CES 2011: Tablets, Tablets Everywhere

Eric FreeseBy Eric Freese, Solutions Architect, Aptara

A strong indicator of the iPad’s impact on the industry was the sheer number of new tablets revealed (and announced) at the 2011 International CES. The number I heard was 60, and it can’t have been far off.

The good news for publishers is that the eBooks that they’ve already created should work just fine on these devices, barring some tweaking to the EPUB file to account for potential variances in the dimensions and default formatting of these new devices.

Best of all, no new eBook formats were receiving much attention. Sharp is contemplating expanding their eBook store to the US, which in Japan, uses their own publishing format. But reports are that the US version will be based on EPUB.

So what new reading devices can publishers expect to see their ebooks on later this year…?

The Standouts

Motorola XoomIn my book, there were really only two tablets that stood out: the Motorola Xoom and the Blackberry Playbook. (Obviously I wasn’t the only one; CES honored Motorola’s Xoom tablet with their Best in Show Award for 2011.)

The Xoom is based on Android 3.0 (aka Honeycomb), which Google had said is optimized for tablet devices. It will be initially available from Verizon, probably in Q1. An interesting feature, that we can hope is contagious, is that while the Xoom will initially be a 3G device, later this year a 4G LTE upgrade will be available on any 3G Xoom. Since all the software is not fully finished yet, I was not able to test or even touch one. All of the demos were videos showing functionality, none with actual apps running on the device.

Google Books is the Xoom’s default eReader, but since the Xoom has access to the Android Market, all of the other eReader apps will also be available.

The Blackberry Playbook was also shown under limited conditions. It appears to be a very powerful, capable device with impressive multitasking capabilities. It was shown with three graphic intensive apps (a movie, an arcade game and a 3D engineering viewer) running simultaneously… something you won’t see an iPad or Android device doing. It is said to allow ‘bridging’ of the Playbook tablet with your Blackberry phone, essentially making the tablet an extension of the phone, with extra capabilities added to the phone’s organizer apps.

The eReader app demonstrated on the Playbook was Kobo, though I assume that most other eReader apps will ultimately be ported to the device. Apps for the Playbook are written using Adobe AIR, enabling developers to use HTML, JavaScript, and Flash. This means yet another platform for publishers to support, if they choose. Though, as I’ve said in the past, smart development planning can reduce the cost of developing apps across these differing platforms.

Android’s Pervasive OS

Of the 60 or so new tablets, the Android operating system was the clear choice of the majority. Though, the fragmentation concern around Android was clearly evident. The devices were based on multiple versions including 1.6, 2.1, 2.2 (Froyo), 2.3 (Gingerbread) and 3.0 (Honeycomb). And as I said in my Galaxy Tab review, there really isn’t a leading eBook app for Android. Hence, these new devices include Kobo, Google Books, Aldiko, or Kindle for Android as the preloaded apps with the others available through the Android Market.

There were a few tablets based on Windows 7, as well as a couple that provided dual boot capability between Android and Windows. NEC showed a dual LCD screen tablet based on Android. At this point this device is only sold in Japan, although they are looking for a distributor in the US.

What Lies Ahead

Another advantage of CES is the insight it offers into the future. There were a number of technologies that caught my attention:

  • Mirasol screen technology – Qualcomm’s new color screen technology that’s viewable in direct sunlight as well as in low light. It also supports video and uses less power than LCD displays. While there weren’t any impending product announcements being made, it is not hard to imagine that some e-ink devices will opt for this technology in upgraded models. Perhaps some LCD devices will also switch in order to take advantage of the power and viewability benefits.
  • 3D – Many companies were showing 3D screens that did not require glasses, including on laptops. I can see this technology moving into the eReader environment, which would mean new options for enhanced eBooks. Don’t forget that there are people who still read on their computers. Can you imagine a textbook or magazine with 3D video or images? Production of these new enhancements will also become easier as several 3D still and video cameras were also on display.
  • In-car integration – Audi and Ford showed the deeper integration of phones in cars including hands-free email and texting. Can eBook reading be far behind – just like books on CD?

While 2010 produced a marked change for publishers in the sheer number of eReader-specific platforms and apps, it appears that 2011 will center more on the proliferation of delivery devices (with various configurations and price points) that can run the various apps.

From the device standpoint, there isn’t nearly the level of change as there was last year. It looks like its Apple vs. Android again. Of course publishers will need to watch XPS (BLIO’s format of choice) to see if it gains significant traction, but my guess is that the anticipated release of the EPUB 3 spec and the speed at which it gets implemented in devices and apps will have a greater impact in the coming months.

Digital Book World 2011

Eric will be speaking at Digital Book World 2011 on the panel “EPUB3.0: Updates and Enhancements” with Cristina Mussinelli, Digital Publishing Consultant, Italian Publishers Association; and Kevin Watters, Director Pre Press Services, Harlequin. The panel will be moderated by Joshua Tallent, President, eBook Architects.

Eric Freese is a Solutions Architect with Aptara, which provides digital publishing solutions that deliver significant gains in quality, time-to-market and production costs for eBook publishers.

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