Improvement in tablets may ‘doom’ the e-reader

Is the e-reader doomed? According to Matt Alexander on The Loop, it might just be on its way out as tablets get better and better.

Alexander’s argument basically boils down to the fact that e-ink is an intermediate step, a necessary compromise between readability and display quality. E-ink is evolving toward being able to present color and full motion video, he suggests—and when you have an e-reader that can do that, it won’t be an e-reader anymore, but rather a tablet.

And really, the naming of these devices, the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet/Color, is resounding evidence of the looming death of dedicated 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. The e-ink Kindle is limited, but with the converging technology in displays, its brand and legacy will live on in an entirely different form. The e-ink Kindle and Nook will fall into a niche category, while tablets (or similar) will continue to thrive.

The craze for the fire-sale TouchPads, Alexander suggests, shows that consumers are only putting up with e-readers but what they really want are tablets. (I know that my uncle, who prior to last Christmas was quite pleased with his 3G Kindle Keyboard, is now looking to sell it and buy a Kindle Fire like the one he got for his wife and then fell in love with himself.) E-readers are just a “stopgap” to tide people over until tablets get good enough, and it looks like they’ll be there before long.

This reminds me of what happened to PDAs. They used to be the mobile computing device. but they gradually vanished as smartphones took over everything they could do and added communication capability too. Now phoneless PDA devices like the iPod Touch and the Galaxy Player are very much the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps that future is coming for e-readers, too, if tablets can get good enough and inexpensive enough to take over the niche.

16 Comments on Improvement in tablets may ‘doom’ the e-reader

  1. E-ink readers may not be the hottest thing in the e-reader market, but they are still going to have a place. When I want to sit on the back deck of my houseboat or on the patio at my favorite coffee shop in the warm months, a back-lit tablet is useless.

    Younger eyes may have no problems with long hours of indoor back-lit reading, and I admit that I grab my phone for a few minutes of quick reading while standing in line at the grocery, but any more time than that and my older eyes begin to water.

    When it comes to lazy Summer afternoons or long Winter evenings with a good book, give me a simple e-ink screen. I doubt I’m alone.

  2. Matt Alexander seems a bit clueless. LCD screens may or may not acquire the sharpness of epaper, but they’ll never be as easy to read in bright light. That’d require so much lighting, the batteries would last minutes. That Amazon commercial is right. If you want to read outdoors, you need an epaper device.

    There’s also a silliness about his argument. Tablets are getting more common and popular, therefore epaper readers much go. Not so. It’s quite easy to own both. It’s not like both were the size of refrigerators. And with epaper readers now under $100, owning both is quite affordable.

    What probably is true is that people won’t upgrade their epaper device as often as they do their tablet. That means fewer sales but it doesn’t mean fewer users.

  3. Not everybody wants or needs every device to do everything. I don’t want my ereader to become more “advanced” in adding full motion video, I’d rather it become more advanced in making the reading experience more enjoyable. I own both a Kindle Fire and a Kindle Touch, and I play with the Fire and read on the Touch.

    I don’t see the iPod Touch going away anytime soon, either – it’s an iPhone without the monthly expense, and there’s definitely a market for that.

    One of the problems with the tech press is that too many of the writers are of similar demographics, and don’t get outside of that demographic often enough.

  4. Unless a tablet can be as light as an eInk Kindle and include an eInk display for reading, it won’t replace my Kindle. I find the Fire much too heavy and large for reading, my Kindle w/Keyboard is just right. My K3 also has the long battery life and ability to be read outside in the sun that the Fire lacks.

    Smaller isn’t necessarily better either, reading more than an email on my phone is annoying as well. For me, my K3 is the sweet spot.

    Perhaps these device reviewers aren’t the heavy readers that some of the rest of us are. Do they read 100+ books a year? Or do they read one book a month, maybe less, while they’re standing in line somewhere? It’s a big difference in usability.

    In addition, my husband ended up with our Fire because I don’t watch TV and movies much and I don’t play games. It’s a cool device but doesn’t do much for me.

  5. The only device I own is my iPod Touch, and these old (not just older) eyes have no problem reading on it for extended lengths of time. But to tell the truth, I do most of my ereading on my computer. I will never own a Kindle in any way, shape or form. I want a device that allows me to read in whatever format I please, and also allows me to do some work, mostly writing. What I’m holding out for, in the hope that it will someday be priced to fit my budget, is an iPad with keyboard.

    I’m not interested in reading in the sunshine, or in line at the grocery store. Is it just possible that people have different needs and different reasons for buying the devices they own? I suspect that the evolution of readers and tablets will be going on for some time, and will be determined by what people are willing to buy?

  6. Well, what he was talking about was not LCD, but rather e-ink screens that can show full-motion video, and hence be just as good as LCD except readable in direct light conditions and easier on the eyes. (I gather the Pixel Qi display is getting there.) An “e-reader” that can do everything a tablet can is, essentially, a tablet, not really an “e-reader” anymore.

  7. “when you have an e-reader that can do that, it won’t be an e-reader anymore, but rather a tablet.”

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing. coz we need it.

  8. IMO this should be true even _without_ improved displays.

    At the moment the Kindle web browser is still labelled “beta”, and the e-ink nook doesn’t (officially) have a browser at all. And then there’s the other half of the internet: email.

    These are devices with touchscreens (which have been revealed to be adequate keyboards) and packet radios.

    I’m probably completely out of ambit: I’m not a smartphone person. But even if the hardware stood still, I think the software development would not stay within the confines of pure e-reading.

  9. HSIS really beefs up E-Ink display capabilities.

    Let’s hope that this technology, which appears to be unique to Bookeen at the moment, spreads beyond it to other brands.

  10. I think every digital device I own has an onboard calculator: iPod, iPad, phone and so on. And yet they still sell stand-alone calculator devices at the office supply stores…

  11. “I think every digital device I own has an onboard calculator: iPod, iPad, phone and so on. And yet they still sell stand-alone calculator devices at the office supply stores…”

    This is an ultra silly example as the commercial calculators can do tons of things your onboard calculator cannot do and this is why they are still useful; scientific computation can be done on a PC with some programming knowledge or with the right (and expensive) software or with cobbled up cc stuff, but all in all for portability and price the scientific standalone calculator is still unbeatable.

    An ereader though cannot do anything different a tablet can do by and large. Personally i think that b&w devices are doomed; whether a color eink will survive, who knows, maybe yes if the price/features are right, but i think the b&w eink goes the way of the b&w tv in the next few years, not more than 4 or 5.

  12. @Liviu: It is your comment which is ultra silly. There are tons of simple (single job) calculators still sold and used today because they are cheap, convenient, and easy. They only do one thing but they do it well.

    For heavy readers, E-ink provides the best electronic format experience with ultra long battery life and least eye strain. When color E-ink is perfected the move will be to devices with further functions – basically making smart readers or tablets by another name. Even so, just like with the simple calculator, there will be a large numbers of cheap, convenient and easy to use purchased and used in the future.

  13. Melissa Medina // January 9, 2012 at 10:56 am //

    I hope that e-readers are not doomed! I love my Nook Simple Touch. I read for at least an hour (often much more) every day. When I was deciding on which device to buy (tablet or e-reader) battery life was an important factor for me. I want a device that I won’t have to be constantly charging, and a tablet drains a battery faster than an e-reader.

  14. I believe eink and colour e-reader tablets can and will co-exist.

    I use the Kobo Touch for much of my ereading: it’s light to hold, lots of display customization, great in brighter lighting conditions, and offers no hassle battery life.

    The Kobo Vox is handy because it gives me over-the-air access to library books and my Kindle ebooks, as well as extras like credible web-surfing, weather, game diversions and radio. But the trade-off is it’s heavier, has less ebook display options, does not perform well in really bright conditions, and, of course, constantly needs recharging. Many of these issues will likely improve with future hardware but this additional capability is likely to continue to command a premium leaving an opening for e-ink.

  15. Alexander is an idiot. This is another of his taboidesque “Death of …” pieces, except this time “Doomed …”

    eReaders will always, by their very nature, be significantly cheaper to manufacture and write software for than tablets. They will also always be easier to use for a significant portion of the reading population.

    The interest in the Fire reflects a huge market for tablets, nothing else.

  16. For reading a novel, the Kindle is just right. It’s like the iPod is for portable music. For reading a novel, the Kindle presently has HUGE advantages over any tablet, including the back-lit, heavier FIRE. I can only conclude that Chris Meadows and Matt Alexander don’t really like to read novels. For technical books, for PDF’s, for newspapers and magazines, the Kindle is terrible. But novel readers aren’t going to disappear any time soon, and neither is the Kindle e-reader.

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