E-Readers May Be Dead, But They're Not Going Away Yet

Over at Ars Technica, Jon Stokes is noting that the explosion of new e-readers that seemed to be coming this year has turned out to be more of a whimper than a bang. Plastic Logic’s Que ProReader is dead, Hearst’s Skiff reader shows no signs of life, Samsung’s E-Ink reader is apparently skipping the US market, and none of the umpteen readers from lesser-known companies has become a breakout hit.

Still in the game: Amazon’s Kindle (the e-reader that’s synonymous with e-readers), Barnes & Noble’s Nook (which B&N is about to double down on), and Sony’s Reader (the first modern e-reader). Oh, and there’s Kobo, the Canadian e-reader backed by Borders. I don’t see any of these going away anytime soon–actually, as Slate’s Farhad Manjoo points out, the likely scenario is that they’ll get even cheaper and sell even better.

Amazon and B&N, at least, might be willing to sell e-readers at very little profit or at a loss if they can make money on e-books. That’s a tough proposition to compete with if you’re a hardware company rather than a behemoth of a bookseller. Moreover, both companies have been smart about putting free e-reading software on as many devices as possible–iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, PC, and Mac. They’re e-reading companies, not e-reader companies.

(The more hardware-centric Sony hasn’t gone this route yet, except for Windows and Mac apps; I wonder if it’s at least considering making Reader software that runs on other manufacturers’ mobile gizmos?)

Plastic Logic and Skiff both set out to make much more powerful readers than the Kindle, which turned out to be a fatally flawed strategy: An e-reader that’s much fancier and pricier than a Kindle starts to look like an unsatisfactory iPad competitor. Which is presumably why most hardware makers have moved on and are now focusing on building iPadversaries.

I usually don’t like confident predictions that a particular market is all sewn up by a particular company. There are just too many examples of game-changing gadgets that shook everything up, such as the iPod and the Wii. But it’s hard to see how anybody who isn’t currently making devices focused solely on reading is going to have a huge impact–or why anyone would try.

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