Scent of Apple overwhelming at electronics show, but that’s not bad for everyone

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer underwhelmed critics in presenting Windows tablet computers Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. For Microsoft and the entire e-reader category, a rumored Apple product remains a threat. (Photo: International CES)

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer underwhelms critics in presenting Windows tablet computers Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. For Microsoft and the entire e-reader category, a rumored Apple product remains a threat. (Photo: International CES)

The unveiling today of the newest e-readers using e-Ink technology — that brilliant, low-power, high-quality digital paper substitute that makes it a pleasure to read books electronically — went pretty much as the early buzz dictated: The Skiff got lots of oohs and aahs and the nearly identical Que, made by a company called Plastic Logic, suffered in comparison.

But the unreleased, not-even-announced Apple tablet still cast a shadow over both at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, and that could be significant to e-Ink, a Cambridge company.

Apple’s shadow was wide: Although the company wasn’t at the Las Vegas show, organizers created a showcase anyway for Apple-related products; and when Microsoft and Windows-based presenters rolled out their tablet computers — which a wired.com blogger caustically noted “are exactly the same as the failed tablets of yesteryear, only running Windows 7 instead of XP, both of which are designed for desktop computers” — they referred to the devices as “slates” because, apparently, that’s what Apple is going to call its tablet.

“Maybe Microsoft thinks they’re somehow sticking it to Apple by taking the ‘slate’ name first, but everything tablet-related they announced on stage was boring non-news,” wrote Daring Fireball’s John Gruber.

Finally, speculation about Apple’s tablet does hint at some loss of market share for the Skiff, the Que and e-readers in general, 99 percent of which use e-Ink technology. An analyst of the e-reader market for technology research firm IDC who is at the show, Susan Kevorkian, began by noting an Apple tablet is almost certain to arrive with a bright, color LCD display, while the Skiff and Que will be black and white. (Skiff Chief Executive Gilbert Fuchsberg says they may have a color version by the end of the year.)

“If and when the Apple tablet is released, and that device has an LCD display, that could [be attractive for readers of] color periodicals,” Kevorkian said.

That’s all periodicals.

Skiff is playing up its offerings of newspapers and magazines through partnerships with some of the nation’s top producers of magazines: Conde Nast, Meredith and Time Warner. The offerings are supposed to be richer than those offered on Amazon’s Kindle e-reader store, but are they richer than what Apple will offer through its iTunes store — now a marketplace for television shows, movies, audio books, podcasts and iPhone applications as well as music?

“We’ve heard rumors Apple’s been talking to periodical and book publishers — nothing confirmed, but we think it’s likely those deals are in play,” Kevorkian said. “It would make sense for Apple to try to get in on that.”

That’s not necessarily bad from Skiff’s perspective. Or, rather, a giant leap in paid online subscriptions to newspapers and magazines is not bad for Hearst, the newspaper company that goes by the name Skiff LLC to market the Skiff Reader. “From Hearst’s perspective, it’s a rising tide that raises all boats,” Kevorkian said. “For a pure startup like Plastic Logic, it’s more of a blow. For Hearst it’s about revenue and applications, it’s not about hardware. Whereas Plastic Logic is about hardware.”

Ultimately, Kevorkian is sanguine about the fortunes of e-Ink products even if an Apple tablet makes a claim for the market. Her comments Thursday from Las Vegas essentially back what e-Ink’s vice president for marketing, Sriram K. Peruvemba, said Tuesday: “There is no competing technology out there that brings more readability to the market. We believe people who are serious readers will look for that experience.”

As to the notion of device fatigue — that people won’t want too many of them, and a multifunction, color tablet will beat out a more limited, black and white e-reader — Kevorkian rejects that (and the “Good Enough Revolution” cited by wired.com in August) at least for a certain segment of society.

One device that does a lot, but doesn’t do it very well, “won’t do the trick,” she said.

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