Korean e-reader: can they be reignited?
By Kang Ye-won
South Korea’s largest book seller, Kyobo Book Center, released an e-reader last week targeting young parents who would like to encourage digital reading by their children for educational purposes.
Using the largest cellphone chipmaker Qualcomm’s Mirasol screen display, Kyobo is attempting to rejuvenate the local e-reader market after two years since device makers such as Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics first jumped into the market only to face a lackluster response.
Kyobo has been selling its new device with access to the company’s 90,000 e-book collections at a price tag of 349,000 won or $305.
So far, its efforts to discover a local niche market fell short in appealing to Web 2.0 gadget users when they are bombarded with full-featured, touch screen tablets like the iPad.
As people were browsing the displayed e-readers at a Kyobo book store in Gwanghwamun, many seem to lose interests shortly after they play around with the gadget.
“Its slow touchscreen interface put me off right away,” said Hur Seok-hyun, 38, who works at a software consulting firm. Hur himself is an avid reader using his iPad and smartphone, and he plans to buy some type of an interactive learning tablet for his six-year-old child.
“I don’t think the Kyobo device suits either professional reading or casual reading.”
Experts still say there’s a potential growing demand for local e-readers as seen in the success of Amazon’s Kindle series, but Korean device makers need to come up with an appealing design and improved function, and most importantly secure content, said Lee Seong-ju, a Seoul-chapter organizer of Mobile Monday, an international grassroots community in mobile communications industry.
“Some people, usually over the age of 40, prefer e-readers over tablets solely for the purpose of reading, because digital readers tend to be easy on the eyes,” Lee said in a phone interview.
Yoo Young-taek, a sales marketer at Kyobo Securities, agreed that poor responsive touchscreen of the device was a turnoff. “At this price, I would rather buy an iPad,” Yoo said.
But Kyobo claimed that it is chasing a different crowd than a tablet buyer.
“We expect students from junior high schools to colleges to be the main audience, who want a reading device that’s good for their eyes and to use it for their studies as well as general readings,” said Jin Young-gyun, a Kyobo spokesman.
Many e-readers, including Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader, use what’s called e-paper technology, invented by Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink Corp. The company claims that E Ink displays are easier to read because they mimic the appearance of ink on papers.
Kyobo also offers perks like an early release of the Steve Jobs’ exclusive biography on its e-book library and video lecture content of EBS, a major Korean educational material provider.
Scrambling to find a niche in e-readers
Ever since Amazon, a U.S. leading e-commerce site, introduced its first e-reader Kindle in 2009, digital reader makers have prospered on their own aside from the ever-growing tablet markets as they offer cheaper e-books and convenient digital reading experiences.
With a stock of over a million digital books, newspapers and magazines, Amazon announced last year that its e-book sales surpassed hardcovers.
An ever-growing Kindle owner, too, is losing money — about $10 for every Kindle Fire, its first tablet version which sells for $199, according to a research firm, IHS iSuppli.
But its success factor is all about volume, analysts say. With its abundant supply of digital media and sales goods, Amazon makes the shopping experience sticky enough for customers to return.
In Korea, demand for e-books was on the rise when Samsung Electronics first introduced its e-reader, SNE-50K in 2009 and SNE-60K the next year, but soon it dwindled due to a limited e-book selection. Once Kyobo e-books were made available on those devices, its e-book sales more than tripled in 2010, compared to a year ago, Jin, the Kyobo’s spokesman, said.
Other companies with similar products, including iRiver Story and Neolux’s NUUT, attempted to expand their content by offering Google Books and the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, respectively, but both failed to survive the already-crowded market with no particular appeal in price or design.
Another reason for sagging demand in the Korean digital reader market is the lack of a reading culture in general and digital reading habits lag even further, Lee said.
Koreans ranked bottom among the 30 OECD countries in their monthly reading with an average of less than one book compared to 6.6 in the U.S. and 6.1 in Japan.
Market strategy in Korea
It is a consensus among analysts that leading hardware manufacturers like Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics will further invest in vertical markets of digital devices. In other words, a smartphpone maker like Samsung Electronics has a better chance to advance into tablet and e-reader markets than a newcomer who produce nothing but digital readers.
For a content provider like Kyobo, it will need to partner with the dominant players in coming up with a compelling device in terms of design, function and price, said Choi In-hyuk, a partner and a managing director at Boston Consulting Group.
At the moment, it’s questionable if consumers will choose Kyobo’s e-reader with a $305 price tag when an iPad is offered at $399. Or if they’re willing to buy both gadgets at all.
The Korean book seller will also need to open its contents to other device makers as Amazon made its Kindle apps available on iPad, iPhones as well as other Android-based devices.
“Unlike large markets, such as the U.S., in which hardware companies and content holders compete for digital consumers, Korean contents suppliers and device makers would rather rely on each other in the long run,” Choi said.