Next-Gen E-Readers for Emerging Markets

Based on the lively EBN conversation about tablets and e-readers, maybe it’s time to develop a list of next-generation features and take a closer look at emerging market potential. (See: Tablets vs. Textbooks: E-Text Use on the Rise and The Pros & Cons: Tablets vs. Textbooks.) After all, supply chain managers will soon be collaborating with marketing teams, software and hardware design engineers, and suppliers on the bill of materials for products expected to hit the shelves in the coming quarters.

As Barbara Jorgensen pointed out here, digital note taking, advance search capabilities, and email pass-along options would be nifty add-ons for many students and individuals alike. But, while device manufacturers busy themselves with satisfying the demands of Western consumers for slick Kindles, iPads, Nooks, and Xooms, there’s another distinct market surfacing that has a completely different set of needs: school children and teachers in the developing world.

This is where has focused its mission of bringing libraries of e-books to all people in all parts of the world. What has quickly become evident from its iRead pilot with 500 school kids and teachers in Ghana is that programs like this could be even more successful and reach more people if low-cost, next-generation e-readers were designed and built with the specific needs of the developing world in mind. Check out this recent article posted on Mashable, or click on the video below to see what kind of impact Worldreader is having.

In the spirit of full transparency, I volunteer with this group. And, because I both believe in ethical journalism and want to see Worldreader’s work continue, I will donate the money I make on this blog entry to them. My only interest with this post is to bridge groups of people that could mutually benefit from talking to each other while, literally, doing a world of good for others.

Worldreader’s e-reader of choice right now is the Amazon Kindle. From my vantage point as a volunteer and based on what I've heard, the devices appear to work fine as they are. But they would be even better for users in the developing world if they were:

  • More rugged
  • Better protected from heat and dust
  • Lit in a way that children without electricity or reliable 24-hour power sources could use them for extended amounts of time
  • Powered by solar energy
  • Stripped down for reading purposes only (for instance, can MP3 and other features that use precious battery and storage space be shut off?)

Worldreader talks about some other challenges they face in this blog post.

In short, here’s the shout out to device manufacturers. How quickly can a low-cost e-reader be designed and built to serve the developing world? What market dynamics must be in place for OEMs to explore this kind of emerging market potential? How can we get this next-gen e-reader dialog going?

The way I see it, people in places like Africa, Asia, and South America would probably embrace e-readers in much the same way that they latched onto cellphones. From an industry perspective, the low-cost model has already evolved a few times over in the desktop computer, laptop, and mobile handset markets. It seems to follow that e-readers could follow a similar cycle.

Also, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this exact conversation starts coming up among high-tech, telecom, and industry experts at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which Marc Herman and I will be covering.

The timing, in fact, would be perfect, given the splash {complink 379|Apple Inc.} recently made with its iPad growth, {complink 12925|Motorola Mobility Inc.}'s anticipated Xoom tablet rollout and concerns about a crowded tablet market, the convergence of various mobile communication formats, and increased competition for consumer dollars. (See: Crowded Tablet Market Needs to Shrink.)

With all that playing in the background, device manufacturers and telecom operators may be keen on the idea of tapping underserved geographies and markets.

17 comments on “Next-Gen E-Readers for Emerging Markets

  1. AnalyzeThis
    February 7, 2011

    Thanks for promoting (and volunteering) for this cause, Jennifer!

    I have written before on here about my opinion that e-Readers will soon drop dramatically in price, down to the $25-$50 and become much more popular in U.S. schools… but being ethnocentric, I suppose I never considered the advantages of e-Reader use in the developing world.

    I am sure the current textbook situation in many of these countries is quite dire, so having an e-Reader that could provide enough teaching material for multiple classes across multiple grades in one handy unit would be an invaluable teaching tool. The advantages are so numerous, for example, an advanced student wouldn't have to be limited by a regular textbook and could pursue advanced reading on his or her own very easily, for instance.

    However, you are right that there will probably need to be specialized readers for these situations. A lower price point is important of course, but designing e-Readers to survive harsher conditions and increased use (due to sharing e-Readers) are a must, as you mention. This is another area where e-Readers have an advantage over tablets, as the simpler architecture of the e-Reader will likely lead to longer service life.

    Anyhow, thanks for your work with this organization, and I hope that within the decade that the Worldreader dream is realized. I think from a technical level and a cost standpoint, it will be possible.

  2. jbond
    February 7, 2011

    I think this is a fabulous idea. The impact that these students receive is so great it is hard to imagine the endless educational gains. I also agree that they need to be simplified and built tougher to withstand the rigors of not always being in ideal locations. If they could implement some of the characteristics of Panasonic's Toughbook along with some of Sprint's Nextel phones, these devices would last longer and be used in the typical settings of some of the Third World countries. By reducing the costs and eliminating some of those extras that we take for granted, these next gen e-readers could make a large global impact. 

  3. Hawk
    February 7, 2011

    Jennifer, I wish I could share your optimism that simply giving rudimentary e-readers adapted to rugged conditions would change the dynamics of learning in developing economies. The reality is far different than the video clip you showed demonstrates. Yes, they can use simpler e-readers but the developing world is not populated by simple, developing minds. People in these countries want the same things others in developed economies enjoy.Often, they want these more.

    In fact, the reality is that some of the technologies in use in many developed economies nowadays are behind the curve of what is being used in some other so-called developing regions. Then there is the question of profit. OEMs, unlike Jennifer, are in this purely for the money and not for altruism. Even Jennifer will not want to donate all her earnings to anyone. Her best good cause is Jennifer herself. The same applies to equipment manufacturers too.

  4. prabhakar_deosthali
    February 8, 2011

    If e-readers have to become popular in the developing countries , the OEMS manufacturing such e-readers need the support from the local govenrments. Currently the text-books for school children are heavily subsidised by the governments. Another aspect is that the content has to be in the local language of the students- whether it is audio or text. Such content can only be developed by the local companies. The content also has to have the local references. Forcing the students in Ghana to recite the Nursay rhymes written for the Amecan kids may not be the right way of spreading the  education. So it has to be collaborative effort between the e-reader manufacturers and the content developers in the individual nations for such effort to become successful.

  5. Susan Fourtané
    February 8, 2011


    What a wonderful initiative from both you and Worldreader! 

    This blog certainly has much more in it than triggering a lively discussion about a hot and timely topic today. This is a heartwarming blog that sends some light and joy to our hearts when seeing the faces of teachers and students who are excited about using an e-reader for learning.

    The initiative of thinking about how to improve education in the developeing nations, how to help students and teachers around the globe to have access to the endless amount of information available in the online libraries is just fantastic. 

    Manufacturers of all the different e-readers and tablets should take also the initiative of making e-readers accessible to all. 


  6. Susan Fourtané
    February 8, 2011


    I agree with asking local governments for support and involving local software developers and/or translators. 

    Now, I believe that living in a globalized world pretty much require the students in every single part of the world to be prepared for international education and global markets. This can only happen if every school in the globe offer a bilingual education -local language and English. This means that the e-readers would be almost useless if they offer the information in only the local langauge as so much would be missing in the education and preparation of the generations to come. You can like it or not but this is the reality of today and the future of the next generations. 

    I find it quite a strong accusation when you say “ Forcing the students in Ghana to recite the Nursay rhymes written for the Amecan kids may not be the right way of spreading the  education.”   Do you have a source or evidence about this? Honestly, I don't believe this is the case. 


  7. Jennifer Baljko
    February 8, 2011

    @prabhakar_deosthali – You are absolutely correct in saying this is a shared effort involving more than one group. It can only be successful if government, book publishers, content providers, education experts, international aid organizations, manufacturers, and the local community are involved from the get-go. While I don't know how other programs would or could work in other places, I know Worldreader is actively engaged with all of these entities on the exact issues you raise. Here's what they're doing in Kenya, for instance:

    @hawk – I don't completely disagree with you. It would be naive to say ruggedized e-readers would, in and of, themselves change learning in the developing world where there are many other issues in play. What e-readers do, however, is put a new learning tool into the hands of educators and school children who otherwise would have severely limited teaching options available to them. Fundamentally, it's a way to open a door to different opportunities that may not have been possible without the technology. We don't have to look far to see how technology, in general, has already impacted social, economic, educational, and political interactions in all parts of the world, but in particular in the developing world. Take Egypt. Would we be as tuned in to this important stand for democracy if SMS, Twitter, Facebook, and other tech platforms were out of reach for people in Tahrir Square? You can also look at the impact cell phone availability has had on women and small business owners all over the developing world. All sorts of successful entrepreneurial activities have begun and helped numerous families (think of the women who got a cell phone and a microloan, and now can afford to send her children to college), in part, because OEMs and telecom operators chose  to make and sell low-cost handsets with pay-as-you-go usage models. And, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the potential mobile apps and devices, like tablets, could have in the medical or emergency management sectors, other areas where stripped down technology platforms could have life-saving value.

    This ties into the profit issue you raised. I don't expect OEMs to give away their earnings, nor do I believe they have to. There is a way to make money in this if innovative, solutions-oriented people from different industries put their heads together. Most consumer electronics manufacturers – whether they sell phones, laptops, DVDs, cameras, etc – know, from the moment their products hit the market, that value is constantly being lost. Each iteration drives that point home. Better, faster, cheaper is a long-standing tech profit model. OEMs know full well that they can't escape low-profit margins. The question, then, is how do they maximize revenue and lower operating costs. The way they largely have dealt with that is by selling more plain Jane, mass-produced units to more geographies or emerging markets. Additionally as @DennisQ points out, lower price points don't just win traction in low-income countries, they also appeal to many U.S. and Western shoppers as well.

    I appreciate the dialog here. It has me thinking of things that hadn't crossed my mind.

  8. prabhakar_deosthali
    February 8, 2011

    Susan,  I am sorry if you have taken the example of Ghana as an accusation. I really did not mean anything specific to Ghana or what is happening there. It just is  an example of what would happen.  In India I happened to have worked with a voluntary organization to impart additional education to school children from slum areas. To my surprise the organization forced us volunteers to use ONLY ENGLISH  to communicate with these primary level students. I felt for teaching a difficlut subject like Maths , the local language is more suitable to convey the basic concepts of maths and their usage in day to day life.  Here we are talking of first the basic education and not the international level !  The modern tools like e-readers and modern teaching methods will defintely help but the education content should remain at primitive level which these lowest level students can grasp.


    Another example – Once I happened  to meet the grandparents of an indian kid whose family has settled in Switzerland. In Switzerland there is a govt rule that the pre-primary and primary education must be given in the child's mother tongue. For this indian family the school could not provide the teacher in the kid's mother tongue. So they hired the kids mother as teacher in the school and she with the guidance from the school gave lessons to the kid in his mother tongue. 

  9. Susan Fourtané
    February 9, 2011


    The way you put it sounds like you are accusing Ghana of forcing the students and, to me, it sounds you are talking especifically about Ghana, which is the topic we are discussing, and not just any example where you don't involve a specific place. 

    Sorry to mention this again but the organization in India “forced you ” or “asked you”? It makes a lot of a difference. Didn't you have the chance to say you wouldn't particpate as voluntary if you didn't like the way they were working? 

    The case of India and the languages is quite particular and I would guess a bit complicated for the population because they have different languages depending on the region apart from Hindi and English. (being my favorite word in Sanskrit: Satyagraha) 

    In the case you mention I would guess the organization was, maybe, trying to unify using only one language that could serve the students in the future to have access to better possibilities and/or to give them the opportunity of learning something new, like the English language. Then again, I am just guessing about the organization's intentions. 

    When the educational content remains “primitive ” it doesn't allow the students to use and develop their whole potential. Therefore, they will be deprived to access better opportunities in the future. It is not good to underestimate any student at any level from any social condition. All the students are the same and possess the same capacity. The difference will come depending on the possibilities they are offered. 

    Teaching is not just passing on knowledge. Teaching requires certain special training that teachers go through for many years in order to be able to provide a good learning experience to the students. There are methods, techniques, theories of teaching, phychology and many other things that a teacher study in order to perform well as a teacher. Why do teachers' training colleges exist then, if anyone could just go teaching? 



  10. Ariella
    February 9, 2011

    I only recently read  Defoe's Robinson Crusoe , which really does reflect imperialistic values Though they spend many years toghether, the hero of the book never learns the language of the native who keeps on his man. He names him Friday because that was the day on which they met and never bothers to even ask him what his name is in his native language. Friday learns English and is able to translate for his master when they meet up with some others. But the master feels no sense of inadequacy in his own lack of language skills because, after all, he knows English.  

    The two sides of the issue on which language to use when instructing students whose native language is not English is one that also comes up in American public schools. There are advocates for bilingual education who believe that children shoudl receive instruction in their native language while being eased into English.  The opposing view is that they should only be taught in English and that total immersion in that lanaguage will be to their benefit as they will pick it up more quickly that way.  The former view is the more liberal one, while the latter is the more traditional route, which assumes the dominant language and culture will win out.   English is the language that will open more doors for these children, but there are many other subtexts at work, as well.


  11. Jennifer Baljko
    February 9, 2011

    Thanks, everyone, for raising issues related to language and cultural challenges. I suppose the simple answer is: Standards will depend on each individual educational program and country. Logically, there should be complimentary balance between perserving local culture and language with the availablity of a variety of English-learning tools. Another facet is the availability of local language content in digital formats. How local language content will be distrubuted and used in classrooms via mobile technology clearly depends on how quickly  (local and international) content providers and publishers can digitize books and materials for all sorts of English and non-English markets.

    As for Ghana, since that has come up here a few times, according Wikipedia: “There are 47 local l anguages in Ghana . English is the country's official language and predominates in government and business affairs. It is also the standard language used for educational instruction.”

    Therefore, in Ghana, it's not uncommon at to find children who easily jump between several languages, of which English is one. And, as one Worldreader blog entry states: “It was especially fascinating listening to the kids read local stories—which shows us how the publishing work we’ve done of local textbooks and story books is critical.” 

    Besides electronic versions of textbooks already being used in the classrooms and classic literature tomes available to them, you can see what kids and teachers in Ghana are downloading and reading here.



  12. Parser
    February 9, 2011

    Also I have to say it is truly wonderful initiative.

    To make a reader affordable many functions might be removed others are simplified. I think keeping some kind of MP3 player would be highly beneficial. After all it is part of the progress which enables us to reach those unfortunate.

    Isn't the same Kindle or its special version?

    Who does belong to the Worldreader organization?

  13. Susan Fourtané
    February 10, 2011

    Hi, Ariella 

    Robinson Crusoe was first published 292 years ago in 1719. I don't think it's possible to compare the different values and needs of a the gloabalized world of today with the world as it was almost 300 years ago. Maybe a contrast analysis would be more adequate but then again, I don't see how to match is with the case in Ghana and e-readers. Robinson Crusoe is a very interesting work for analysis, though. 

    I certainly believe in practicality and I also believe that acquiring an international language of communication is what best will help the students of any part of the world today and in their furure years of study and/or work. 

    The world is becoming smaller as we speak with the current demand of international collaboration. Today's reality and experience is that the one who doesn't speak the common language of international business is easily left out with less possibilities of advancement. Who would be so blind for not seeing that not offering the students the tools that they would really need would play against them in the future? 

    As for language learning, total immersion in the target language since the early years or a true bilingual education is what best works. At some point the brain will decide which one will be the first or primary language and which one will be left in second place. In true bilinguals the first or primary language doesn't necessarily coincide with the language spoken in the place of birth. 


  14. Ariella
    February 10, 2011

    Susan, definitely, Defoe's work reflects the values of his day.  And we can have a critical perspective on it in light of the advances of the past 3 centuries.  But it does still point to the imperialistic attitude that many would say still exists. I think it would be great for a writer to write a take on the novel from Friday's perspective.  

    Even in the US, whether or not to declare English the official language is a matter of politics. The approach to educating children whose mother tongue is not English has been debated for some time. is one example that comes out in favor of instruction in the native language. Perhaps the writer is a member of, The National Association for Bilingual Education.  There are a number of organizations on the opposing side that want English to dominate.  They are listed on the bottom of the page of, which also has a large number of sources on the topic.  On example of the  argument against bilingual education can be seein in  

    Both my parents were born in countries in which English was not spoken.  They had no choice but to learn it when living in the US.  My father came to the US when he was 5 and was beaten up by the American kids until he was able to speak English. Even though his parents still spoke their native language at home, he picked up English.  Based on that, I would have to say that instruction in English would work.  But it's still a complicated issue with political ramifications. 

  15. elctrnx_lyf
    February 11, 2011

    E-readers will definitely revolutionize the way students are educated in both developed and developing nations. And the initiative by world reader is really amazing and I wish many people would be benefited. It is been a great challenge all the time to provide equal opportunities to the people in city and urban areas to excel in their education. In this regard I can clearly say Technology could show a better way for the future.

  16. Jennifer Baljko
    February 11, 2011


    @Parser – Worldreader was founded in November 2009 as a Barcelona, Spain, and US-based 501c(3) public charity. It's a grassroots effort headed up by:

    David Risher, who previously served as general manager at Microsoft and was later’s Senior Vice President of US Retail. He was also a professor, and served on various education-related boards.

    Colin McElwee, who started out as an economist, and has done brand development in a number of developing countries in Africa and Latin America. He's also been very involved with ESADE, a prominent business school in Barcelona, as well as other educational and commercial organizations.

    More info is posted at


  17. Mr. Roques
    February 13, 2011

    Regarding price, how can Amazon cut on the costs of the Kindle? MP3 capabilities isn't going to be change the price.

    I don think getting a more rugged e-reader and solar power capabilities is a good idea but I don't think Amazon (or any other) can /or will/ change their design just for that market.

    I work directly with rural communities (specifically with rural broadband) and I'm in constant talk with manufacturers and operators to see how we can adapt popular designs to special rural conditions. 

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