Reality Check: How e-readers can fight to stay alive

Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight

As tablets continue their march to world domination, the venerable single-purpose e-reader is suddenly faced with redefining its niche as the premier reading gadget in a multipurpose world. Barnes & Noble goes far towards that end with its new Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight e-reader, which started shipping preorders this week. But is adding a light enough to keep the fires of demand burning for e-readers? Sales of e-readers are down this year, as more and more consumers turn their attention to tablets.

Well, the light certainly goes far. A big complaint about the current generation of e-readers is they’re great in the light, and not so great in the dark. It’s annoyed me to no end that I’d have to fuss with the overhead light on the airplane in order to read in dim lighting, simply because the overhead light felt overly bright relative to the environment and my task at hand. So yes, an integrated light will go a long way towards extending interest in dedicated e-readers. But that won’t be the only advantage dedicated e-readers will continue to have over tablets.

Better experience

The dedicated e-reader remains the superior choice for reading text. Yes, it lacks the flexibility of a tablet, but no tablet display—not even Apple’s much-vaunted third-generation iPad display with its high pixels-per-inch—can deliver the sharp, easy-on-the-eyes clarity of an E Ink-based e-reader’s text. The advantage for reading books on an e-reader becomes even clearer when you consider that an e-reader’s display works better in bright light than an LCD can ever hope to; the battery lasts exponentially longer, by weeks and weeks, not just hours; and that today’s e-readers are significantly lighter than 10-inch and 7-inch class tablets. Weight matters when it’s something you plan to hold in your hand(s) for hours on end.

Reading on a third-generation iPad: Clear text, but still hampered by a glarey LCD.

I think of the current, petite e-readers as analogous to today’s paperback book. It’s perfect for casual reading, for use one-handed, and for throwing in your bag without having to worry about charging it for weeks on end. And it’s far easier to handle than a big ol’ hardcover book.

That said, the monochromatic e-reader does have its limits. It’s subpar for reading schematics and diagrams, and images fall flat, as you’d expect without color. The visual energy of a color display—and the layout and media dynamics that the new Epub 3.0 offers—means that dedicated e-readers have their limits. A kids’ picture book, cookbook with images, or a photo guidebook of Provence will not play well on a grayscale E Ink e-reader.

But e-readers can absolutely co-exist with your tablet. And now, with a light, they’ll be more likely to coexist for far longer than they would have, otherwise. Barnes & Noble is first to the finish line with this next generation e-reader with a built-in light, but we’ve already seen rumors about Amazon added a light to its Kindle, and it’s hard to imagine that Sony and Kobo won’t join the party as well—assuming they intend to stay in the book reader business. It’s not a question of if others will feature a light, it’s a question of when.

Anything else for e-readers?

Certainly, getting color onto dedicated e-readers will also help keep interest in this very viable single-purpose gadget alive. Sadly, color electronic paper display technologies have been delayed time and again, so at this point, I’ll believe the technology is ready for the masses when I hear about it coming from a major player, shipping in an actual product.

Continuing to boost battery life will help, as will improving the on-board shopping experience. The one thing e-readers shouldn’t do, however, is try to become more like their tablet cousins with Web browsers, games, and more. We already have devices that do those actions very well, and trying to make an e-reader gain these kinds of powers is like trying to shoehorn a circle into a square. It’s unnecessary, and won’t really enhance the core reading experience.

The e-reader is one of those rare niche gadgets that can and should have a place in our tech lives, even as a more flexible, multipurpose gadget tries to usurp its role. But e-reader manufacturers need to continue to have a laser-sharp focus on improving the one thing they’re best for: Reading.

Conversely, for tablets to truly stomp out e-readers, well, they have their work cut out for them. They need to get razor thin and ultralight; decrease screen glare; improve the reading experience with high-resolution displays and optimizations to the LCD for reading; and increase battery life to at least several days between charges. That’s a tall order for tablets to fill—and not one that’s likely to be served up for at least a few years.

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