Post CES Reflections: Yes, eReaders are Doomed* (Kinda)
I’m sitting here 2 days after CES 2012, and I thought I’d take a moment and reflect on a trend I’ve noticed in the ereader market.
A couple weeks back there was an editorial on, and I’m sure you’ve heard about it. Matt Alexander argued that "the eReader as we know it is doomed". I disagree with most of his arguments (and some were technically flawed), but that doesn’t mean his point is invalid.
For certain values of the word ereader, and for certain values of the word doomed, Matt was correct.
But first let me talk about how he was wrong. First, Matt conflated ereaders with E-ink screens as being the whole of the market, and then took the tech limitations of E-ink as being a major flaw. His mistake was that he ignored LCD based ereaders, ignored pricing and weight factors, and that he ignored niche fulfillment.
Price and weight were obvious missteps and he should have caught them. You can now get a Kindle for under $80 and you can get a free Nook. Either device weighs so little that there’s no reason not to carry it along with your tablet.
And then there’s the niche issue; no screen tech other that E-ink fills the need of the heavy reader as well as E-ink.
No, it doesn’t do color, but neither did the vast majority of my paper books. As a direct replacement, E-ink’s lack of color doesn’t matter. Matt also said that the printed word is going to evolve, but can you honestly say that the simple basic format of the novel will go away? I don’t, and ereaders can fill that niche better than anything.
Matt also based one of his arguments on some marginally irrelevant technical claims about E-ink. He said that the screen refresh was slow. While this is true when compared to video on LCD, most reading apps which act as direct replacements for current ereaders aren’t a whole lot faster at turning the page. Some are marginally faster than E-ink, but there’s no amazing speed difference anymore.
Matt also was also blinkered by his focus on hardware; he neglected to consider the features recently launched by Amazon (X-Ray, Kindle Cloud, backing up your annotations). Those are amazing features, and while the Kindle apps will get them, the Kindle hardware got them first.
Nevertheless, Matt was somewhat correct; he just had the reasons wrong. We’re not going to see any new innovators enter the US ereader market any time soon, and we might never see them. Amazon and B&N brought the price of an ereader down to under $80, and that leaves nothing for a new competitor to make a living on. Heck, the Nook Touch is free now. Who can compete with that?
And even the smaller ereader makers already in the market have moved over to tablets. Pandigital made a big splash in 2010 with the Novel, but by CES 2011 they had already decided to move into tablets. The same goes for E-Fun and Skytex, 2 other smaller gadget companies. In fact, there are signs that all 3 got out of the ereader market as fast as they got in. And even Onyx, Jinke, and Gajah, 3 mid-size but still solidly second tier Asian ereader makers, have gotten into tablets.
There’s just no market in the US for ereaders anymore. And that leads Matt’s next goof; the US is not the whole of the ereader market.
My prediction for ereaders is that we’re not going to see outside innovations in the US market; we might still see them in other markets. Look at where you can buy a Spring Design Alex, a dual screen ereader (Russia). Look at where the Entourage Edge is still in use (Russia). Look at where the Mirasol devices have launched; there’s no market for them in the US but there are possibilities elsewhere.
But let me add one more caveat. I expect that we’re still going to see Amazon innovate in the US market; look at what they announced in November. In what is a complete negation of Matt’s argument, Amazon launched no less than 2 ereaders. They now sell 3 ereaders and a tablet. Clearly Amazon doesn’t think ereaders are doomed.
Still, I expect to see that most of the great new features for ebook reading are going to happen in the apps realm. In fact, that’s already happened (thus making the prediction irrelevant). Look at the whole slew of aggregators, sharing apps, and other novel spinoffs that were launched in 2011. I expect it to continue.
So in some ways Matt was correct. But if you take the word "doomed" to mean that the ereader will die out (or even shrink in terms of units sold), then no, I believe he was wrong. Show me an $80 tablet that can do the Kindle’s job as well as the K4 can, and then I’ll change my mind.
And one final point. We’re only in the dawn of the digital reading age. This age is so young that we don’t really have enough of a history to make any reliable predictions. That’s why I think it better to draw predictions from the history of the print industry. That should lead you to realize that tablets won’t kill ereaders any more than magazines killed textbooks or novels killed coffee table books. All coexisted quite nicely (right up until digital reading came along).