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Reading the future

Wed, 11/18/2009 - 9:49am
Alix Paultre, Editor-in-Chief

alix paultreRecently the number of book-related applications in the iPhone App Store has surpassed the number of game apps in sales, sending rumbles throughout the nascent eBook reader marketplace. Will the smartphone unseat the e-reader before it can even begin its reign?

This is an issue with repercussions far beyond the library. The platform used to access the media of tomorrow will almost certainly also become the backbone of the new information marketplace. The convergence of functionality and the synergistic nature of modern media demand that the tool used by the individual have as wide an area of utility as possible.

The current crop of eBook readers are not quite ready for prime time, even as the technology becomes more accessible and widespread. The lack of color and video playback is turning out to be a greater disadvantage than expected, as eBook readers were (and are being presented today) as vertical application tools primarily for text-based content. This may yet still work if eBook reader price points come down and secondary functionality increases.

The real issue is the developing battle for the next-generation personal electronic platform between smartphones and tablets. (An eBook reader is just a vertical-application tablet with a bistable display intended for text-based content.) As this new data on iPhone application sales show, the battle is just getting interesting.

iPhone-KindleThere are many arguments for either direction, and each side continues to increase the ante. Smartphones are getting smarter, with large higher-resolution displays and improved user interfaces. Meanwhile, tablets of all kinds are getting more powerful, thinner, and more flexible.

As a product segment, eBook readers have a tough time as well. A single-purpose device today is a rare bird, and one at a triple-digit price point must demonstrate a utility in its category worth the added expense and complication over available alternatives. The paper book is a marvel of information technology, and will be around for the foreseeable future, if only for hobbyists, collectors, and the affluent. A paper book is compact, requires no power, has near-infinite display life, is readable in almost any ambient light, fits in a pocket, is extremely vibration and shock resistant, and can be given to your friend without risk of going to jail when you want to lend it to them.

That’s why smartphones have such a strong value proposition as e-readers. Many are already in the pocket of the user, for one thing. They are also pretty rugged and easily portable. (DRM issues still exist, however.) The latest phones also have large high-resolution screens that make text very legible. Power consumption is an issue, but we are already used to charging phones daily.

It will be interesting to see how the market develops, especially as new devices are constantly being introduced in both categories, like yesterday’s announcement of the Marvell and E Ink E-Reader Platform or today’s news of the new Sony Ericsson Android phone.

 

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