January 6, 2012 at 10:29 am

Think Again: E-Readers Are Not Doomed, and They Don’t Need Apps

“The E-Reader, as we know it, is doomed,” declares Matt Alexander in an opinion piece being widely circulated today. He thinks tablets will eat the e-reader’s proverbial lunch because they can display not only text, but other stuff too.

As the editor of Evolver.fm, I cover digital music and music apps, many of which run on tablets and smartphones. Nonetheless, I use my Kindle far more than I use my iPad (though I use my iPhone much more than either one). If that doesn’t demonstrate that e-readers have a future even in the face of stiff competition from multi-functional tablets, I don’t know what does.

“You can only read on the tablet for so long, and then you get a headache,” says our babysitter, a dedicated Sony eReader adherent.

“I’ve been reading this [Kindle] since noon!” declared the cashier at the wine store I visited at 7pm last night, glancing up from a non-glowing, black-and-white screen. When I said I love my Kindle too, even though I have an iPad, she concurred: “Totally! I have an iPad too, but… <scowls> I only use it for school.”

It’s not just people in my neighborhood. Contrary to this prediction of e-reader doom, IDC revised its annual projections in September for e-reader sales upwards, from 16.2 million units to 27 million units. That doesn’t sound like a dying technology.

Granted, part of the reason IDC adjusted its prediction northward was that it decided to count the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook as e-readers, even though they both have glowing, color screens. But IDC also acknowledged that its upwards revision was due in part to the low price of black-and-white tablets that most e-reading people own.

I spend much of my waking life staring at one glowing screen or another, as many of us do these days. The last thing I want to do when I’m curling up with a good book, or even reading one on the subway, is stare at yet another glowing screen. This is, of course, the entire allure of e-ink, which looks a lot like words on paper. You need to shine a light on it, just like you do with dead-tree books. That means it doesn’t interfere with your circadian rhythms, either, the way tablets do.

Perhaps Matt Alexander isn’t a big (as in long texts) reader. Or maybe the problem is that he reviewed a Kindle Touch, which is already too close to a tablet, for my taste anyway. Why should we have to swipe a screen to turn a page? Talk about old school. My Kindle handles that task with redundant buttons on the left and right sides of the device, and they work perfectly in that capacity.

His argument, not without merit, claims that reading itself is evolving as indicated by the way magazine apps from my previous employer, Conde Nast, now include video and interactive elements. Tablets can handle those. E-readers can’t, which is why Alexander thinks most electronic reading devices will be tablets going forward, while e-readers will be “doomed” as a niche product.

However, he ignores the fundamental allure of reading. There is nothing like it. Straight text actually has more informational throughput than video does in many cases, though that runs contrary to the conventional wisdom that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

If you want to see an explosion, video’s definitely the way to go. Look at the pretty colors! But if you want to learn about the factors leading up to it, what experts have to say about its causes, what witnesses said about it, and the implications of its aftermath, text is often the better option because it can convey more information in less time. To borrow a metaphor from digital audio, it might be said that text carries more “Kbps” of data than video does.

Take the front page of CNN.com, which contains a mix of text and video articles.  When I’m scanning that page, I’ve learned to ignore anything with a video symbol next to it because I can’t scan that information at my own pace. Instead, I have to listen to some human newsbot reading, more slowly than I can read to myself, off of some cue cards (and let’s not even get into the obligatory 30-second pre-roll advertisement, which is another annoyance entirely).

On the other hand, Alexander’s argument could be right if read another way: that reading itself, in the way we have traditionally understood it as the concentrated act of consuming straight text for extended periods, could be falling by the wayside, as we increasingly gravitate towards videos of explosions instead of reading about what caused them. And if he’s right about that, we have bigger problems than making a decision between a tablet and an e-reader.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr/ankix)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Hendricks/100000106466293 Michael Hendricks

    Someone DRM-savvy like you should have a Nook — I can buy eBooks from my local independent bookstore, which makes me feel like marginally less of a fuck. Kindle = Betamax.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.reeder Mark Reeder

    In addition to the DRM issues that Michael mentioned, the Nook Simple Touch does have physical buttons for page turns (forward and backward on both the left and right sides).

    In response to the title about e-readers not needing apps, I disagree to some extent. For long-form reading (books or even magazine articles), you’re pretty well served. The one thing I want that I don’t have easy access to is the ability to mark a long web article for reading from my browser, then read it on my Nook. It would be nice if there was a supported way to install third party apps for scenarios like that and others that the e-reader companies have not thought of (or don’t have the desire to build).