Sep. 7, 2012 at 5:03 PM ET
Amazon's announcement Thursday brought e-readers into the spotlight again with a lighter, brighter and sharper e-ink Kindle. But more admiration was lavished on the new Kindle Fire HD models, which constitute the biggest rival to the iPad yet. Tablets are the apple of the tech world's eye, but does that mean that e-readers are going to be left out in the cold?
Between the iPad, Nexus 7, Kindle Fire and a dozen other high-profile tablets, the modest e-reader seems like an easy device to forget. But it's also easy to forget how early we are in that technology's life: The devices seem ubiquitous now, but they were really introduced to the world just five years ago, or a bit more if you count the less popular models that preceded the Kindle.
Yet e-ink readers have come extremely far in that short time: If you ever get a look at an original Kindle, you will surely note how grey the screen is and the clumsiness of the interface. The newest models hold more books, display them far better, and are easier to navigate.
But unlike tablets, e-readers don't vary at all in size or intent; they haven't proliferated into other niches, or nooks if you will. Every popular e-reader has a 6-inch screen made by E-Ink Corporation, a company founded in the U.S. but now based in Taiwan, and it's totally focused on one thing: replacing books, primarily mass market paperbacks.
The latest Kindle epitomizes this strategy: whitest possible screen, no distractions or keys whatever, weighs very little, battery lasts for weeks — it's getting to the point where buying a paperback offers no benefits at all.
Some early experiments like the Plastic Logic QUE e-reader and Amazon's Kindle DX tried to popularize a larger, more expensive form factor, but it was soon clear that people were not interested in paying $400 to replace the next few $5 books they'd be buying. Newspapers and periodicals failed to support the devices, and wasn't hard to see why: they were bulky, the displays were low-quality, and the market was still small.
And there have been other devices that were ill conceived or poorly received: the anemic color e-paper screens like Triton and Mirasol simply weren't good, and so were outshone (so to speak) by the beautiful backlit screens of tablets. And attempts at making them productivity tools (the Entourage eDGe) or attempting to jump the gun on innovations like lighting (bulky cases that obviate the readers' svelte form factors) were likewise met with skepticism.
Consequently, e-readers survived as a device class by focusing on one form factor and one purpose. Just as PCs coalesced into the desktop form factor in the '80s because it was the best option at the time (laptops were enormous; tablets were science fiction), e-readers did what the market demanded of them and the result is that the devices we know as e-readers have an incredibly narrow definition.
But the desktop PCs of yesteryear are increasingly anachronistic in a world where smartphones, tablets, ultra-light laptops and so on, are usurping their functions. And e-readers will have to make similar adjustments, because they can't stay replacements for paperbacks forever.
Where are the e-readers that you can unfold like a newspaper, or roll up and put in your bag? Where are the e-readers that are sealed against water and sand, so you can take them to the beach or soldiers can use them in the field? Where are the e-readers that let you write on them as easily as you would a piece of paper, and automatically convert your words to text and save to the cloud? They're coming, make no mistake. But first, the combatants in the war to replace the paperback must finish their battle. Then they can move on to new conquests.
The popularity of tablets is easy to understand, yet there are still very significant advantages to a device like the Kindle. But the makers of e-readers must multiply those advantages if they hope to stay competitive. If they're smart, today will just be the beginning; if they're lazy, it's the beginning of the end.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.