The Less-Than Doomed E-reader

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I’ve been seeing more and more writing lately about the allegedly imminent death of standalone e-readers (and really, Kindles, because no one is buying Nooks or Kobos). It seems that sales of the devices year over year have been trending downward, spurring many to wonder if the entire category is in its death throes.

But as I noted in 2012, e-readers aren’t as perishable as the more rapidly-changing category of phones and tablets. I wrote:

Think about your TV set. If you’ve bought one in the past eight years or so, you probably have a perfectly good flat-screen LCD or plasma HDTV set that you have no reason to upgrade, unless you’re dying for a bigger screen than you have. But chances are the change in the performance of the device itself is not something you’re probably even thinking about.

I think this is what it’s like for Kindles and the like. You use your TV to watch video content, and that’s about it. Very little has changed fundamentally in recent years to compel frequent upgrades. Likewise with e-readers: you’re buying one to read books, and that’s, again, about it. … My wife has a Kindle 2 from 2009, and isn’t the least bit interested in upgrading. She loves it.

(I should note, she only this past week upgraded to a Kindle Paperwhite, but she had her original Kindle for five years. Almost no one keeps a smartphone for five years.)

Todd Wasserman at Mashable recently made this same point:

Unlike smartphones or tablets, e-reader models don’t really evolve, so there’s no need to upgrade. A Kindle you bought in 2011 is pretty much the same as the one you’d buy in 2014. [And] if you own a tablet, a single-function e-reader is also a luxury.

Interestingly, a few months ago I sold my own Kindle because I was reading so much on my iPad. And now I regret it, so presuming I can scrape together the scratch, I’ll eventually be in the market for a new one again.

Kevin Roose echoes the idea of the Kindle as an unnecessary luxury, writing, “The death of the standalone e-reader might be good news for consumers, who will have one fewer gadget to buy and lug around.” But I think that’s overthinking it. Kindles are too small and light for the word “lug” to apply to their transport. But there’s no denying that the pressure to buy an additional device that largely mimics the functionality of something you already have (presumably a high-resolution tablet or large, hi-res phone) is something most folks can do without. Especially for those who aren’t voracious readers.

Roose also understands why smartphones and tablets don’t quite cut it for devoted book readers:

[T]here’s no getting around the fact that smartphones aren’t designed for focused, sustained reading. … [They] breed short attention spans. On a phone or a multi-function tablet, e-books have to compete for attention with Facebook, Instagram, Pandora, Angry Birds, and everything else you do. It’s the difference between watching TV intently, and watching TV while folding laundry, talking on the phone, and doing the crossword puzzle.

All of this leads me to think that e-readers are not doomed, but that they’re going to cease to be an explosive category of mass market technology. Instead, I think we’ll see them continue to be honed and improved for a slightly niche market of frequent book consumers. And since they don’t require frequent upgrades on par with phones, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see two general categories of e-reader devices:

  1. Free or nearly-free commodity e-readers that Amazon may just give away to Prime subscribers, for example, because they encourage e-book purchasing, and
  2. High-end “luxury” e-readers (like the Paperwhite) with advanced, ever-more-readable e-ink screens, improved lighting, and premium builds.

And that would be fine! Amazon alone could sustain that kind of market, and even other companies like Kobo could carve out their own corner of the market with their own takes on the luxury e-reader.

So while the adoption of e-readers may be flattening out, I think the device category itself isn’t going anywhere. You just may have to pop your head into coffee shops and libraries to find them in the wild.

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