Dual-screen readers/netbooks try to take on the iPad. Will consumers bite?

This newspaper article contains comments of mine about dual-screen readers and netbooks as alternatives to other portable devices. Publication date was July 2010.

By: Steve Lambert

If a one-screen tablet like Apple’s iPad is a good thing, would a two-screen tablet be twice as good?

Some manufacturers seem to think so. There are a growing number of e-reader/netbook combinations in the works that promise consumers the ability to read, surf, watch or play across two screens.

The announcement of new dual-screen products has become almost a monthly event. The latest example is the Toshiba Libretto, a limited-edition dual touchscreen PC that runs Windows 7.

When it hits store shelves in August, you’ll be able to use it in portrait mode to read electronic books, magazines or newspapers, with each screen serving as a left and right page – a familiar feeling for those who crave the feel of reading a physical book. The pages even appear to turn like physical pages, from right to left across both screens, when you go to the next page.

In landscape mode, you can bring up a virtual keyboard on the lower screen and use the top screen as a display. Or you can run multiple applications at once – an attractive proposition for some.

“I’m sure there’s a market for it,” said Brad Trupp, a Winnipeg software developer. “A lot of people will have one thing going – you know, reading a book – on one side while watching their (stock) market quotes or something on the other.”

MSI and Asus, among others, are also developing two-screen devices that try to straddle the line between netbook and tablet reader. University students, for example, could read a textbook on one screen while writing notes on the other, or watch a movie on one screen while chatting online or checking email on the second.

But will consumers be willing to shell out more cash and put up with more weight for the second screen? Display screens are a big part of the cost and weight of any electronic device. Toshiba, for example, has not yet announced the price of its Libretto, but websites such as Engadget are reporting a probable pricetag of more than US$1,000.

For that reason alone, some are skeptical that we are headed for a two-screen universe.

“I can go buy, for that same price, an e-reader for my wife, one for myself, for my kids, (and) both sets of our parents,” said Duncan Stewart, Deloitte Canada’s research director for media and technology.

Stewart says the future more likely belongs to a single-screen, multi-tasking tablet in the $400 price range, able to run Android, Linux or some other operating system that will allow users to install software of their choice and customize the device to their liking.

Even Apple’s popular iPad, which has been criticized for not having multi-tasking ability or physical features such as a camera, will move toward multiple functionality in the next couple of years, Stewart predicts.

The tablet market is still in its infancy, according to Jeff Orr, an analyst with A.B.I. Research, a New York-based technology market research firm. And, while some consumers will want to shift to tablets that are multi-tasking computers, many will continue to seek devices specifically geared toward single tasks such as reading electronic books, he said.

”(People) will be interested in buying a dedicated consumer electronics device if they want to do that one activity frequently and do it in an excellent way,” Orr said, adding that dedicated e-readers generally have screens that are easier on the eyes and use much less battery power than multi-tasking computers with LCD screens.

There are also efforts underway to create a mashup of the best of both worlds. The Entourage Edge from Entourage Systems Inc. has two different screens – one LCD and one e-reader.

In the end, will all this change lead to an all-in-one tablet/netbook/reader hybrid, maybe one that also incorporates a phone and video camera? Perhaps one day, Trupp said.

“We should get to that, where you carry around only one device and not five or six – your phone, your e-reader, your laptop, your netbook, your MP3 player – and we are approaching that,” he said.