Despite being around since the mid-nineties, eBooks have never really taken off and this is mainly down to the fact that eBook readers, which have been available for about a decade, have proven prohibitively expensive and barely more convenient than lugging around a couple of paperbacks. Sony and BeBook have seen relative success in recent times, along with the Amazon Kindle, but a new competitor in the form of Asus could be set to breathe new life into the market.

The device is currently being dubbed the Eee-reader and will undoubtedly look to build on the reputation for value and practicality garnered by Asus’ Eee PC range.

It’s off to a good start in terms of price, claiming to be the world’s cheapest digital reader. From the available image, it doesn’t look like Asus has sacrificed quality or usability in order to achieve this goal. Most notable is the hinged-spine design that apes the layout of an actual book, and should contribute nicely to comfort and general operation. Full-color touchscreens will be used to flick back and forth between pages, and users will allegedly be able to browse the web on one page while displaying a book or virtual keyboard on the other.

The presence of a speaker, webcam and microphone starts to draw the Eee Reader away from conventional digital reading device into Netbook territory, and though further details are scarce at present there’s enough here to generate some serious interest.

The Eee Reader, if indeed this is the name it will go by, is expected to be officially unveiled before the year is out and will likely be available in both budget and premium versions. The expected retail price is around £100 (USD$167) and while this may still be too expensive to help eBooks break into the mainstream market, the added advantage of its additional features would suggest that it’s certainly capable of making a splash.