The Amazon Kindle hit the market in late 2007. It wasn't the first e-reader, but it appeared to have the lead in ease-of-use: digital ink (so it looks like print on paper, not a computer screen), wireless downloads ("no computer, no cables, no syncing") through a cell-based connection, and capacity for 200 titles. It got better with the next release: memory increased to 1,500 books and the price eventually came down to $259. There's also a Kindle DX to help in the textbook market, with a larger screen and larger memory ($489).
Tomorrow, Barnes & Noble launches a full-color Nook ($259), which seems to challenge Amazon in the e-reader market. In addition to a built-in ability to "share" e-books, Nook offers easier access to copyright-free materials (e.g., books old enough to be free, such as the huge compilation available on Google) and the opportunity for "touch and feel" in any of its brick-and-mortar stores.
Both products offer 6-inch screens (Kindle DX is 9.7 inches), free wireless access (no cell charges), access to their respective online bookstores (with options to buy lots of titles and subscriptions), the ability to "shelve" books in your online account for later retrieval, the ability to resize print, and both weigh less than 1 pound.
Is one for you (or me)? If you live in the contiguous 48 states, it appears either should work smoothly. If you live, say, in Alaska, you should be aware that Nook runs on AT&T 3G, which is only available in the great Anchorage area. 2G appears to be available in other areas, but a helpful online forum user suggested one would gain speedier access to downloads through wi-fi. Amazon's has "whispernet" coverage (purportedly through Sprint) and 3G or "Edge," is available in similar capacity to AT&T. Again, anything less than 3G or wi-fi may have less-than-optimal speed.
Also, consider your material source. Kindle reads e-books from Amazon.com and pdfs, but won't allow copyright protected materials or materials from other sources, such as other online sellers or libraries. You also can't borrow and lend with your fellow e-book enthusiasts. Nook offers sharing, but just one book at a time, and only for 2 weeks. Neither allow you to sell or donate your books.
And now to discuss obsolescence. A December 1, 2009 Wall Street Journal article suggested that this might be "an eight-track moment." Already, I'm thinking my best choice will be an iPod Touch, which picks up wi-fi and a free "Kindle Reader" app (and any other apps), with the same ability to access Amazon.com (when in wi-fi range, of course), as well as any other internet site. The screen is admittedly smaller than an e-reader, but my good eyes should last me through its lifespan. The WSJ article also suggests that an inexpensive laptop or netbook might be a better investment than an e-reader, though those are bulkier than any of the choices mentioned thus far.
I haven't yet discussed the e-Readers available from Sony and other manufacturers. I barely looked into them and am really really unqualified to comment. If you wish to research the market further, the WSJ article references Cooler Reader, Irex, Plastic Logic Que (to be launched in January 2010 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas), as well as three editions of the Sony Reader. I'm sure there are many more, and many more on the way. Apple is rumored to have one in the works.
I encourage comments on this post - let's learn together!
(Oh, and a link to a blog authored by someone who actually follows this industry: booksahead.com.)