Some devices fail in the marketplace because they are simply crap (witness the early Pandigital tablets) or lack adequate support (witness Pandigital the company), while a select few devices are market failures because the general high quality is weighed down by a ridiculously high price.
The Alex eReader from Spring Design falls into the latter category. This was one of the hot new gadgets when it was unveiled in 2009 and it was the highpoint of many a blogger's coverage of CES 2010 (I could not even get near it). It went on the US market in early 2010, sold a handful of units, and then left for more profitable markets (Russia).
Okay, so this ereader is only a couple years dead, so it's a little early to dig it up out of the grave and dust off the corpse. But I have just gotten my hands on one after waiting for nearly a year for it to show up on Ebay. I wanted to gloat a little.
The Alex has a 6" E-ink screen, a 3.5" LCD (320x480) screen, and runs Android 1.5 on a 600MHz Marvell PX30 CPU. In addition to Wifi, it also has a microSD card slot but lacks the g-sensor as well as much of everything else we've come to expect on current Android devices.
As you can see from the image at right, this ereader looks something like the original Nook, a detail which lead to much acrimony when the Nook was unveiled in 2009 as well as a lawsuit in 2010.
But in practice it was much more capable than Barnes & Noble's second ereader. It was something of a cross between a dual screen tablet (like the Entourage Edge) and an ereader. The bottom screen behaved a lot like a custom PDA, while the upper screen was used both as a reading app as well as a repeater screen for the lower screen.
Theoretically you could have used other reading apps on the upper screen, but I can't recall finding any apps which could do that - not in 2010, at least. But simply finding Android apps was enough of a pain that year that I could easily have missed the ones I needed.
I had my hands on this ereader in 2010, before I returned it thanks to the $400 price tag. At the time I marveled at the ability to use the lower screen to navigate the web and the upper screen to read. The combination was novel at the time, but given the numerous decent 7" tablets I've seen on the 2 years since the novelty has worn off. And now that there are E-ink equipped ereaders like the Nook Touch and Sony Reader T1 there really isn't much of a point for this concept anymore.
But as I sit here looking at it, I can see now that the Alex was such a quirky device not because the concept was a great idea (it was at best a compromise) but because it was one of those ereaders which were conceived and developed during the ereader bubble.
What is the eReader Bubble, you ask? That's the name I have given to a period of time which stretched from mid-2008 and ending in mid-2010 where any number of crazy plans were laid for ereaders.
This is when Samsung started planning to launch 4 ereaders, when the Entourage Edge was developed, and when PlasticLogic still thought that they could sell the $800 Que as a business market ereader. The bubble led Astak, a nobody consumer electronics company, to think they had the technical skill and business acumen to launch a line of ereaders. Needless to say, that went nowhere.
The bubble might also explain poor decisions like Pocketbook's plans to merge their ereader division with Netronix, the Taiwan based ereader developer. This was another piece of news which went nowhere.
And arguably the bubble put Pandigital and Augen on the road to ruin. These 2 companies got into ereaders in 2010 before switching over to tablets, but they never seemed to managed to keep their expenses below their income, a detail which comes as no surprise given how razor thin the price margins of the gadget market are.
Heck, that period was such a bubble that even RCA was going to launch an ereader. The Lexi never hit the market but it did make a splash at CES 2010.
And of course who can forget Cool-ER. This startup was so caught up in the hype of the ereader bubble that they thought they could launch a generic ereader of marginal quality and succeed. Yeah,. (But it seems to have worked out for Kobo.)
This bubble was IMO inspired by the launch of the Kindle in 2007. Given the needed time to develop the hardware which showed up in late 2009, it seems likely that the early explosive success of the Kindle and the Kindle Store was the instigation for the eReader Bubble.
And as anyone with a long memory can recall, the good times were over with by 2010. One could argue that the launch of the iPad ended the honeymoon, which could certainly have been the case for the large screen ereaders like the Que. But I think the bubble ended with the Nook-Kindle price war. That was in mid-2010, and after the price of the Kindle dropped to $139 there simply wasn't much of a margin for anyone else.
Now, if that period was a bubble then the next question would be to ask what period are we in today.
I'm not sure, but I can point out that we've already passed through an app bubble (for the iPad, at least) in 2010 and 2011.
If I had to guess, I'd say we could arguably be in a self-publishing bubble at the moment. There's an awful lot of hype surrounding self-publishing, and even some major players like Penguin looking to cash in and gouge authors via Book Country and the recently acquired Author Solutions. There's also an awful lot of startups which are all trying to help authors get published, but I'm not sure those startups define the bubble. Most are small and self-supporting. Wait until someone starts throwing around 100-million-dollar IPOs and then we might have another bubble.
We live in interesting times, do we not?