Although it is far from a mature market, it is always worth watching developments in electronic books — and it has been a busy week in the sector.

Although it is far from a mature market, it is always worth watching developments in electronic books — and it has been a busy week in the sector.

Whatever eventually emerges as this space stabilises has the potential to transform the economics of book publishing — not to mention news periodicals — as profoundly as the digitisation of music publishing has already experienced. And as it is contributing to the creation of demand for consumer electronics that provide mobile access to the internet, it will eventually affect all e-commerce players.

The trend of competing hardware platforms associated with specific retailers’ online storefronts continued as US bookseller Barnes & Noble unveiled an ebook service to rival Amazon’s Kindle — and will be the content store for a new new e-reader from Plastic Logic which is expected to debut in early 2010.

On this side of the Atlantic, where Borders and Waterstones already offer ebook readers, there were rumours that Amazon is preparing a UK launch of the Kindle, possibly in time for Christmas. Meanwhile academic books specialist Blackwell is to bring yet another device to the UK market this week, with the launch of the £199 BeBook reader. Less encouraging was the news that UK-based Polymer Vision had been placed into administration. The company was developing a foldable e-reader screen which could have transformed the hardware design race between touch-screen mobile phones and ebook tablets.

But while questions about hardware and software are far from settled, perhaps the most important developments came from the lessons Amazon learned about digital rights management and the customer service that users of the new service expect when gadgets they purchase remain permanently tethered to retailers’ digital media stores via the mobile Internet.

Amazon drew criticism for remotely deleting and refunding books from several US customers’ Kindles after the retailer discovered that it didn’t have the rights to distribute them electronically. The retailer could hardly avoid controversy since the affected books were George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm.

The episode demonstrated to consumers that retailers’ retention of control over digital media products after the point of purchase is far from just theoretical. A distant corporation reaching into what consumers perceive as their digital possessions will raise eyebrows, no matter how justified the retailer’s actions are by the requirements of intellectual property law.

It’s clear that this form of digital retailing will raise new ethical and potentially political questions long after the market has finished sorted out the hardware and software.