E-ink devices – the fastest invention in history to become old-fashioned

I’ve been noticing that more and more people are reading e-books from tablets and fewer people are buying e-ink devices like the original Kindle. When I straw-polled this perception on Twitter, it seemed that I was right. While we are seeing more Kindles and Kobos than ever, the number of iPads and other tablet devices seem to far outstrip the e-ink growth.

Further chatting and some links supplied by friendly tweeters backed this up. When I tweeted: “I predict that e-ink devices could be the fastest invention in history to become old-fashioned”, futurist Mark Pesce replied:

@mpesce: They’re already charmingly quaint.

From a shiny new technology to obsolete and replaced in very short order. Already, the Kindle is “charmingly quaint”, like a gramophone player or a phone with a cord and dial. I’m a bit disappointed about this, because I love my Kindle. The thing I like most, apart from the very easy on the eyes e-ink screen, is that it’s a dedicated reading device. No distractions. It holds books and other documents that I need to read and that’s all. There are enough interruptions everywhere else – I don’t need them in a book too. Plus, the battery lasts literally weeks.

But I do have a slight issue in that I love my comics. I’ve read comic books forever and still buy several titles a month. I’d be happy to move to reading those digitally, but for the colour and graphic delivery I’d need a tablet like an iPad. I’ve yet to be able to justify the expense of an iPad purely for reading comics. But if it was for all my e-reading… And that doesn’t even begin to address the multi-media reading experience, with linked footnotes, video content and so much more that tablets make so easy.

But here’s where another problem presents itself. Reading novels (or other straight, unadorned text) from a tablet is problematic at the moment. It’s hard to see outside in the sunshine. The tablet has a terrible battery life, compared to the weeks and weeks I get from my Kindle. The backlit display is more tiring for the eyes. And herein lies the reason tablets are taking over – all those things are being addressed and improved at a furious rate. The tablet is starting to achieve all the positives of a dedicated e-ink reader, along with all the other things it does, making the strengths of e-ink irrelevant.

It’ll be a while before the tablet screen, ink, battery life and so on are as good as, say, a Kindle, but not that long a while. It will happen.

What this boils down to is actually something bigger. The device itself is becoming irrelevant. The beauty of the tablet is that it is a convergent device. You carry one thing and it does everything you need – reading, writing, web surfing, social networking, etc. This leads to a paradigm shift in content creation and delivery. As Eoin Purcell said on Twitter during last night’s conversation:

Things will be sold, but selling will take different forms. Subscriptions, memberships, ads, events, readings etc.

His point being that the content will be in the cloud, the creators and publishers will earn through the things he mentions in the quote above and that content will be consumed on a variety of devices. The device itself becomes irrelevant – all it needs is access to the cloud and a comfortable reading experience. That’s the tablet with the battery life, screen resolution and daylight clarity I talked about above. The implication here is that not only does the device itself become irrelevant – as long as you have one, any one will do – but the concept of an ebook is also irrelevant. You don’t buy a book. You subscribe to a publisher and access their content, whenever, wherever. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this…

So the dedicated e-reader, like the Kindle or Kobo, is already dead. It just hasn’t stopped kicking yet. Amazon know this, so they’ve released the Fire, which is a tablet device. Others are following suit. For those of us who prefer a dedicated e-ink device, we should make the most of it now. Before long we’ll be the hipsters of the digital reading world, congregating like those people in record stores who still buy vinyl and talk about what stylus they prefer. I wonder if half the people reading this even know what a stylus is.

(For further reading, I’d recommend this article on the subject by Eoin Purcell. Interestingly, this article is already more than two years old.)

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7 thoughts on “E-ink devices – the fastest invention in history to become old-fashioned

  1. You raise some interesting points and further questions. It’s a bit sad really, because I can see the benefits of tablets but don’t want to lose the advantages of my Kindle. Perhaps we have to get better at writing to engage people and avoid distractions, and perhaps writing will change to suit how people read. I’ve already been thinking about web serials for a while.

    The subscription model is interesting, because getting paid and working out how to earn a living is an important one, otherwise publishing could become dominated by those with the financial means to dedicate to their craft.

  2. There will always be a way to monetise the good stuff – it’s just working out how. And regardless of how good the writing is, there will always be distractions. I really think that tablet reading will dominate almost totally very soon though.

  3. I use a color Nook which is enough like a tablet to satisfy my tablet itch. The one thing that keeps me from being very interested in a tablet, particularly for long form reading, is the weight. At just under a pound the Nook C is heavy enough. The iPad clocks in at 1 1/2 pounds. My arms hurt just thinking about it.
    ~jon

  4. The weight of a Kindle is a definite advantage. But I think tablet weight will probably reduce in much the same way that laptop weight has. At least, it needs to for exactly the reasons you’ve mentioned.

  5. But Jon, the Nook Color can be used as a tablet. It just needs to be hacked (not that *I* know anyone who’s done this. cough,cough).

    Alan,
    The thing is that the two aren’t really comparable imo. You raise some good points, but the reason people are getting tablets is because they WANT tablets and they just happen to also read on them. I don’t know that those same people would be buying an ereader anyway. But because there is an overlap and they can also read ebooks, it’s probably impacting ereader sales. The reason I prefer the ereader is because the e-ink display is easier on my eyes. I use my smartphone for all the things people normally use tablets for. True, the screen is smaller, but I can’t fit a tablet in my jeans’ pocket either.

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