"Doomed"

Yesterday, Jim Dalrymple published an article on my behalf for The Loop, and it has evidently caused quite a stir. Such a reaction is not unexpected -- I shared a controversial opinion regarding a popular piece of technology. The problem is that the consensus amongst the vast majority of responses suggests that my initial argument has been misunderstood. Marco Arment, founder of Instapaper and role model for many in the tech community, wrote a response suggesting that e-reading devices can keep pace with tablet innovation. Marco makes many good points about the relevance and progression of e-readers, but concludes with:

I don’t think the e-reader is “doomed” at all. It may just be relegated to a fringe device for reading nerds, but that’s what it’s been for most of its lifespan as a category and it’s been fine.

I wrote yesterday:

The e-ink Kindle and Nook will fall into a niche category, while tablets (or similar) will continue to thrive.

Those are remarkably similar points.

The e-reader becoming a "fringe device" is precisely the point of yesterday's article. The difference is that I used the word "doomed" (once in the title, once in the body). Why "doomed," specifically? Well, when I think of healthy, flourishing products, I tend not to think of once-popular "fringe" devices.

Moreover, despite the many merits of e-ink in its current form -- merits I've written about at length in the past -- the e-ink display is unquestionably life-limited. There is little that can be done to evolve the technology further. Sure, the current form is good for reading (and only for reading) -- I do not question that -- but it is very clear to me that there's only so much more that can be done before color and video become involved. And when those are implemented, surely the benefits of a dedicated e-reader will be lost altogether? Sure the form factor will still be nice, but the distractions will once again return. With regard to why this shift toward color is inevitable, Marco asks:

Newsprint can’t do much compared to color glossy magazine printing, but it has never gone away. Why must black-and-white e-ink readers inevitably be replaced by multimedia color tablets?

First, newsprint is a much different matter than a glossy magazine. Newsprint is produced, at speed, to meet deadlines, and to provide cost-effective means for distributing news. Glossy magazines are produced on a generally slower cycle, and take more time and effort to design and print. The two have never replaced each other because they've never needed to -- they are, by necessity, entities separated through the bounds of paper, cost, time, and production. But when you can display the graphical intensity of a magazine in the same place as the basic printed word of a novel or newspaper in your hands without significant difficulty? That's something entirely new, and that's something that prompts change and intersection. Tablets allow you to read magazines in the same place as you read newspapers, novels, comic books, textbooks, and scientific papers with little-to-no effort. That is a desirable quality -- one that is only clumsily possible in the current iterations of e-ink devices.

Why do e-ink devices need such content? Perhaps they don't, but if there's anything Amazon has demonstrated with the Kindle Fire, it's that effectively leveraging an extensive media ecosystem is a lucrative and attractive model. Stunting that revenue-generating possibility for the sake of preserving a reading experience -- although it might be the noble thing to do -- is unlikely. If you need any further proof of the way e-ink is moving, you need only look at the "e-ink" tag on various large blogs to note the trend toward color and media.

Look at the Kindle Lending Library for Amazon Prime members. Prior to its introduction, Prime offered few benefits specific to Kindle owners. You could not watch the videos available and, as you're dealing with e-books, you could not benefit from shipping times, and so on. Expanding that service to be specifically attractive to the Kindle owning populace -- to offer something purely for them? That seems like an attempt to attract more people to pay for a Prime membership, not an entirely noble endeavor for the Kindle reader. I'd argue this is representative of things to come. The Kindle Fire is clearly finding success (despite its many flaws), and it is really just a front-end for Amazon's own store. Amazon will sell many Fires, and in turn, they will sell a huge amount of media -- not just one type like they do with the e-ink Kindle. More things sold, more revenue generated.

As much as you or I might enjoy the e-ink experience, people are not thrilled about buying a device that does one thing very well when they can buy something that does that one thing fairly well along with dozens of other features. And once that "fairly well" becomes "very well" as technology progresses, how could dedicated e-reading devices possibly remain relevant? I'm sure that might easily be viewed as a sweeping opinion, but Barnes & Noble's sales figures beg to differ:

Sales of NOOK Tablet exceeded expectations, while sales of NOOK Simple Touch lagged expectations, indicating a stronger customer preference for color devices.

Marco makes good and valid points regarding the relevance and benefits of a dedicated e-reader -- points I have also made in the past -- but he also ultimately acknowledges that the e-reader, although popular now, is destined to be a niche product in future. This is, and has always been, my fundamental point.

Where I went further is that I suggested the e-reader is "doomed" -- that it is unreasonable, given technological advances, to expect e-ink devices to continue to blossom in the mainstream. Sure they are good at what they do, but how many other devices are falling away that do one thing well? Even the venerable iPod line is slowly losing traction in the face of multi-faceted devices. The most popular iPod, the Touch, barely even resembles the iPods from years back -- it is an iPod only in name. This transition embodies much of what I expect to happen with e-readers. As I argued yesterday, the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet branding is no coincidence:

The Fire is sharing the Kindle name not only because it helps in marketing a new product, but because the concepts are on an inevitable path toward merging.

I wrote in November that "reading on an iPad is fine, but for long-form writing, the e-ink experience is the best option available," and I stand by that opinion. The iPad (and its competitors) cannot hold a candle to that experience today, but, as I wrote yesterday, display technology is clearly progressing to rectify that discrepancy:

  • LCD manufacturers are attempting to make more readable, pixel-dense, and comfortable displays.
  • E-ink manufacturers are attempting to make backlit and color and video capable displays.

The potential for convergence is clear. The e-reader, in its current form (i.e., the e-ink Kindle and Nook models on the market today), is not destined for a long, wonderful life. Yes, they might be relatively popular today, but what happens when a tablet (or similar) comes out that offers a truly competitive experience? Sure that might be a while off, but is it really such an alien prospect?

That is the point of intrigue, and that is why they are "doomed."

Unlike any other consumer electronic device on the market, it is easy to observe the limits of the e-reader and, therefore, to perceive its eventual obsolescence. It is not often that you can look at a piece of consumer electronics and make such a statement -- that is what is striking to me.

I am not saying that is today, nor am I saying there isn't any merit to e-ink -- there clearly is. I am simply observing the fact that e-readers are set to either converge with other devices, or be, as Marco states, "relegated to a fringe device for reading nerds." Hence the argument: the e-reader, as we know it, is doomed.