Digital Directions: E-Reader Evolution—Should We Think Beyond Ink?
Common in the history of technology products is the pattern that devices with multiple functions generally take market share from earlier, single-purpose devices. A classic example can be found in word processing: Dedicated word processors, such as those from Wang and IBM, gave way to PCs that could be used for a wide range of applications, among them word processing. Dedicated, wired, e-mail-only devices likewise gave way to the general-purpose PC.
A general-purpose device offers the consumer greater convenience and utility, and lower cost, compared to buying an array of single-use devices. From a manufacturers’ perspective, the general-purpose device can be sold to a wider market than the single-purpose device, allowing research and development costs to be distributed over more units. Therefore, the general-purpose device can be sold at a lower price to the customer.
There are, of course, often compromises made by using general-purpose devices. The earliest word-processing applications on the PC lacked some of the features and efficiencies of dedicated word processors. For the most part, however, the market found these short-term compromises to be an acceptable trade-off.
This pattern may repeat as the e-reader marketplace evolves. E-readers are essentially single-purpose devices, optimized for the display of text-based content.
Why E-Readers Are Different
An e-book reader does not replace general-purpose devices such as laptops or mobile devices. The rationale is that specific requirements of the reading experience exist that demand a device designed for that purpose, including: the ability to render text-based content on a stable, reflected display, to support reading in direct sunlight; and the ability to display content for long periods of time without requiring battery recharge.
Addressing these requirements, so far, have been those devices using electrophoretic displays (“electronic paper”), such as the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, which display primarily monochromatic content by electronically rearranging charged pigments (like ink on paper) with low or no power consumption. (Electronic ink¹s slow refresh rate precludes it from being used in general-purpose devices, which require fast refresh rates to show video or any other animated effect.)
Initially, there was another justification for dedicated e-book readers: form factor. Laptops were perceived as too cumbersome, and mobile phones too small to provide an adequate reading experience. The book-size e-reader is designed as a “right-sized” device. This seems less relevant today, with the advent of devices such as iPhones and netbooks, which have blurred these distinctions.