The e-Reader Battle Reaches India

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The rise and rise of e-books and electronic publishing has prompted the development of e-readers: handy, portable devices that try to mimic the reading experience of paper books while offering the storage and navigation capability of computers.

A good example is the very popular e-reader from Amazon, the Kindle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon_Kindle). The latest version boasts the ability to store up to 3,500 books.

The utility of these e-readers for people in the global South is clear: they can enable people to bypass the lack of local library facilities to store vast, personal archives of books. This is a powerful educational tool: imagine a village doctor with easy access to thousands of medical texts and papers, or a child preparing for university exams no longer having to worry they can find study texts. It also is a cost-effective way to publish in many local languages and break the stranglehold English-language publishing has had on delivering e-books.

Over the past decade, India has developed a reputation for its fast-growing information technology industries, making software and providing IT-related services.

Now India has produced a rival to the Kindle. The Wink (https://www.thewinkstore.com/ereader/index) is designed to accommodate 15 common Indian languages. (The 2001 census in India found 29 languages with at least a million native speakers). It comes in an eye-catching design and is complemented by a sleek website stuffed with e-books ready for download. The entire package is very well-thought-out and marketed.

The Wink was developed and built by EC Media International and retails, according to its website, for Rs 8,999 (US $200). It looks similar to the Kindle, but where the Kindle is grey the Wink is white. This Indian rival has some impressive capabilities: it can not only support 15 Indian languages, it can also access an online library of more than 200,000 book titles. They range from arts and entertainment to biography, newspapers and science topics. There is also a large archive of free books for download.

But it has come in for criticism for its price, which some say is far too high for the Indian market.

The Tech 2 website also criticized the Wink for its “frustrating performance, which actually detracts from the pleasure of reading.” Overall it found the reader “a decent first attempt, but there are many issues that need to be ironed out.”

It can be a rocky road to information technology hardware innovation. And maybe this first attempt at a made-in-India e-reader still has a way to go to get it right. There have been a number of high-profile, over-hyped disappointments in the last few years. One was the pledge to make a US $35 tablet computer. The project was launched in 2010 with much fanfare, but by January 2011 the Indian government had dropped manufacturers HCL Technologies for failing to honour its 600 million rupee (US $13 million) contract.

It joins the disappointing attempt at rivalling the One Laptop Per Child (www.onelaptop.org) computer from MIT (Massachusetts Institute for Technology) with an Indian version for US $10. What was offered instead in 2009 was a device with no screen or keyboard, requiring an additional laptop and paper to access its stored files. It was also made in Taiwan, rather than India.

What these first steps show is the complexity of hardware development and how challenging it is to get the user experience right for customers while keeping the price affordable.

But from these tries comes experience, and in time better products will be developed as lessons are learned.

Resources

1) How to build your own personal computer: This guide helps to demystify computing hardware and shows how to build a computer at home. Website: http://www.buildeasypc.com/

2) Hardware design and architecture: An archive of free e-books on all aspects of computer hardware and architecture design. An outstanding resource to get anyone started in computer engineering. Website: http://www.e-booksdirectory.com/listing.php?category=38

3) Jonathan Ive is the man behind the highly successful and user-friendly modern design that has turned the Apple computer brand into such a global success story. He provides tips on how to design usable computer hardware and shares the secrets of his success. Website: http://www.wired.com/culture/design/news/2003/06/59381

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