Yesterday, Amazon held a surprise event announcing a number of new additions to its Amazon Echo line. They involved a couple of new Echo speakers and some accessories, including the Echo Spot video phone alarm clock which a friend described as “very Jetsons.” (One TechCrunch writer was less impressed, comparing it to her old Chumby digital alarm clock—which made me a little nostalgic, given that my period working for Best Buy telephone tech support coincided with the waning days of the Insignia Infocast, which was the guts of a Chumby in an Insignia-branded casing.) There was even mention of that standard of late-night infomercials, the talking Big Mouth Billy Bass.
While the new Echos will probably continue to work great for reading audiobooks, there wasn’t a whole lot pertaining to ebooks. Even the Echo Spot seems meant more for showing videos than reading text, though the old Chumby did have some interfaces built in for browsing Internet news. It’s funny that this comes out right when a new spat has erupted between Amazon and Google, as Google disables the display of YouTube videos through Amazon’s larger “Echo Show” video screen gadget.
In fact, the announcement did not involve any sign of a new Kindle e-ink reader at all—to the point that the TechCrunch slideshow linked above dedicated an entire slide to its lack, and another TechCrunch writer complained that it was missing.
Instead, we got Echo Buttons. We got a device that adds smart connectivity to a standard old-school landline. But we did not get any glorious e-paper wondrousness, the likes of which Amazon alone can provide.
What might the reasons behind that be? Here are a few guesses.
First of all, e-ink readers have been on their way out for the last six years. Statista shows that e-reader sales peaked in 2011, and have fallen every year since. The decline seems to have leveled off, with sales falling by less than a whole million units per year since 2014, but they’re lower than they were in 2010 and still dwindling—and given that e-readers now cost less than they did a few years back, that means substantially less overall revenue from them. Research firm Codex suggests that people are moving away from e-ink readers and over to tablets as their old readers fail.
Amazon is happily releasing new Fire tablets—it announced a new $150 Fire HD 10 a few days ago that promises to make a great reading and media consumption device at a price that can’t be beat. Because tablets are where all the attention is right now, and Amazon has managed to corner the market on well-made low-priced tablets the way it cornered the market on e-readers a few years back.
And who knows? If Amazon is spacing out its device announcements so as to let each new one pass without stealing thunder from the previous and next, and getting them in place well ahead of November’s start of the holiday shopping season, perhaps there will be a new Kindle announcement within a few days. But even if there is, the odds are pretty good it’ll just be cosmetic changes at best.
I think ebook reader technology has plateaued, because the massive sales necessary to drive expensive investments in further display technology simply aren’t there anymore. We’ve gotten to the point where the biggest thing Amazon could think to do with e-readers in its latest new model, the Oasis, was to offload most of the battery to the detachable cover so it could make a device not much bigger than just the screen. (And the biggest thing Amazon’s only real competitor Kobo could think to do was make its device waterproof!) Barnes & Noble just announced it’s giving up on new Nook devices altogether, and farming the brand name out to OEMs to manufacture for it.
(In some respects, e-ink reader technology has moved backward. My old Kindle Touch has a speaker and earphone jack, and can play audiobooks or speak text books aloud. No new Kindle since then has had that capability, though Amazon came up with a plug-in dongle to retrofit it to some of them for the visually impaired.)
For that matter, why do you even really need a new e-ink reader these days, unless something happened to the one you had? New tablets year to year have faster processors, more memory, and better displays, and new applications developed to take advantage of them—but e-readers don’t advance much anymore because there’s not much better processors or memory can do to improve displaying ebooks on an e-ink screen.
As for displays, the e-ink screen hasn’t changed much in several years, nor is it likely to barring the adoption of some entirely new e-ink technology. Amazon’s added more LED lights around the edges, but that’s just about it. My 2- or 3-generation-old Paperwhite still reads books like a champ. Heck, even my 4- or 5-generation old Kindle Touch works just fine save for the lack of a frontlight and the newest fonts. And I gather there are still plenty of people happily reading on their ten-year-old 1st- and 2nd-generation Kindle devices. There’s no pressing reason to get a new one if the one you have still works for you.
I strongly suspect that, unless it was something that would work as a replacement for LCD on fast-refreshing tablets, we’re not likely to see a new e-ink technology adopted because, as I already mentioned, e-reader sales aren’t there anymore—and even if they were, the R&D necessary to adopt the display tech would probably bump the price out of the range of people who have grown used to less expensive hardware. Fire tablets are so cheap and good now that Amazon has effectively cannibalized its own e-reader sales with them.
And Fire tablets are cheap and good, especially since you can now install the Play Store on them with minimal extra effort. They may not have all the bells and whistles of the very latest versions of Android, like the ability to split the screen and do who knows what-all else—but when you get right down to it, those are just bells and whistles. I’ve been using my Fire HD 8 as my main tablet for the last week or so without running into very many things I couldn’t do that I could with the Nexus 7 that was formerly my main tablet.
The Fire 7 works great as a smaller version of that—I currently keep mine on my bed for a little lazy reading before I get up in the morning. I’m still amazed when I think about it: this is a $50 portable terminal that can do pretty much everything one needs to do on the Internet these days. It runs an operating system whose manufacturer still provides it with full support and vulnerability patching (unlike all those Chinese OEM Android tablets that run versions of plain-vanilla Android several major releases out of date). And it’s significantly cheaper than even the cheapest e-ink reader, especially when Amazon puts it on sale.
The Fire is the surest proof that we fans of ebooks have finally won. Digital devices that can read ebooks (and consume other media) are cheap and plentiful enough for anyone who wants one to have. Perhaps they’re not quite to the “as-disposable-as-a-dog-eared-paperback” stage yet, where you wouldn’t fret too much if you left it on the bus, but they’re closer than they’ve ever been.
The only reason to announce a new Kindle e-ink reader at this point would be to bump brand awareness for marketing purposes, and avoid the impression that Amazon’s just selling old devices—but given the state of e-reader technology, and the sales decline that means there isn’t a whole lot of reason to sink more money into new designs, Amazon effectively is just selling old devices, even if it gives them a cosmetic redesign for the new year.
Even if a new Kindle comes out this year, I don’t expect there will be too many more after that—and this year’s and subsequent years’ will be the same sort of cosmetic brand-name-refresh releases that serve mainly to keep the brand name in the news for another year. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but I would be very surprised if it happened.