Reports of the drastic decline of e-readers amidst an explosion in multi-use tablets re-ignited a passionate debate in technology: Is a single-purpose device better and worth the cost, compared to a multi-function device?
"I love my [Amazon] Kindle...I would never use a tablet to read," wrote Charles Burt in a comment to Computerworld. He reacted to a story on a 36% decline in e-reader shipments globally in 2012 reported by an IHS iSuppli analyst.
"I love the e-ink. I love that it works in the bright sun." Burt said. "The battery lasts forever. It works perfectly the way it is. I don't have a tablet."
Burt said he previously owned an iPad tablet which was "beautiful," but he found he could do more things with a desktop or laptop.
Burt hit a common theme expressed by many other e-reader lovers using e-ink technology: the ability to read for long periods in the sun by a pool or in a park without much glare, which is a problem with most tablets. As for claims of days or weeks of battery life with an e-reader, many defenders of tablets say they get plenty of hours or days of reading life from new-generation tablets with better battery efficiency.
But there is also a sense of pride from some e-reader users who find the devices ideal for serious, concentrated periods of reading, uninterrupted by the browsing temptations of tablets. "I hate reading on the tablet because it's far too easy to waste time surfing than productive reading," wrote one Kindle fan named "Vegdaze" in another comment to Computerworld.
Tablets aren't the only alternative to e-readers. Some people prefer reading on a smartphone, including someone named "CoderSeven" who uses various software readers on a smartphone to read entire books. To pay $119 for an e-reader like the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite "is quite a bit of money when I already own a device that meets that need. I would rather pay $500 for something that meets multiple needs than $119 for something that only meets one," CoderSeven said.
The tablet vs. e-reader debate also gets into size and weight. Most e-reader devices are smaller than tablets, such as the Paperwhite with its 6-in. display, the same size as the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. Both sell for $119.
Another Computerworld reader said owning both an iPad and a Kindle device revealed different usage patterns. "I rarely touched the Kindle for a long while after [buying the iPad], but I started to realize I wasn't reading as much or for as long with the iPad as I had with the Kindle because it was heavier and it was causing more eyestrain," BThorn wrote. "I still have the iPad and use it for work, Web browsing, etc., but when I want to read a book, I get my Kindle again."
Ryan Reith, an analyst at IDC, said the e-reader vs. tablet debate also gets into how much the average consumer can spend on a single-function device alongs with other computing products, such as laptops, smartphones, desktops and tablets.
The decline of e-readers is expected to continue for several years "mostly due to limited functionality found within e-readers, the growing demand for tablets and limited consumer spend," Reith said.
The prognosis for e-readers is indeed poor by 2016, when IHS said 7.1 million will ship, down 66% from the high point of 2011, when 23.2 million sold.
"Certainly e-readers will be supported two years and beyond, but with any low margin business, the number of vendors ... will be limited," Reith added.
Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble sell e-books for their e-readers, but they also sell their own tablets that can be purchased for less than $200, including the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook.
Some analysts believe that the solution is for those digital booksellers to continue to sell e-readers at bargain prices for several more years, or longer, while also enhancing tablets.
Meanwhile, textbook publishers are converting paper textbooks into e-textbooks for use on devices that schools hope will cost even less in two years than they do now. The e-textbook trend could help prolong the life of inexpensive e-readers, but school administrators will still have to decide between e-readers and low-cost tablets, analysts said.
"To be honest, we see more education investment in tablets than we do e-readers," Reith said. A trend in Asia is for schools to buy Android tablets in bulk from Chinese manufacturers for the equivalent of about $95 a device, he said.
Amazon and Barnes & Noble "will continue to go down both paths," of making e-readers and tablets to access their content, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "I don't see e-readers going away. Content is what both want to sell." Both companies will subsidize the price of content-consumption devices like e-readers to sell books, movies, TV shows and more.
What will be left in two years, and possibly much longer, is a market that still offers choice, with lower-priced e-readers (with far fewer sold than in 2011) as well as a market with a variety tablets that are lighter and feature better glare-reducing screens, analysts said.
Ultimately, users will decide which PC, tablet, or smartphone they want to get content from a vendor like Amazon, or they can get an Amazon- subsidized device at a lower cost for the same purpose," Gold said.
When it comes to ultimate technology visions, some users of tablets and e-readers believe that both devices will eventually be replaced by other technologies to come. E-readers and tablets are both "bridge" technologies connecting past computing platforms with future ones, noted reader Gerard Cerchio.
"Both will be replaced, probably with eye glasses or contacts that use any conveniently designated surface as a display," Cerchio wrote.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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