E-Readers or Swiss Army Knives?

By  |  Monday, October 26, 2009 at 12:03 pm

T-PollQuick follow-up to our E-Reader Cheat Sheet: One of the most interesting questions about e-readers isn’t “Which one is best?” but “Is the whole category toast?” And one of the things that makes the question interesting is that there are savvy folks who think that e-readers will give way to general-purpose devices, and savvy folks who think we’ll continue to need book-centric gadgets.

Derek Thompson at the Atlantic:

Returning to today’s news: B&N and Amazon’s offer to access e-books on computers, iPhones, BlackBerry’s and future hybrid devices, means that anything with an internet connection is functionally an e-reader. We don’t need an e-reader to “e-read.” I think that means Amazon and Barnes & Noble are inherently handicapped in the e-reader arms race. They’re building e-readers that can go online. That’s nice, but the upcoming Apple Tablet is so much more: a ultra-portable netbook/entertainment center that can also read books. The Tablet isn’t merely designed for today’s e-reader technology. It’s designed with the expectation that consumers want their personal technologies integrated. It’s not just another awesome corkscrew. It’s a Swiss Army Knife.

James Fallows, also at the Atlantic, politely disagreeing:

I’m skeptical because of the dozen previous times through the computer era in which that prediction has not panned out. “Real” cameras are still much better than in-phone cameras; the right device to carry in your pocket, as a phone or PDA, will always be worse to read on than a device with a bigger screen, which in turn is too big to fit in your pocket; keyboards are simply better than little thumbpads for entering more than a few words, and any device with a real keyboard has to be a certain size. So, sure, some things will be combined, but the all in one era is not at hand, and won’t be.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball, linking to our Cheat Sheet:

So many options, but I just can’t see how this product category has long-term legs.

Jim Fallows is one of the smartest people ever to write about technology, but in this instance, I’m guessing the dedicated device will be subsumed by a general purpose one, and maybe sooner than most people would guess. True, there are lots of examples of devices that are just too different from each other to be effectively Swiss Army Knifed–for instance, smartphones won’t replace point-and-shoot cameras until some genius figures out a way to eliminate the need for zoom lenses and decent flashes. (Yes, I know that there are phones with zooms and flashes, but they remain odd, bulky exceptions.)

But Swiss Army Knifing a technology works quite well when the technologies and form factors in question are essentially similar. That’s why standalone PDAs have essentially been replaced by smartphones, for instance. The one thing standing in the way of tablets replacing e-book readers is the face that an e-ink screen can run for weeks on a battery charge, and the color LCD you’d want for a general-purpose device will peter out after a few hours. But that problem will get solved eventually–and I suspect that even today, more people would give up long battery life for beautiful color than most e-reader manufacturers suspect.

Your take?


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4 Comments For This Post

  1. psikeyhackr Says:

    I already have a Swiss Army Knife device. An Archos PMA400. I have installed the JustReader program to use it as an e-book reader. It does plenty of stuff that I don’t even use. I just tested the video record capability to see how well it worked. That was more than a year ago.

    My only complaint about it as an e-book reader is that it doesn’t autoscroll. But I would rather read it than a paperback book.

    But a netbook makes more sense than most of these e-readers. I have a program that autoscrolls in Windows.

  2. Andrew Edsor Says:

    e-readers could be (are) useful for reference or instruction handbooks because of the ease with which they can be updated. But as an alternative to fiction or non-fiction paper books that you take on holiday or take to bed, they are dead in the water. I’ve yet to find anyone of either sex or any age who thinks they have a future.

  3. Mike Dunham Says:

    I’ll tell you a specific use-case that has me considering one, and that’s for use in a courtroom (I’m a trial lawyer). I’ve tried using a laptop in a courtroom, but it’s just too clumsy, and I always go back to pad and pen. What I’d really like is a lightweight device that allows me to review and annotate PDFs, to sync the annotations with a regular computer, and that will go a good long time on one charge. From what I’ve been reading, it sounds like an e-reader might fit perfectly. I sure wish I could try one for a few weeks before pulling the trigger, though.

  4. Bic Says:

    Another problem with tablets, besides the battery life, is the screen. Reading for more than an hour or so is taxing on the eyes. E-ink is much easier to read for hours on end. Until the tablet can switch between e-ink and LCD displays, the e-book reader is here to stay.

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