google, which recently announced a browser-based e-reader, could offer applications for Android-based devices of various form factors."
In other words, there's a lot to work out in the content pipeline -- from book publisher to retailer to content delivery and the hardware on which it's read. And most major publishing houses are still loathe to dip any more than a toe in the market, since bound books still make up the lion's share of their sales and electronic books can, at times, sell at a loss, despite far less overhead on production.
As expected, Gartner said price is important. For now, $199 is the lowest price for a full-featured e-book reader. Gartner analysts said that "prices will need to drop closer to $99 to gain significant consumer traction." (Here, here.)
The question is whether manufacturers can lower device prices enough for them to really take off as delivery vehicles for monetized content. After all, it's the books that keep on giving -- you only purchase an e-book reader once every few years.