Don’t Call the E-Reader Doomed

Now that 2012 is over, the "Wall Street Journal" is pondering whether the e-reader era is coming to an end. Is it time to write e-readers' obituary?

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Now that 2012 is over, the Wall Street Journal is pondering whether the e-reader era is coming to an end.

Although the story stops short of using the D word, it notes that e-reader sales hit their peak in 2011, fell sharply in 2012 and will continue to slide in the years ahead, citing forecasts from IDC and IHS iSuppli. The story harps on the standard reasons for the e-reader’s impending troubles: full-featured tablets can read e-books and do a whole lot more, and the price gap between e-readers and cheap tablets has narrowed, so it’s harder to justify buying a single-purpose reader like the Kindle Paperwhite or Nook Simple Touch.

While it’s provocative to declare in general terms that once popular technologies or products are on their way out, I’d rather think about what the actual effects may be.

For one thing, e-readers aren’t going away anytime soon, at least not until their unique properties can be matched by inexpensive tablets. The fact that e-readers are cheap, are easy to read even in sunlight and can last for a month or two on a single battery charge means they can be nice to have around, even if you own a more expensive tablet. There’s also something to be said for their mandatory focus on reading, which eliminates the myriad distractions that tablets provide.

There’s no threat of forced retirement either, because the e-reader business is different from televisions or other electronics, where vendors must push newer and better technologies in hopes of raising profit margins. Companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble aren’t making money on hardware; they’re making money on books purchased through the device, so even as the cost of an e-reader approaches zero, it remains a worthy business. If anything, e-readers are more of a sure bet for e-book sales than tablets, where users can stay entertained with free apps and the Web. (It’s worth noting that most e-reader companies that relied on hardware sales for profits gave up the fight years ago.)

The question, then, is whether e-readers will remain in any way a phenomenon. That’s a trickier one to answer, but I don’t think e-readers have stopped being interesting yet. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen the rise of touchscreen e-readers and backlit displays, and there’s still room to lower the cost of those features. There may be other innovations on the horizon as well, like flexible E Ink screens to improve portability.

For e-readers, the future probably looks a lot like it does for the dedicated MP3 player, and that’s far from catastrophic. Apple still sells its iPod Classic, despite years of predictions about its impending demise, and continues to fiddle with the rest of its iPod line. The iPod Shuffle has become a teeny square, and the iPod Nano veered into smart-watch territory before becoming a credit-card-size music and video player. These devices didn’t go away, they just became better at their core competencies. If anything, e-readers are an even better example; while you could argue that an iPhone is better for listening to music than an iPod Nano (because of its Internet connectivity), e-readers are still better than tablets for reading books.

The Wall Street Journal acknowledges many of these points but nonetheless asserts that the “e-reader era” might be over. But even in dedicated e-readers’ best year, which according to IDC was 2011 with 27.7 million units shipped, they were overshadowed by tablets, which saw 68.7 million units shipped. And though tablets will likely keep growing while the e-reader market slips, lots of that growth comes at the cost of laptops as well.

The reality is that e-readers never had an era of their own to begin with. They always have, and always will be, outdone by tablets. But they’re still sticking around.

9 comments
Bitterblue
Bitterblue

I have both the Nook tablet and the iPad mini. I have to say that although the Nook tablet is nice, I like the iPad mini more. Simply because of the ease of use. It has all the same features, but they are easier to use, in my opinion. I had the original Nook with no backlight and had a hard time getting into the habit of using it. Even with a clip-on light, I just didn't care for it. Then I got the tablet, and loved it because of the back-light. It was also nice to be able to check e-mail and hop on the web or the use the handful of apps I put on it. However, I have used the iPad mini more, and it has the same functions, features, and portability, and it has a long battery life as well. It's about the same size, only thinner and lighter. I can use multiple e-reader apps on it and have multiple libraries, if I want. The ONLY downside is that I can't access the B&N store through the Nook reader app on it. However, all I have to do is go to the browser and go directly to the B&N site. 

I AM concerned about ownership of books and rights involved. However, I love the portability of having multiple books at my fingertips. I no longer have to carry a backpack of books on long trips. I can simply slide my Nook or iPad mini in my bag and go. I love that. And, there are so many FREE e-books out there, as well as e-books that you can check out from your local library!

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alexhakof
alexhakof

forgot to mention, the ease of reading

ReginaBethParaleMoreno
ReginaBethParaleMoreno

Purchased Kindle 4 middle of last year and have been loving it ever since. Also got it a leather case and a jelly case, which I used interchangeably (though both accessories are in the same color).  The Kindle perfectly fits in my hand bag, meaning I can bring it practically anywhere, so much so, that I don't mind waiting for my turn, whether I'm comfortably seated in a chair/couch or standing and lining up.  I think of and treat my Kindle as that of any book that I want to keep on reading. So having a built-in dictionary is another treat in itself! But I must say that both of my teenage kids can't imagine themselves enjoying the Kindle as much, they prefer to use their laptop and smart phone to catch up on their readings.

RichardC
RichardC

I was considering the purchase of an e-reader until I discovered that you don't actually "own" the books you purchase.  I've known of folks that have lost rights to digital books they have purchased.  That will never happen to physical books in your library, and you can loan or sell them at your discretion.  Plus, books don't need to be charged, nor do their screens break.


I'll stick with my friends .... warm, good old-fashioned books.

DavidL
DavidL

Except for the fact that E-Books have rarely offered little more than convenience over their physical counterparts. I support E-Books for this reason via my Nook (B&N) and my Public Library offerings. But it is irritating to no end knowing that the publishers continue to try and convince me and other supporters that producing a hard copy costs little more than a digital copy AND I don't actually own the book, only the use of that digital copy. So unlike a hard copy, I can't give it away or buy one used. I'm starting to question my dedication now when I was sure the medium just needed time to take off in the beginning.

Milton
Milton

The prices of eReaders are low and many people seems to like them because they are easy on the eyes. http://x.co/rDnu