Fast Company

2010: The Only Year of the E-Reader

The Kindle is looking almost lost now among the flurry of new e-book reading devices just released or due soon. So many are out, in fact, that 2010 is really the year of the e-reader. But only 2010. Because e-readers are doomed.

The Business-Centric Plastic Logic Que

que e-readerPlastic Logic's Que e-reader has been long anticipated thanks to its clever flexible screen (the "plastic logic" bit) and elegant design in a market that's often the venue for some very ugly gizmos. When it launched last week it delivered on both those fronts, and surprised on a totally new one: The e-reader device is due soon, but it's been re-directed so it's going to appeal almost exclusively for business users.

Rich ones, that is. It costs $800. The idea has some merit since the Que can act as a powerful business tool that draws together lots of live data like email, stored data like business document or project archives, and it'll even let you edit the content to a limited extent. Hard to say how well it'll sell though--though it's undeniably neat, it's high price almost makes it a curio that'll only have a tiny market. Many professionals would probably spend a little more, and get a new thin-and-light fully functional laptop.

The Magazine-friendly Skiff

SkiffThe Skiff has the benefit of being almost as cleanly designed as the Que, and it's also astonishingly thin--making the Kindle seem a real low-tech porker in comparison. When it debuted at CES lots of attention was thus devoted to its design and the gorgeousness of its vast high-res 11-inch screen.

But the Skiff's real secret is its software that makes it an almost ideal e-reader for magazine or newsprint content. It's capable of rendering faithful grayscale versions of printed content in such high resolution it's almost like a photocopy, and its clever dynamic advertising engine could transform the way ad placements are embedded into publications. Fiscal backing by Hearst is behind all this, of course, and if anyone has the energy to push the technology forward in this direction, that's the company to try.

The Twin Screen Spring Design Alex

Alex

Controversy is chasing the tail of the Spring Design Alex, but it's undeniably a damn clever machine--part android smartphone (without the phone part) and part e-reader. That combination of color LCD and larger e-ink screen makes the Alex a long battery-life multipurpose device.

This gives it big potential to be a disruptive influence in the e-reader biz: It can run Android apps where its design-clone Nook rival cant, and it can act as a plain e-reader that also lets you listen to MP3s (via a sweet interface that makes Amazon's look stone aged). The new deal with Borders is definitely going to make the device one that the public gets to see the most.

The Split-Personality Entourage eDGe

Entourage EdgeThis is the oddest e-reader to be shown at CES, though we've heard of it on and off since last year. It's a book-format dual screen device, with one e-reading e-ink screen and one LCD screen for a touchscreen netbook--earning it the label "Dualbook" from Entourage. At CES we learned it's due to ship in February and it'll cost around $500, which places it at the upper end of the e-reader price market, and the netbook market too, though it'll have the benefits of a bit of both machine.

But this split personality might be the eDGe's downfall: It results in an ugly device that has two different-sized screens and an uncertain product category--is it an e-reader, or a computer? Will users want this sort of half-and-half solution, and no particular big-name publisher backing?

The Amazon Kindle: What next?

KindleAmazon just updated the Kindle DX into an international edition (continuing its badly cocked-up efforts at a global product) but though that's the only sign of a change in the Kindle lineup for ages, you can be sure a new Kindle's on the way. When? Nobody knows. What new tech will it have in it? Nobody knows.

What is for certain is that Amazon really needs to step up to the mark with the next Kindle--the e-reader marketplace is no longer empty, and there's plenty of hot competition. The Kindle's design and functionality needs to drastically improve, and Amazon needs to look at open book formats. Else the Kindle will lose its coveted top spot really fast.

Why All These Gizmos All Doomed

With all these new e-readers on the market, calling 2010 the year of the e-reader makes perfect sense. It's an event that's been long foretold--though we won't be seeing the demise of the physical book anytime soon.

But I'm going to argue that 2010 is the first and last year of the e-reader. Because they'll look awkward and clunky in 2011, and though they'll survive as a tech genre it'll be as useful if niche products. You see 2010 is also the year of the Tablet PC. Or Slate PC or whatever you want to call it--a device that has much of the same form-factor as an e-reader, and which can do all the same clever e-book reading. And an infinite amount more.

Tablet

And before you go harping on about long battery life and the benefits of e-ink for reading, then slates (if they take tech cues from netbooks, which they will) will have battery life that's just about long enough, and screens that are good enough for reading from--even before considering pixelQI tech. And that's going to seal the deal for millions of consumers. E-books, movies, full Web surfing, emailing, Skype phoning, gaming--all on a slate, with the benefits of multitouch screen and motion-sensing controls. Why buy two devices?

Best of all, I made it all the way to the end before even writing the words Apple Tablet or global iSlate. Those words are almost enough by themselves to signify it's game over for the e-reader.

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10 Comments

  • Michael Erb

    I like books, I like newspapers. They are packable, stackable, crushable and can survive the worst circumstances.

    I'm also a techie and like gadgets. I love my iPod Touch and it is nearly the perfect gadget, for the time being.

    e-readers seem more of a step on a path leading to a better device than a stop on the path. I view netbooks much the same way. Why put up with their lack of features and power when you can spend just a bit more and get a ultra-portable laptop with so much more functionality and nearly as good battery life? For the me the choice was clear. I got an HP dm3-1030us for $499 instead of a $350 netbook.

    e-readers are to me in the same camp of netbooks, they are merely an intermediate technology until the real deal hits the street. Apple probably has the real deal, but maybe not and if not, I'll wait. I'll pass on the current crop of e-readers even though the tech side of me really wants to play with a Skiff for a while. Wish I could just rent one for a month and get it out of my system...

  • Kit Eaton

    @Mike. Fabulous! :) There are some expensive plastic waterproofing cases for Kindles too... but they're no competition :)
    @JD. Hi there--thanks for the comment. One thing though: I'm talking about e-readers as an entire technology niche, not just Amazon's kindle (which is a hatefully U.S.-centric gizmo anyway.) I also note that e-readers won't disappear totally. They'll live on as special use devices, and for users who find their utility vital (college texts would seem an ideal start.) But they won't acquire the ubiquitous status that slate PCs will since they're just expensive single-use devices. As tech penetrates more and more into our lives, multipurpose gizmos like slate PCs and smartphones are the way to go. And on the screen technology note? There's PixelQI to think about as well as Mirasol... superior to the eink in Kindles in many ways.

  • Mike Smith

    I too don't like the single purpose readers, I'm quite happy reading books on a PDA / Smartphone. Windows is ... adequate, Android somewhat better.
    @Todd - a tip for reading with electronic devices in the bath that will *never* work for a dead-tree book - take a condom (magnum size works better here) wrap it over the PDA and tie a knot in it. The controls work thru it, and you can read it thru it. Probably best to discard after.

  • JD Elliott

    Sorry to disappoint all you talking heads, but I am a dedicated Kindle owner who could not be happier. Since buying my Kindle, I have been amazed on how wonderful it is to be able to quickly access material, and carry it in a convenient, portable format.

    I am a college administrator, as well as working on my professional degree. I am constantly having to read 5-6 books, multiple journals, and other files (my Kindle handles Word and PDFs fine by me)simultaneously. I used to carry a laptop, but it was really hard on the eyes after a period of time. I do not have that problem reading the Kindle. I have saved at least $100 to date (the Kindle versions are usually less expensive that the print ones) and cannot emphasize enough how not having to carry a box of books around constantly increases your quality of life.

    I will probably look at a tablet PC in the future if it is everything you claim, but it had better be readable for long periods of time without eyestrain, and reasonable.

    Do any of you critics actually own a Kindle? Several of my friends have bought Kindles after trying mine out - they love it. I don't think we are going to be throwing them out in a year's time.

    I find this type of "in the future" article annoying. I hesitated greatly buying my reader because of similar articles. Not much real research, not a whole lot of real thought, just someone blowing smoke. Maybe you will be right, maybe you will be wrong, it doesn't matter, this article has a shelf life of 24 hours. In the meantime I am annoyed that due to such drivel I did have had my Kindle earlier since all the whining press were so down on it.

    I down have my own website or blog to promote (which some comment writers seem to make a career of - oh wait, careers pay....), this is the first time I have ever left comments on a silly internet article. But it was just so annoying listening to you all, I had to say something.

  • Alex Hayes

    I agree that e-readers are doomed, mostly because the incremental improvement over, say, reading a book on my Droid (which I do regularly), isn't much for the dough and the hassle of having yet another device to coddle. Regardless, iSlate will deliver the fatal blow.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Thom. Seems that our thinking is aligned. I wouldn't underestimate the impact of the iSlate v1 though--its the one every one else will follow.
    @Steinar. Erm.... erm... none of them? Some do have wireless downloading, and I'm sure multi-platform bookmarking will appear in other ones. And anyway: You're slightly missing the point. I'm suggesting that none of these e-readers *including the Kindle* will be holding much market share in about a year's time. They're all doomed by the tablet/slate PC.
    @Richard. Don't forget the efforts by some (like Sony, perhaps surprisingly) to push for open-format e-book standards, meaning the content of e-books could be truly cross-platform. And if a slate ends up as a media-playing device that's pretty much a full-functioning PC, then you'll be as free as you are now to choose who supplies your movies, MP3s and books.
    @Todd. I'm largely in your camp actually--I love dead tree books, and always will. I also note in the piece that they're not going away any time soon for a whole host of reasons (including your dropped in the bath argument.) But this fact doesn't mean the revolution isn't going to arrive anyway! It's kind of inevitable. And don't forget--the idea of an e-reader is very limiting to a single purpose. But the iSlate--and pretty much most others too--will be able to act as complete PCs as *well* as e-readers, so you're money is actually better spent.

  • Todd Trimakas

    Ok, gotta speak up for us tree killers out there. Maybe I'm an old and dusty gen X'er, but I still haven't heard a good reason why I would pay $300 - $500 for something to read a book with? Even if it does have an Apple on the back cover.
    Right now I go to a used book store and buy used books. I bought 3 books for about $17. When I was done I brought them back and got about $8 in credit. For a months worth of use the depreciation schedule is worse than a new BMW, but the total cost to me was still $9.
    So if I go and buy one of these e-readers that would put me about 33 months worth of actual books in the hole. And I wouldn't have any books. New or used.
    Right, but you say I won't have access to 532,000 books online, and downloadable in an instant on any 3g network. I'm ok with that. See I'm good, but I can only read one book at a time, maybe two if my ADD is kickin'.
    And lastly, and maybe most importantly when I'm spending my only alone time in private, and I get up and accidentally drop my book in the bowl I can just quickly scoop it out, get out my wife's hair dryer and in 5 minutes I'm back in business. I'm not so sure a Kindle would take that abuse as kindly.
    --
    The Paper Loving Minority (A Magazine Publisher)
    Of course you can check us out at www.uptownclt.com

  • Steinar Knutsen

    As with the iPhone App Store and iTunes for iPod, in my opinion the Kindle is so popular due to its connectivity. People value the ability to quickly search Amazon and download a book within 60 seconds. Start reading on one Kindle and finish on another. None of these other devices offer such convenience and ease of use.

    -------------------
    Steinar Knutsen
    http://www.steinarknutsen.com
    http://www.twitter.com/steinar...

  • Thom Mitchell

    Kit, I couldn't agree with you more. E-readers are doomed because they are primarily single purpose devices that aren't that much better than teh competing multi-function devices. Version 1.0 of the Apple Tablet will be interesting but versions 2.0 and 3.0 will seal the fate of all of these single purpose devices. Much like netbooks have all but sealed the fate of products like Celio's Redfly. Here's a link to a blog entry I wrote on tablet shortcomings in general in anticipation of Apple's newest product which shall not be named.
    http://www.thommitchell.com/20...

    --
    Thom Mitchell
    http://www.ThomMitchell.com

  • Richard Geller

    I'd add my vote for a multi-functional tablet PC over a dedicated eReader, but a bigger issue for me is how well the device serves as an open platform for all sources/formats of digital content. I've never had much interest in purchasing any device that would lock me into a single supplier of content.
    --
    Richard Geller
    http://www.aSiteAboutSomething...