Taiwan’s Asus might be best known for its motherboards, notebook computers, and seemingly endless array of Eee-branded netbook and nettop computer—and now industry reports have the company getting ready to shake up the e-readers market. The Times of London reports that Asus is prepaing a dual-screen electronic reader that can be opened and closed like a traditional hardcover book, displaying two pages at a time (or, even, a book page and a Web browser). And Asus—true to its cost-cutting netbook heritage—is apparently looking to undercut both the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Readers of the world, potentially offering a budget edition priced as low as $165.
Asus has not formally announced the device and the sole available image is of unknown origin (and highly dubious scaling). The Times of London reports that Asus is considering both budget and premium editions of the reader; at least the premium edition would full-color screens for its reader and about the size of a standard paperback (more indications the displays will be substantially smaller than the image would seem to indicate). The units—again, presumably the premium units—would also sport at least WiFi connectivity, along with speakers, a webcam, and a microphone in support of annotations and VoIP capability.
Asus’ move into the e-reader space could be a signal that electronic readers are entering the mainstream: although Amazon has had a hit with its rather high-priced Kindle, it has mostly been embraced by early adopters rather than mainstream consumers—Oprah’s endorsement notwithstanding. Sony has recently amped up its competition with Amazon , and the industry seems to be standardizing on the EPUB format for digital books, with both Sony and Google embracing the open standard. Asus might be able to make a significant entrance into the market with an inexpensive reader that supported EPUB.
However, Asus’s business plan for an inexpensive reader remains unclear: Apple fuels hardware sales of its iPod and iPhone lines with the iTunes Store, and both Sony and Amazon derive revenue from both hardware and sales of books through their electronic bookstores. Asus would presumably be trying to earn money in thin hardware margins without a bookstore operation to back up its devices—that means they will be counting on sheer volume of hardware sale, and no one has proving the market for electronic readers is large enough to support that kind of business.