German ebook developer txtr has just announced an ultra-cheap, simple e-ink-based ereader, the txtr beagle, which it intends to retail at less than €10. It plans to achieve that price by piggybacking on the functionality already built into a mobile phone.
For the moment that phone will have to run Android, but iOS software is promised soon. Once paired with the beagle, the Android application supports Adobe Digital Editions, so books purchased from anywhere except Amazon – including those electronic editions borrowed from the local library – can be transferred onto the beagle for reading on its 5-inch e-ink screen.
By depending on an Android device for browsing, buying and managing books, the beagle can be kept really simple, and cheap, but even the €10 price is subsidised. There will be an unsubsidised version which will cost more, but we don't yet know how much more.
The connectivity is Bluetooth, and there's no touchscreen or anything like that, but battery life (from a pair of AAAs) is counted at a couple of years (depending on one's reading habits) and the company claims a weight of only 128g, which should be comfortable even if the screen isn't much bigger than the larger Android handsets on the market.
Companion devices have something of a chequered past, or, to be more accurate: they almost invariably fail badly. Palm's Folio (a companion keyboard and screen) didn't even make it out of the door, while the eminently practical Redfly did the same thing but never achieved more than niche status at best. Pico-projectors can turn a mobile phone into a desktop display, but haven't caught on in any measurable way.
Even Motorola's WebTop, which extends a mobile phone into a desktop, has been withdrawn in its hardware form, though the software was incorporated into the last RAZR update and works beautifully over HDMI with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, for the moment at least.
But all those products were trying to push a mobile device into the laptop arena, while the beagle is trying to extend the screen into the ereader category. One can imagine copying off a book to read in bed, or on a plane, enjoying the extended battery life and additional screen; the beagle isn't even recognised as a separate piece of kit by Adobe's DRM, so any content pushed into the Digital Editions app can be shared with the device.
The company won't say what subsidy is needed to achieve that €10 price: the plan is to sell through mobile network operators who'll make the money back selling books, which seems a little optimistic. Once we know the unsubsidised price, and have had a chance to use the device, it will be easier to see what chance the beagle has, but txtr should still be applauded for finding a different approach in a business which is quickly becoming dominated by a small number of very big players. ®