What It Is: Big business has learned its lesson about paper consumption: We read Word docs on laptops, use the copier sparingly and print only what we need. Yet, the paperless office is still a distant dream. E-Readers at least give the trees--and therefore the human race--a chance. The 170 dot-per-inch screen resolution--well over twice that of the typical computer monitor--lessens eye fatigue. Right now, the Amazon Kindle DX, with its 9.7-inch screen, is as close to reading printed material as possible on an electronic device.
Why The Hype: Companies such as Amazon, Sony and others have targeted the thriller-loving consumer crowd with huge marketing campaigns. Meanwhile, newspaper industry struggles have generated lots of press about e-readers as a future platform for news.
To Read More on this Topic, See Amazon's New 'Kindle DX': a Complete Primer and Bye-Bye Kindle, E-Reader Screens Coming for Netbooks.
The Real Deal: A big strike against e-readers is cost versus capability: The $489 Kindle DX has a limited browser and does not support enterprise-class e-mail. Forrester Research Analyst Sara Rotman Epps has a laundry list of upgrades that manufacturers will need to address before e-readers can thrive in business, including larger screens, support for rich document types such as PowerPoint and secure VPN access. Another issue: Most e-readers are made of glass, which cracks easily and is expensive to replace.
However, says John Gillispie, the CIO for the State of Iowa, e-readers are becoming more compelling. "As these devices improve their capabilities they provide interesting alternatives for certain types of users," he says.
The devices are evolving. Plastic Logic will debut a device with a larger screen and no glass early next year. IRex, one of the only e-reader makers targeting the enterprise, supports common file formats, such as PDF, Excel and Word. (The Kindle supports several formats as well, but you have to e-mail files to yourself at 10 cents per conversion.)
Products like the Interead COOL-ER could be the ticket for e-reader adoption. The device costs just $250, yet has the high-resolution screen of the Kindle and Sony readers. Niel Jones, who invented the device, suggests a killer feature for business: the ability to push documents. Epps thinks that e-readers may be more viable when they are customized for specific industries. In aviation and health care, an e-reader could replace reams of paper manuals.
Should You Invest?: E-readers make the most sense at companies where employees have to lug around a lot of paper. They are in limited trials at universities such as Case Western Reserve and Princeton, which are using them to replace some textbooks. Toyota Material Handling, the vehicle maker's forklift division, is deploying the Sony Digital Reader to its sales people, mostly as a cost-cutting measure.
"Volumes of information can be stored and easily accessed, replacing the need for numerous hardcover paper manuals," says Niels Ostergaard, the Toyota division's sales, customer service and parts manager. If a forklift company can save a few trees, the idea is bound to catch on at Wal-Mart and IBM eventually.
John Brandon is a freelance writer based in Minnesota.
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