Asus Angling to Bring Netbook Cred to E-books?

Taiwan-based PC hardware maker Asus is prepping a budget-priced e-reader for release later this year — with the potential to take on more expensive devices from Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble.

In addition to a low-cost device — being called the Eee Reader, according to reports — the plan also includes releasing a more expensive, color-screen model sporting a hinged spine that opens like a book.

Asus, most recently known for pioneering and helping to popularize the low-cost netbook PC category, is set to release its e-reader for about $160 — a price tag that recent research indicates as the sweet spot for enticing new buyers.

Amazon is the leader in the burgeoning e-reader market with its Kindle series, ranging in price from $299 to $489 for the large-screen DX, while Sony is busily cranking out its own e-book readers, with a new model, the $399 Daily Edition unit, going on sale in December. While the Kindle uses a proprietary e-book format, Sony has embraced more open standards, like the EPUB format recently adopted by Google.

They’re not alone, either. Barnes & Noble is slated to offer an e-reader early next year that’s being made by hardware vendor Plastic Logic — but has yet to disclose pricing for its model.

Though many observers expect the e-reader market to continue growing, one reason they have yet to reach mass adoption is cost — most consumers think current prices are way too high, according to a recent survey by Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps.

“What we found was that the price points for how most consumers value eReaders is shockingly low –for most segments, between $50 and $99. Of the 181 million U.S. consumers who are online, 14 percent, or 25 million consumers, say that eReaders priced at $199 or higher are expensive but they’d still consider them for purchase at that price point,” Epps wrote in a blog post highlighting the latest data.

As a result, an Asus e-reader priced below the space’s dominant players could put the company in prime position to cash in.

At the same time, however, reports also indicate that the company is also on tap to release a premium, higher-end e-reader. That might put Asus’s strategy more at odds with the prevailing market dynamic, and would also represent something of a change in direction — considering that much of Asus’ success in the netbook sector is seen as coming as a result of the devices’ low cost.

Asus’s expected high-end model will feature a hinged, dual-screen design that would have readers use a touchscreen to “turn” pages.

Reports indicate the unit may also give users the option of browsing the Web on one screen while viewing an e-book on another, and could include speakers, a mic for VoIP service Skype and a Webcam, bridging the gap between netbook and e-reader.

Spokespeople for Asus had not returned calls seeking comment by press time.

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