It’s a slightly unsettling and sinking feeling I get whenever I hear discussion about booksellers and others moving away from E-Ink based ereaders towards tablets. It’s not a hatred of backlit screens and the like, in fact I like them quite a bit.

Rather it’s that such a move is an implicit acceptance that the stand-alone ereader device is moving from a top priority to a secondary one. The concern for me is that as apps, movies, tv shows, music and games become bigger and better businesses for these players, books become less and less important. With such a shift, books become simply PART of a larger media mix as opposed to being the MAJOR element.

This is not a spurious concern either. B&N indicated that their Tablet device was proving a more successful product for them than their E-Ink device was. Especially because it opened up more opportunities and markets. I’ve written a bit about this previously, particularly around the launch of the Kindle Fire:

There is only so much audience attention to go around and as mobile gaming, tv and film watching and web browsing become possible for everyone, it is just possible that digital books will lose out*. Of course maybe the audience that moves digital will be big enough for this to not be an issue, but even so book publishers and authors will need to compete with movies, games and music much more directly and immediately than they have in the past.

The possibility then that the Kindle Fire presents is one where the dedicated device that has done so much to build the digital book market is, however distantly, headed for a quiet retirement and the publishers who think they have it all so sorted now are going to faced a changed game yet again.

So perhaps you understand why the brace of DigiTimes reports on the topic read this morning left me cold:

Amazon shipped 3.98 million Kindle Fire tablet PCs in the fourth quarter of 2011, taking up a 14% share of the global tablet PC market as well as the second position in the vendor rankings, according to market data.

Due to strong sales of Kindle Fire, Amazon has shifted its focus from e-book readers to tablet PCs, and so plans to launch a 10-inch model in the second half, instead of an 8.9-inch model projected previously, the sources revealed.

via Amazon plans to launch 2 tablet PCs in 2H12, say sources.


Global shipments of e-book readers are expected to reach only two million units in the first quarter of 2012, down from nine million shipped the fourth quarter of 2011, according to Digitimes Research.

Via Digitimes Research: Global shipments of e-book readers to slip to 2 million units in 1Q12

(Via Eoin Purcell’s Blog.)


  1. I’m not sure we’re looking at a de-emphasis of dedicated readers as much as leveling off in sales of *existing tech* eink readers because of two reinforcing trends:
    1- Current eink reader tech has reached a plateau: 6in Pearl screens are good enough for the core ebook market (narrative text) at very low prices and current color eink tech is inadequate for rich content ebooks, the non-LCD alternates are not significantly better, and the walled-garden model has driven gadget prices as low as they’re likely to get for the next year or so. (Barring a total collapse of gadget sales.)

    2- Because dedicated gadget prices have dropped so fast, most everybody who can benefit from B&W eink readers has already jumped in. That means the heavy readers. Most sales growth is going to come from casual readers or replacement devices until newer tech displays can be deployed at *comparable* prices to the current volume leaders. Of course, casual readers are going to be more attracted to multifunction devices than dedicated readers so the logical response is to try to entice them into the walled gardens with tablet-like devices like the Nook Color and Kindle FIRE.

    So it’s not necessarily a matter of vendors backburning dedicated devices as much as the fact that the market has matured faster than its underlying tech, at the same time than the mediapad/tablet market is exploding. If you consider that the hardware needed for an LCD-based dedicated reader is not terribly different from the hardware needed for a low end tablet, while the latter product has appeal beyond heavy readers… Well, its a no-brainer, really. Especially for vendors looking to expand into the rich-content, graphics-heavy ebook arena.

    For now eink tech is the limiting factor for dedicated reading devices; until something significantly better than SVGA Pearl comes out, what we see is what we’ll get.

  2. Good point, Felix. For the first time, I had ZERO impulse to upgrade my Kindle 3 when the Kindle 4 came out. While the K3 was a significant step up from the K2 for someone who used it as often as I did, the K4 doesn’t have any notable improvements I care about (I don’t care for touch, I prefer page turn buttons).

    I think it will take Mirasol/color e-Ink (which has been “6 months away” for at least 2 years now) to shake up e-reader hardware.

    Now, when that happens, like you said, it only makes sense to make the devices more like multipurpose tablets. And it would be cool if my e-reader could keep its existing strengths (easy-on-the-eyes display, long battery life, light weight) but also be able to do other things. Does that mean e-books will now be “competing” with movies, games, the Internet, etc. more than they already do now? I don’t really think so, because they’re already competing with all those things. Just because I can’t do those other things on the same device, I can still do them on a computer or tablet or phone or TV. People who prefer reading will still read, and people who prefer Angry Birds and Facebook will still do that, regardless of the rise of these tablet-based “faux” e-readers.

    The only fear I have is that the focus on tablets will make e-reader tech stagnate (more than it already has), while companies try to convince me that I like reading on an LCD as much as I do on e-Ink (I don’t).

  3. My expectation is that there will be multiple roads to the true next-gen reader devices.
    High-saturation color eink may or not materialize, but very low power LCD screens are coming and battery tech is constantly, if incrementally improving.
    I doubt we’ll soon see an LCD-based reader as light as a Sony T1 or Kindle 4 but we might see something comparable (weight-wise) to the original Nook with maybe 20 hours of battery life.
    Now, whether such a device is considered a tablet or a reader will depend more on the plumbing (OS, software, system lockdown) and the marketing than the underlying tech. After all, the Sony T1 and the various Nooks are quite capable android tablets despite being marketed strictly as dedicated readers.
    Clearly, some devices will be designed and marketted as tablets and others will be designed as marketted as readers, but there will also be a fairly broad middle ground of tablet-like readers and crippled tablets. And there will be room for all of them.
    It’s just that some will be more popular than others. 🙂

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