E-Readers Ripe Enough for Your Business?

E-Readers aren’t only for catching up on the latest mystery novel or finally finishing Ulysses. More and more business owners are finding uses for the paper-like devices. But before you run out and equip the whole office with them, it may pay to wait for the burgeoning market to do a little growing up.

“Applications that are important to small businesses are going to take some time to hit the market,” said Allen Weiner, an analyst at market research firm Garnter. “You’re not going to see powerful kinds of business applications for at least a year.”

For many small businesses, e-Readers are alluring because they are light weight and can hold thousands of documents. Once they are able to do things like manage calendars, remotely place orders, maintain inventory and even be used as a display terminal for presentations, it will be a no brainer for those small business owners on the go. But in order for that to happen, Weiner said the industry has to undergo a shakeout.

“There are so many competing products,” said Weiner. “You’ll have companies that want to develop applications for Apple’s OS and for Android and for the Windows OS. All the confusion makes it difficult for companies to build applications that small and medium sized businesses want.”

Another reason to wait: Weiner said the prices of the devices are likely to follow the normal pattern in electronics market -- and come down.

The e-Reader market, pioneered by Amazon.com with its Kindle and Sony’s eReader, has been gaining a lot of attention this year: first with a slew of product announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and then from Apple with the launch of its iPad device.  The devices, which in some cases are about the size of a 8.5 by 11 piece of paper, enable users to upload thousands of documents or a slew of books to  read whether on a train or at the beach. The incumbents aren’t the only ones coming to market with e-Readers. Business focused e-Readers are slated to be rolled out later this year, from the likes of Plastic Logic.

“Our product is different from everybody else because from the ground up we looked at the business user as the target customers,” said Steven Glass, director of technical marketing for Plastic Logic, the Mountain View, Calif.-based maker of the QUE eReader. The QUE is the size of an 8.5 x 11 inch pad of paper, less than 1/3 inch thick, and according to the company weighs less than many periodicals. The QUE is made of plastic, making it shatter proof.

Paper works because it’s very comfortable to read and very portable and Plastic Logic is trying to make something “even better than paper” for business customers, said Glass.

The QUE is targeted at the typical office worker that prints thousands of pieces of a paper a year. With the QUE, instead of printing, the documents can be stored on the device. The QUE -- which will sell in April for $649 for a 4-gigabyte model that stores up to 35,000 documents and is Wi-Fi enabled, and $799 for an 8-gigabyte device that stores up to 75,000 documents and is Wi-Fi and 3G enabled -- has built in applications that the company says will make it easier for business users to organize documents and search and find specific items.

The Netherlands e-Reader-maker Irex Technologies has been selling its device in Europe for the past two years to business users. According to Kevin Hamilton, chief executive of Irex, its e-Reader has been used by attorneys who load all their briefs on the device and pilots who store their navigation charts and other documentation on it.

Still, Hamilton said the consumer market will remain the dominate market for e-Readers for some time.

“It won’t be a revolution. More an evolution as people come up with new ideas to use epaper for every day work day issues,” he said. The  IREX Digital Reader 1000s sells for $859 and using a stylus lets you make notes in your digital documents.  The company also sells the IREX eReader 800s for $599.