Do e-readers belong in the workplace?

You may bring a paperback book to work to read on breaks or the train ride in, but you probably don’t keep it in your pocket or whip it out at the office desk. The e-reader, being a tech gadget, would be even more distracting; as a book with a screen and buttons, and in some cases internet and music, it would appear that e-book is simply not fit for the workplace.

But before we go there, let’s look at some facts: First of all, e-readers definitely don’t seem to need to enter the business world to succeed. Their anticipated 2010 revenue is well over $1 billion, and is expected to double to $2.5 billion by 2013 in the U.S. alone. More than 6 million units will be sold this year in the States, and that number will increase by several million per year, pushing 20 million by 2013.

Second, there are huge differences between low- and high-end e-readers. Which type of reader has office potential?

Let’s take a loot at, the Kobo. At $150, it’s one of the cheapest around, though in the future the standard price point is expected to be around $150, with lower-end models dropping below that. But for now, it’s affordable by comparison. Fairly, you get what you pay for, which is a relatively bare-bones device. It has a 6-inch screen, and has a plain, simple array of buttons to perform the basic tasks it’s designed to do. It comes standard with 1 GB of storage, or around 1,000 books, and can be upgraded for an additional 4 GB. It’s got different font sizes, both serif and sans serif. You can add documents by either a USB connected to a PC, or via a bluetooth connection. It lasts about 8,000 page turns on one battery life. Most importantly, it handles PDF documents.

On the higher end, there is Sony’s “PRS-600.” For some reason, Sony must have thought “Kobo” and “Kindle” were awful stupid names for e-readers, and decided to go with something a little more technical. Who needs fun and creative words when you have empty acronyms and hollow numbers that mean nothing to consumers? But I disgress. Sony’s $250 device is a stout, bulky Kobo with an array of bells and whistles dangling from its neck: it’s slightly smaller, slightly heavier, and filled to the brim with features. It has a touch screen with virtual computer and hand-writing capabilities via a stylus, along with MP3 capability (including volume controls and a headphone jack). It can have its memory upgraded too, like the Kobo, which is good because its starting memory is insultingly low (less than 400 MB), especially for the price. It can be charged by USB or an A/C adapter, which it will need after about 7,500 page turns. Most importantly, it handles PDF documents, and well at that.

As you can see, looking at just two of several e-reader devices, there are variations abound. Can either work for the office?

Well, look at the uses it might have—businesses are looking at them for note taking (via stylus or virtual keyboard) as the notes could be more easily emailed, exchanged, or duplicated. They’re also great for loading up PDFs onto, which can be anything from the aforementioned notes, to technical or operating manuals, to new or updated policies and mission statements, to catalogues, spec sheets, proposals, and any other business document imaginable. Suddenly they seem like a pretty nifty thing for business folk to be carrying around.

But can e-readers handle the long workdays the business environment will throw at them? Yes, thanks to E-Ink Technology. This technology, used by almost all e-readers, draws battery power only when the display changes—so you can remain on one page for hours without draining the battery.

The ultimate question, then, is which e-reader suits the office best? And, like any ultimate question, the answer is basically that it depends. Sony’s model, for example, handles PDF’s excellently, which is vital, and boasts additional fucntionality—but for $250, how many business can afford to hand these out? Plus, with so many extra features, there is also a risk for distraction.

Alternatively, Kobo is affordable, but its PDF-handling is rough around the edges, and any operations that are less than smooth are generally more trouble than they’re worth. But the stripped-down simplicity of the device makes it great for focused, singular business use.

E-readers are a very new technology, and apt to change dramatically over the next few years, as competitors vie for mark share and push the boundaries of innovation. However, it remains to be seen if e-readers will truly make it big time, or fall into the back burner as mere simulacrums of multi-use tablets and smartphones. Business use could very well be the determining factor.

So, what do you think? Does your company use e-readers for anything, or plan to? Why or why not?