Matt Alexander, at The Loop, resurfaces the by-now well-known idea that e-readers (specifically eInk devices like the Kindle) are doomed to quick extinction.
The reasoning is based on the following, quoting from the article (many of the points are repeated two or three times, “technology” in particular):
- Technology. The technology is “[...] inherently stunted. E-ink is slow to refresh, it has ghosting issues thanks to page caching, color is not yet practical, and full motion animation is still a long way off.”
- Multiple devices, oh, and the technology is terrible. “[...] does anyone really need an extra device to carry around? Yes, e-readers are cheap, but the technology behind them is set to directly intersect with the development of pixel-dense, retina LCDs, and feature-rich tablets.”
- Tablets = e-readers. “The Fire is sharing the Kindle name not only because it helps in marketing a new product, but because the concepts are on an inevitable path toward merging. ” — this is an idea that combines both 1) and 2) into a third meta-point.
Lost in all this is what Matt also mentions a couple of times — the “spec” advantages: “ They are cheap, lightweight, have long battery life, and operate well in direct sunlight, but they do little more than present traditional literature in an electronic package.” But I’ll come back to this.
Allow me, however, to start with point 3) by allowing, that, yes e-readers aren’t tablets. And that’s a good thing. Affordances matter. If this wasn’t true, wristwatches would have disappeared long ago (we all have clocks in our phones, right? Not to mention there are clocks everywhere in any industrialized nation). This is especially true in media, since different formats don’t just allow a different physical relationship between you and the object (as would be the case in the wristwatch example), but also allow different ways of expression for content creators. These two things lead us to create millions of variants of tools that are created to fit both the task and the user. So e-readers not being tablets is not a problem, it’s an advantage. Plus, “They are cheap, lightweight, have long battery life, and operate well in direct sunlight.”
What of point 2) then? Proliferation of devices does seem to be a problem, but it’s primarily a problem that is pervasive among the nerditry (myself included). Not that nerds are the only ones that have lots of devices; what I’m saying is that we’re the only ones that think that this is a gigantic problem. People, by and large, are comfortable with the idea that different devices (or “tools” in the widest sense of the word) for different things, as long as it’s clear what they do. And in terms of proliferation, well. How many people do you know that have both iPads and iPhones? Talk about duplication of function there. In any case, e-readers aren’t competing with tablets. They’re competing with books. It’s not “one ereader vs one tablet” but rather, “one ereader vs dozens or hundreds of books”. Oh, and e-readers are “cheap, lightweight, have long battery life, and operate well in direct sunlight”
On to point 1) — the technology. This is completely irrelevant, as anyone who has used an e-reader for long periods of time can attest. The “ghosting” issue is not noticeable for real use (as opposed to watching the display while you’re writing a review). Animations are irrelevant since it’s about books. Also, before I forget: “They are cheap, lightweight, have long battery life, and operate well in direct sunlight.”
So let’s go back to e-readers as devices that are “cheap, lightweight, have long battery life, and operate well in direct sunlight”.
This is a point that is always mentioned in these articles, and always somehow dismissed as largely irrelevant in the long term, but it’s crucial. You can get a new Kindle today (with unobtrusive ads on the “screensaver”) for $79. The most expensive one will cost you twice that. I can easily see a point in a year or two when Amazon will simply give away Kindles to people with Prime, or maybe even to anyone with an Amazon account and enough purchasing history. Meanwhile, the iPad is at $500 and the Fire at $200. And the iPad is a far, far superior product as a true “tablet.” Tablets will continue to be heavier, more expensive, and have shorter battery life, and, yes, will continue to not be quite readable under many lighting conditions. By the way, the difference in price also leads to a difference in use. You will be far less stressed about someone stealing your $79 Kindle than your $500 iPad. You will take the Kindle to the beach, and on trips, far more often. And so on.
Affordances matter. What something is replacing matters. A 3-5-10x difference in price matters. A 2-3x difference in weight matters. A 5-10x difference in battery life matters. Usability matters (particularly when it means “I can use this absolutely anywhere”).
Tablets will keep growing, mostly at the expense of PCs and laptops, and e-readers will keep selling by the millions. And, yes, many people will use tablets as e-readers, but many more will get both. Perhaps the millions of eInk readers a year are just considered a niche in today’s global economies of scale, but, in my book (semantic meta-pun intended), that’s not “doomed”. Or anything even close to it.