Touted, talked about, and speculated about for years, e-readers are finally white hot.

The market is expected to explode in 2010, with the offerings expanding far beyond Amazon’s Kindle, long the dominant player. Suddenly, an e-reader looks like the next consumer gadget must-have. “By far and away, e-readers are going to be one of the most popular consumer electronic categories in 2010,’’ says author and analyst Scott Steinberg, who publishes the gadget/tech website “E-readers are going to hog the lion’s share of the media attention.”

Joining Kindle on the market are Sony’s well-advertised Digital Reader and Barnes &Noble’s Nook.  Plastic Logic is taking aim at business professionals with its QUE proReader.

Why your business should care

With the exception of Plastic Logic’s e-reader, most of these devices are targeted at consumers. And in 2009, even consumer usage was limited, says Ned May, director and lead analyst for Outsell, Inc., a research and advisory firm for the publishing and information industries.

However, take note of the comparison May draws between e-readers and another device that has been adapted for business use. “There’s a parallel to the early days of mobile phones,’’ he says. “In the beginning, mobile phones were primarily the realm of real estate agents who could justify that usage.”

As e-reader use skyrockets, smart businesses will innovate, figuring out ways the devices can help propel business.

Where e-readers fit in

You might find a number of potential business applications for e-readers, depending in some instances on the type of business you run, Steinberg says. Among the potential benefits:

  • Telling your story.  Perhaps your best bet in these early stages is using the e-reader as a business marketing tool. Think of it as the next evolution of blogging. Producing short e-books on subjects related to your business or re-purposing white papers or case studies could be useful, Steinberg says. “It’s an excellent way to establish yourself as an expert in the space,’’ he says. There’s a hunger for content right now, and simply offering your content for free and providing that expert voice gets you in on the ground floor of this new communications vehicle. As the market develops, it could be you’ll find a way to monetize your content. But right now, think about materials you can produce simply and quickly, hitting the market at this early stage. Best of all, taking a chance on the e-reader market in this way requires no outlay of cash for the device itself.
  • Going green/saving the green stuff. If your business prints multiple copies of white papers, reports, and documents, you’re likely to see both financial and environmental savings by using e-readers for business documents. Sometime in the near future “you will no longer bear the cost of paper and ink,” says Jim Gaines, editor-in-chief of online publication FLYPmedia and a long-time top-level editor for Time, Inc. publications.  “The migration from print to digital is manifest destiny.”  E-readers cost a few hundred dollars (The Kindle sells for $259, the Kindle DX is $489, and the Sony E Reader starts at $199), an investment quickly recouped when you consider the cost of printing and binding reports and other documents.
  • Having a library in your pocket. For attorneys and business professionals who must wade through endless documentation, e-readers offer instant access to libraries’ worth of information on devices the size of modest notebooks. “This is going to appeal to the personality that has a voracious appetite for information,’’ Steinberg says.
  • Reading comfortably. Certainly, it’s possible to download documents on other devices. You likely do soon a daily basis. Book applications abound on the iTunes store. However, there’s a comfort factor involved when it comes to reading long stretches of text on computer or smartphone screens. E-readers utilizing E Ink technology provide a more pleasant reading experience that more closely simulates reading a book, and the device screen sizes are significantly larger than a smartphone screen. “A smartphone is still not particularly ergonomic for reading anything large scale,’’ Steinberg says.

The downside to e-readers

E-readers remain a rather gray world amid the Technicolor, gee-whiz offerings we’re accustomed to seeing in digital devices. For the most part, they also have limited functionality compared to other devices. Gaines thinks the eagerly awaited, much-rumored Apple tablet will offer convergence, allowing for the addition of multimedia storytelling and providing the sort of multi-purpose experience to which we’ve grown accustomed. “What this next generation of devices will do is replace the netbook,’’ Gaines says.

He foresees a business person needing little besides a notebook-sized device and a smartphone. May, the publishing analyst, agrees convergence is coming and says, “I’m not sure there is a tremendous case for a business to go out and buy a department full of Kindles.’’

A technology you can’t ignore

Still, says Steinberg, you should carefully evaluate how e-readers might fit your business plan and monitor trends as they unfold. “The reality is, for a small business, it’s not necessarily a must-have purchase at this point, but it’s definitely one that is recommendable and can be advantageous,’’ he says. “We’re at the early adoption phase. At this point, you can’t ignore the e-reader market. It would be foolish.”