E-book readers, like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader, had a huge amount of sales this last Christmas season—in fact, our smackdown between the two recently became our most popular post, and the Kindle was Amazon’s best-selling single item. We saw about 20 new entrants into this market at CES. Nonetheless, I think the current generation of e-book readers won’t be flying off the shelves by next Christmas.
Yes, the Apple iPad is probably one reason. But I think e-book readers have been flawed from the beginning. Here’s why.
They use black-and-white e-ink displays.
The Sony Reader was the first popular gadget to make use of e-ink technology, an alternative to LCD displays that looks more like paper, has longer battery life, and doesn’t require a backlight. This was seen as innovative, and copied by the Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s new Nook. But I think it’s time we started wondering why anyone would buy a device with a black-and-white display in 2010.
The phone in your pocket probably has a nice color LCD display that can display perfectly readable text. The Amazon Kindle app certainly looks great on my iPhone. Why buy a book reader that’s stuck in Gutenberg-era black-and-white? Paper books have had colorful illustrations since about 1890. Why can’t electronic books?
E-ink advocates talk about better contrast and better battery life, but I like the contrast on the iPhone screen better than the grey-on-light-grey displays of the e-book readers. And only the most devoted of readers will stare at a Kindle’s screen long enough to notice the supposed benefits to the eyes, or to take advantage of the long battery life. Most of us don’t read for more than 1-2 hours at a time.
And don’t say “but you can read in bright sunlight!”. Who the heck does that? People who enjoy sunlight have better things to do than read, and nerds like me who read for hours on end rarely see sunlight.
They aren’t good Web browsers.
While I still read books regularly, I do far more reading on the Web. Why would I want a reading device that can’t also read Web pages? The Kindle has a very limited Web browser on a black-and-white screen, and the Sony Reader has none at all. Neither one has Wi-fi access.
This is the 21st century. The Web should be as readable as a book, and when an e-book mentions a URL I should be able to click on it and see that page.
They can’t show video.
You can watch videos on a Sony PSP, on a phone, or even on a watch. Why on earth would a device that gives me access to books not also include video? Or even audio? Or even color pictures?
I’m as much of a literary elitist as anyone. I enjoy reading Shakespeare and Dickens, and I certainly don’t want books to be replaced with video. I don’t even want the cheesy “bonus video content” that e-novels of the future will undoubtedly be bundled with. But think about non-fiction books—what if a computer book could include a video to show you how to use software? What if a book on how to play the guitar could include audio examples? Old-fashioned paper books already have this feature, thanks to the high-tech approach of sticking a CD inside the front cover. Why can’t 21st century e-books do the same thing?
And anyway, it’s a device with a screen. Let me watch a TV show when I’m done reading my book.
Maybe they’re not really doomed yet.
There’s one reason I think people will still be buying Kindles and Readers next Christmas. Someone (probably Apple) will introduce a device that does all of the things I’m asking for. But given the current cost of things like 10″ color LCD screens, that device will be expensive. Maybe the Kindle, Reader, and Nook will survive for a few years as low-cost alternatives for people who don’t want to spend $900 on a “real” e-book reader.
I hope I’m right about that. I really want an e-book reader myself, but I don’t want the limited, monochrome, low-cost alternative. I want the real thing, and I’m willing to pay for it.