Originally published in MediaPost, July 23, 2010
Hardly a day goes by without something in the news about e-Readers. Last week, Amazon put a stake in the ground announcing that over the last three months, it sold 1.8 Kindle books for every hardcover it sold. The Wall Street Journal reported, in spite of the release of the iPad, Kindle sales accelerated in the second quarter and have tripled since its June price drop. Last week also marked the release of the Android e-reader app from Barnes & Noble, the big news being that it's branded as Nook instead of B&N; the announcement of two Sharp e-readers expected to launch in Japan later this year; and The New York Times-worthy news that the Wylie Agency would exclusively sell e-book editions of literary treasures including Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint to Amazon.
But as I sit in front of my Kindle reading Justin Halpern's hilarious, Twitter-feed inspired book "Sh*t My Dad Says," I can't help but think this all feels so quaint. I feel like I'm back in the third grade marveling at my amazingly cool Casio calculator watch. e-Books may become 50% of all book sales in five years, but I'd say it's just as likely that in five years, e-readers become as much a relic of 2010 hip as the Rubik's Cube is to 1980s style.
The Kindle and Nook, and the collection of also-rans, from the Kobo e-reader to Sony's Touch and Pocket devices, have taken the age-old approach to new technology. They do just one cool thing, in this case present a digital environment for book reading, and that's it. Flip takes the same approach for video-it's just a video player, but a great one at that. Nintendo DS is similarly a great device for handheld gaming, but that's basically all it does.
Single-use devices do wonders for technology adoption. They're easy to use, easy to understand, and easy for consumers to embrace. Then they're destroyed by mass-marketed devices that turn the entire product into a trivial feature of a broader, multi-use platform. And so it went with the demise of the calculator, Palm Pilot, fax machine and just about every other single-use piece of hardware.
The iPad launch was the beginning of the end for e-readers. Steve Jobs recently bragged that the device captured 22% of the e-reader market since launch even though it's still generally dismissed as a device that's not friendly to reading. The iPad is heavy; the screen isn't great for reading; and it's expensive. But the iPad is going to get lighter. It's going to improve its screen resolution especially as iPhone's retinal display technology spreads to the device. And as more competition enters the tablet market, its price is going to drop. This fall, the iPad will be joined with a plethora of mass market Windows, Android and maybe even Chrome OS tablets, some of which will surely fall below a $200 price tag. Once this happens, consumers will be faced with a choice: e-reader or multi-use tablet that's just about as good for reading as a standalone device. The result? Kindle and Nook, meet the recycling bin.
What can e-reader manufacturers do to maintain market share? Their options are limited. They can drop price. Many people think sub-$99 e-readers will be on the market this fall. But low prices eventually mark the demise of the business as all profits go away-even profits that are subsidized by future book sales. And no matter how low e-reader prices go, multi-use tablet prices won't be far behind. e-Readers can try to stay ahead of the curve and innovate to consistently be the best reading experience on the market. But we're talking about reading. Substantial evolution beyond what e-readers can do today will be tough. To survive e-readers will expand capabilities to become multi-use devices themselves and compete head-on with tablets. But that will a tough, uphill battle.
My guess is that Jeff Bezos knows the Kindle is a fight he's going to lose. But he probably doesn't care. To him, the Kindle is a tool that locks consumers in to the Amazon ecosystem, so they're forced to buy more and more digital books from Amazon. In this scenario, the Kindle device could go away, but Kindle apps will live on forever as the bookstore of the future available on any screen. In this context, e-readers are just a marketing device to build bookselling market share. But Kindle won't be without heavy-duty competition-Google Editions and Apple are about to deploy their own strategies for e-book market dominance.
So as we say goodbye to e-readers, we can also take a moment to mourn the loss of other loved but likely doomed dedicated technologies: digital cameras, digital video recorders, digital audio recorders, handheld gaming devices, automotive GPS systems, televisions, portable DVD players, and even the iPod. All you'll need is a screen for your hand, a screen for your lap, and a screen for your wall.