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August 19, 2009

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Reading undergoes throes of change

ONE of the biggest attractions at the ongoing Shanghai Book Fair is the latest technology in paperless reading, judging from the crowds massed around the booth of Chinese technology innovator Hanwang Technology Co.

On display were Hanwang's Hanvon hand-held e-book devices, similar to Amazon's popular Kindle, that display printed works on 5-inch or bigger screens. Users are able to store hundreds of digitized books in the Hanvon readers, which sell for between 1,000 yuan and 3,000 yuan (US$441).

E-books and related devices, including smart phones, are forecast to be the next big technology wave to sweep China, though their development still faces challenges such as lack of content and copyright issues, industry officials said.

"Kindle's success (in the United States market) has created the foundation for the Chinese e-book market though the market here still needs time to mature," Gao Chao, Amazon China's public relations director, said in a phone interview.

On, China's biggest online auction Website, there were 340 results found for sales of Kindle, though the device has not yet been launched in China.

In the US, Amazon has sold about 1 million Kindle devices, which feature 6 inch, 4-level grayscale display screens, a full-function keyboard, Wi-Fi and bundled accounts with Amazon's online book stores. Sony, Philips and other vendors have launched similar products globally.

Worldwide, e-book reader devices are forecast to surge from about 1 million to 29 million units in the next five years, according to In-Stat, a US-based IT research firm.

The market potential in China has attracted the interest of companies ranging from telecommunications to online content and service providers.

Beijing-based Hanwang displayed several e-book readers at the book fair, including a white D21 model that resembles Kindle. The Hanvon readers fully support Chinese language displays and feature functions similar to Kindle. Users can easily add notes and bookmarks during reading.

The Hanvon models, without Wi-Fi, are on average 20 to 30 percent cheaper than the Kindle equivalent.

Hanwang's users have first to download e-books to a computer. Then they copy the downloaded e-books from the computer to the Hanvon model.

All Hanwang's e-books are free and users can access the online book store with a password that is given after purchase of the Hanvon model.

Wang Ruchen, a reporter working at China Business News, spent 1,600 yuan to buy a Hanvon model earlier this month.

"Now I can read in my free time such as on the metro or at bus stops," said Wang, who stores hundreds of books in his device. "I read much more now that I have an e-book reader."

Alan Cao, an advertising designer in Beijing, said he has read about 20 books with a Kindle he bought on an overseas trip, triple his usual reading.

E-book readers

E-book readers feature a display technology called e-ink, which protects the eyes during reading. At the same time, e-ink's ultra-low power consumption provides users longer battery life, often two weeks or even one month between each charge, said Amazon's Gao.

"Traditional reading methods are in the throes of change," said In-Stat China analyst Ashley Liu. "Many people are already familiar with reading online through personal computers, and the next step may be e-book readers."

Hanwang, Founder, Huawei and other smaller firms have already launched their hardware, and telecommunications carriers are preparing to penetrate the market, helped by the Chinese government's issue of 3G, or third generation, mobile communications licenses to three telecommunications carriers in January.

China Mobile's online store, launched on Monday, features an e-book service. The world's biggest mobile carrier by subscribers plans to launch an e-book reader integrated with its 3G chipset by the end of this year, which allows users to browse and download books through wireless networks.

"The 3G network will fuel people's demand for content and service directly through the phone and it will create a huge new market for carriers," said Wu Wenzhao, an analyst at Beijing-based Analysys International.

China Telecom is also negotiating with Shanda Entertainment, which has three literary and novel Websites, to provide e-book readers and online book stores, said an industry source who declined to be identified.

Shanda, the country's No. 1 online game firm, has the capital and expertise to operate an online book store, industry insiders said.

China Telecom's device will work under its CDMA 2000 (code division multiple access) network, the fastest 3G network in the domestic market, the source said.

In China, about 170 million people use mobile Internet applications and 20 percent of them rank reading (novels or newspapers) as a first-priority mobile application, according to In-Stat.

The majority of the latest smart phones and the iPod Touch, with high-definition screens larger than 3 inches, can be used as e-book devices, including Nokia's 5800 and Apple's iPhone, experts said.

But industry insiders pointed out that the e-book market in China faces copyright and content challenges that have yet to be resolved. Chinese firms at present can't expect to duplicate Kindle's success in China, they said.

"It's a totally different story because of user habits and culture," said In-Stat's Liu.

People in China are used to reading online for free, and it's difficult to change "the Internet is free" idea, one analyst said.

Among Chinese e-book readers, mainly aged from 15 to 30, about 52 percent spend nothing on reading books, while others spend only 5 to 20 yuan a month, In-Stat said.

By comparison, Amazon's online books start at US$10, and copyright issues prevent publishers from putting the latest books online, slowing the development of the e-book, said Gao, adding that there's no timetable for Kindle's entry into China.



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