On E-readers

The number one best-selling product on Amazon.com this holiday season is the Kindle.  Visit sony.com and you’ll see a big push for the Sony Reader.  The same is true with Barnes & Noble and the new Nook.

As a book junkie, I confess I don’t understand what the fuss is all about.  E-readers are expensive, the screens are small and drab, and the interfaces are clunky and slow.  I’m not saying “don’t buy a Kindle” — I understand the convenience of putting a lot of books on a small, light device.  The e-books are cheaper than their print brethren, and yes, it is kind of cool to be able to say you have a library in the palm of your hand.  But books can be obtained FREE at the library, most people who aren’t students don’t carry more than one book around, and books are ridiculously easy to use.

More importantly, where is the fun in a one-dimensional informational gadget?  Hasn’t the smart phone taught the e-reader makers that we want to be able to surf the Web, send texts and emails, listen to music, watch videos, and make phone calls all in one device?

Well, maybe it has.  The major magazine publishers have recently piped up to unveil a prototype for a digital magazine concept that ideally works on a tablet-like computer.  TechCrunch has excellent coverage of the prototype in a recent post, a video from which is below.

It will be interesting to see if the e-magazine concept takes off the way the e-book concept seems to have done.  One aspect of this digital magazine prototype that I find inherently more interesting is the way the content is re-imagined for the digital medium.  This concept isn’t  just re-distributing the same print magazine like the e-readers are doing, it’s adding interactivity and inter-connectivity.

Another possible game changer is the much-rumored Apple tablet computer, which is speculated to be smaller and lighter than current tablet PC’s.  Supposedly set for a 2010 release, the Apple tablet may become the iPhone of e-readers–in other words a “must-have” type of portable device that can not only run applications and play music, but can also display e-books and e-magazines, dynamically and in full color.  As a September 2009 Gizmodo post points out:

Some [Gizmodo’s writer has] talked to believe the initial content will be mere translations of text to tablet form. But while the idea of print on the Tablet is enticing, it’s nothing the Kindle or any E-Ink device couldn’t do. The eventual goal is to have publishers create hybridized content that draws from audio, video and interactive graphics in books, magazines and newspapers, where paper layouts would be static. And with release dates for Microsoft’s Courier set to be quite far away and Kindle stuck with relatively static E-Ink, it appears that Apple is moving towards a pole position in distribution of this next-generation print content. First, it’ll get its feet wet with more basic repurposing of the stuff found on dead trees today.

It seems likely, then, that with Apple’s tablet, and Microsoft’s similar device the “Courier” on the way, current e-readers are probably just the first wave before a much larger and more interesting tablet computer invasion.

UPDATE [12/15/2009] : It’s worth mentioning that there is a wave of color e-readers on the way, too.  Qualcomm’s Mirasol-equipped e-readers, featuring a mirroring amplification display system that can split ambient light into colors, are scheduled for production in 2010.  (An interesting twist is a  potential video game controller add-on — perfect for study breaks.)  Pixtronix is developing an energy-efficient color pixel technology with the PerfectLight Display, which could find its way onto other e-readers. Meanwhile, Liquavista, a spin-off from electronics giant Philips, will use oil, water, and electricity in a technique known as electrowetting to produce color e-reader displays that use little power.  All of these technologies take advantage of ambient light to make text more readable and less energy-consuming than LCD screens commonly found on computers and smart phones today, and unlike the current E-ink readers, allow for color and video.

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