Two weeks ago at the online O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, I closed a presentation on eReaders with a discussion of the Microsoft Courier, a dual touch-​screen digital codex. In theory, Microsoft will be bringing this 7” folding computer to market sometime next year. What excites me about this device, in terms of eReading, is the potential for new interactions with a text. One obvious option is to actually read an eBook in codex format (as we would a traditional “paper” book). However, that’s not really particularly interesting, nor does it necessarily take advantage of the real potential of this sort of device to create revolutionary new forms of reading.

How might the second screen enhance reading? I’m not sure, and I haven’t had a chance to really wrestle with that. But we can look to the example of the Nintendo DS portable gaming system. A key feature that differentiates it from the Playstation Portable(PSP) is the integration of a second, touch sensitive screen, into game experience. Given the possibilities that opened up, we shouldn’t be surprised if similar things happen with reading when we add a second screen. But, in order for that to happen, something else needs to occur.

Beyond the Courier’s innovative form, it has another key advantage over existing eReaders – it’s a software development platform. I can’t go out and download software to run on a Kindle. This means that the way we read on it, and other eReaders, is restricted to how their designers imagine we should read on them. While I trust Amazon to be experts at delivering content to the device, I don’t associate them with innovation in terms of reading; nor do I look to Apple or Microsoft (or Google… more on that in a sec) for that matter.

Just as modern printing was started by an run-​of-​the-​mill goldsmith in Mainz1 , I think that a truly revolutionary form of on-​screen text interaction is probably going to be created by a programmer that nobody has ever heard of (maybe a member of the Open Publishing Lab). In order for that to happen, eReaders need to be able to have Software Development Kits and run third party software.2

Bottom line, beyond price point and color, at the conference I said the future was multiple screens and open software development. Why didn’t I buy a lottery ticket that day??!! Since the conference, three new eReaders have been either hinted at or announced that all feature dual screens. And, if I’m reading the tea leaves right at least two of those will support third party software.

Each of the units features one eInk display and one LCD display. Two are tablet format with side-​by-​side displays. The third is a codex like the Courier. And, perhaps most interesting, if the rumors are true, all three will run Google’s Android Mobile OS.

The first reader, and the one we know the least about, is the just announced Barnes and Noble Nook. It features two screens and runs, according to Gizmodo, Android. Gizmodo, an indispensable website for staying on top of tech developments, also ran the following “leaked” renderings of the device. And at $259, the same price as the single eInk screen Kindle, Amazon should be concerned. The Nook adds a number of new features including unique ability for users to lend eBooks to friends. For a full comparison, see Barnes and Noble’s comparison of the Nook to the Kindle.

[Barnes and Noble eReader]

The other two readers were announced this week. The first of these two is the Spring Design Alex eReader. Like the B&N model, it’s a tablet with neighboring eInk and touch sensitive LCD screens. And, based on the press release, it’s definitely running Android. Also, like the B&N reader, it features telephony networking, via a GSM chip which means that it can access the web in the US and Europe. Spring Design also says that it will have expandable memory via SD cards. The similarity between it and the B&N device, in terms of features and form factors does lead one to wonder if there might be an OEM agreement between the two companies.

[Spring Design Alex eReader]

The final eReader is the enTourage eDGe™. The eDGe is a codex design which folds down to 8.5” x 10.75” x 1” (approximately the size of an average hard cover) with side-​by-​side sensitive eInk (stylus) and LCD (touch) screens. It will be expandable via USB and SD card and will have audio and video playback capabilities. Unlike the proposed Microsoft Courier, it doesn’t have a camera. And another big difference, like the Alex, it’s running Android. It’s also $490, which means that it has a tough road to hoe.

[enTourage eDGe™ eReader]

[Andriod Logo]
From a brief bit of research, there’s nothing floating around the web to suggest that Android is optimized for dual screen display. In fact, the only other dual screen Android device I was able to find is a Russian cell phone. That said its a free, open, wireless platform and operating system. It does everything a device needs to act like a computer, uses little power, and supports endless outside development.3 And that final point is the most important for this story. Android is, without a doubt, a software development platform, which, in theory means, that all of these devices should be able to run third party software. And that possibility of opening up software development means that we may be approaching the next phase in the development (tipping point perhaps) of eReaders.

There’s also another takeaway here. In a matter of a few days, Android has become a major platform player in the eReader space. If I was Apple or Microsoft4, I’d be taking notice at this point. If these third party companies pull it off, Android will have officially expanded beyond mobile phones to other hand held devices. Likewise, if I was Amazon, I’d be a bit concerned as well. The Kindle is a closed platform, whose primary appeal is based on an easy, one-​click buying experience – not necessarily a reading experience. All of these devices are internet enabled, meaning that it’s entirely possible that they could bring a similar one-​click experience to shopping for reading material. Couple that with potentially revolutionary reading experiences and we could have the makings of real Kindle killers.

Time will tell. And this should definitely make for an interesting Tools Of Change conference this Spring!

  1. sorry Gutenberg, but its true []
  2. At the time I presented, the Plastic Logic reader, just renamed the Que, was one example of an coming eReader that was supposed to have an associated Software Development Kit. []
  3. Thank you to Evan Schnittman for reminding me of what makes Android such a enticing mobile development platform. []
  4. It’s somewhat ironic that Android’s expansion to other mobile devices comes at a time when Microsoft is rebranding its mobile platform as phone only. Though to be fair to MS, apparently the Plastic Logic Cue will run Windows CE. []