On Tom’s Guide, writer Marshall Honorof has an interesting, lengthy report looking at the apparent fate of the e-ink e-reading device. Honorof begins by noting that the ebook format is doing just fine, but use of the dedicated reader device itself seems to be dwindling.
Why could this be? Honorof observes that people don’t necessarily need to buy new e-ink hardware as often as they might tablets, since older readers still work just fine, but that doesn’t provide the whole answer. He cites a Pew report showing that the percentage of people who own any e-ink reader is also decreasing.
Honorof also hears from an Amazon representative, who provides the expected but not terribly useful statement that Kindle sales are still doing just fine, thank you, nothing to see here, move along. (Barnes & Noble doesn’t say anything on the record about ereader sales.)
The report gets a little confused from here, as it wanders off into noting that authors are still selling plenty of ebooks—which, while it does support the earlier contention that the format is doing just fine, nonetheless doesn’t say anything about why use of the hardware device is decreasing. It also notes that genre books are especially popular as ebooks, since they tend to be “doorstoppers” and a lot easier to carry around on your Kindle than in paper—which, again, is probably true, but doesn’t speak to why the e-ink version’s use is dwindling.
But as to the report’s main point, I don’t think there’s any great mystery why e-ink reader use is dwindling. When the Kindle came out, smartphones were in their first couple of really usable generations, and consumer-friendly tablets weren’t a thing at all. In fact, the first truly consumer-friendly tablet, the iPad, would only be introduced a couple of years later. In fact, a big part of the purpose of the iPad’s introduction was to be a “Kindle-killer,” via the launch of the iBooks store and the introduction of agency pricing.
In the end, that didn’t work out quite the way Apple wanted. But in the longer term, iPads and their ilk have made reading on tablets a lot more attractive—and Amazon, with its new line of super-cheap Fire tablets, has further cannibalized itself by making a decent, useful media tablet available for significantly less than its very cheapest e-ink reader.
In the Kindle’s early days, people who wanted to do a lot of ebook reading, and could afford the price, would invest in e-ink readers because they offered the biggest-screen, most legible reading experience available at the time. But now, for casual readers, it’s a lot more economical to buy a tablet that can not only read books, but view all sorts of media and browse the Internet as well. Maybe there’s a little more eyestrain than e-ink, but not too much, especially if they’re not going to be reading for long periods at a stretch—and they can do other stuff with it, too. (Though research from the Codex Group suggests that people with tablets buy fewer ebooks than those with e-ink readers, it still remains to be seen whether this is actually a long-term trend.)
The only people buying e-ink readers now are the ones who care enough about reading to spend the extra money on a superb, distraction-free e-ink experience. (Or are otherwise in situations where e-ink readers would be useful. I’m not permitted to use Internet-connected gadgets like smartphones or tablets at my day job, but an e-ink reader is just fine.) Amazon seems to be taking note of this, as it’s shifted its focus lately toward more expensive models like the Oasis line, with few or no upgrades to its bare-bones models in quite a while. I suppose they think that, if someone’s prepared to spend a hundred bucks or so on e-reading already, why wouldn’t they be willing to spend two or three hundred?
It might also be that part of the reason behind this is that people are simply reading less in general. There’s an article in the New York Times along these lines, and a Mike Shatzkin column that mentions it, suggesting that text is on the decline in general, being supplanted by all the new audiovisual media that the Internet is making possible. But this mainly seems to apply to on-line stuff; I’m not so sure it extends to the books people read for relaxation.
But at this point, does e-ink reader market share even matter anymore? Every major ebook vendor has mobile apps as well as e-ink readers. Plenty of people read ebooks on phones, tablets, desktop computers, and other devices. Even if e-ink reader usage dwindles, and even if Big Five publishers don’t seem to understand ebooks’ appeal, there’s still every indication ebooks will continue to thrive as long as people have any interest at all in consuming printed words.
I think another reason for the decline in e-ink readers is the poor GUI. This is true at least for the Kindle I own. With a lot of books loaded it is hard to find one without using search. With readers on a phone or table you can sort by author, title, date loaded etc. Also it is another device to carry and I always have my phone.
Amazon hasn’t upgraded its basic e-readers for a while because there is nothing worthwhile to change. The e-ink technology is mature and stagnant so there are no display improvements to make, and there is no need to put in a faster processor because it’s already good enough for its limited tasks. They can’t change the package much and continue to meet the basic price points, and minor tweaks wouldn’t persuade people to upgrade to a new version.
I like the idea of e-ink, but 1)the cost of android tablets plummeted over the years. Android tablets let you view ebooks from more than one platform — a very important selling point to me. 2)I really miss the hard buttons on e-ink devices, and to my dismay, that has become an optional feature. 3)I think the 6 inch form factor is cumbersome; it needs to be 8 inch at minimum. My fat fingers make it hard to do elaborate finger movements on 6 inch e-ink devices. About 75% of my ebooks are on the Kindle, but I would have a lot of qualms with adopting a device which uses a bastardized form of the epub standard and has disabled epub imports. You really have to ask yourself: why would Amazon disable epub imports but allow imports of docx and pdf? (I realize that you can do it through Kindle Previewer or Calibre, but that is not the point really for end users).
There are virtually cost-free changes Amazon could make to its epaper readers. The same chip that handles its WiFi could also handle a Bluetooth keyboard, which would make note-taking much easier. Even more important, the two buttons on a BT mouse could be used for paging, making the readers far easily to use for those with mobility issues.
But Amazon is displaying the same dismal syndrome that’s afflicting the rest of the tech industry. The innovative first generation is retiring or dying and they’re being replaced by bean counters who ask “What will make more money?” rather than what is genuinely new and useful. The result is stagnation. Look around. For smartphones and epaper readers change typically means a slightly different screen.
Apple is among the worst offenders. It hasn’t made a computer I like since the 2012 Mac mini. It doesn’t make a single laptop I would want to own. They are too slimmed down and feature-poor. The iPads are still OK. There Apple has to compete with Samsung. But the iPhones are headed down the drain, afflicted with pointless gimmicks that tricks to sell other stuff. The last worthwhile new feature was TouchID. FaceID is a pain and removing the headphone port, done to sell $150 headsets, is forcing users to charge yet another device every day.
Sadly, I do think the e-reader is pretty much dead. Amazon will continue to sell them but I don’t think they’re going to upgrade them much beyond where they are now.
Bezos is all in on Alexa because the competition for that space is still fierce. Amazon owns, I believe, approximately 75% of the e-book market in the USA and 95% in the UK. B&N is IMO unlikely to make it into 2019 which will eliminate their #2 competitor in the USA and it’s unknown whether the Kobo/Walmart deal will actually lead to a meaningful competitor in the USA. I think that’s unlikely, particularly because Amazon’s probably going to pick up most of the Nook customers left behind when B&N finally goes out of business.
The only other major competitors out there are Onyx Boox, Sony, and the ReMarkable. Sony seems absolutely uninterested in the consumer market. They’re happy to market their new 13″ device to a very small niche. Onyx Boox has little name recognition in the USA and many of their e-readers are more expensive than the Kindle.
I was hoping the ReMarkable might provide some serious competition because I really want Amazon to produce the “Kindle Scribe” they were reportedly working on back in 2011. Unfortunately, the ReMarkable is expensive and has several problems that come with being a 1st generation device. Because it’s not carried by Amazon, Walmart or another major retailer who knows if it’ll survive to have a 2nd generation. It also isn’t associated with a bookstore like Amazon’s devices. Microsoft and Apple continue to develop their technology (Microsoft recently patented heptic feedback for the Surface Pen that might make things feel more like writing on paper) but have only made halfhearted efforts at challenging Amazon as an ebook seller. Microsoft’s rumored “Andromeda” device that will look like the Courier apparently won’t have an e-ink screen. It’ll have two OLED screens and will be focused on digital inking and note taking, not reading. Based on what the e-ink corporation is doing now, I don’t think they even believe their technology will be used in e-readers much longer. They’re focused on things like e-ink technology for bus stops and even e-ink price shelf tags.
For those who read a lot, the e-reader is a useful device. I use an e-reader only for reading. A tablet’s additional bells and whistles are unnecessary additions. If I want Internet access, for example, I would rather use a PC, which handles Internet access much better than an e-reader. An e-reader’s improved battery life is a decisive advantage over a tablet.
For all the complaints about Amazon, it has made two changes which I like. First, it added boldface options to its fonts. Second, its AZW3 format has the option of traditional page numbers.
For those who read a lot, which is admittedly a small proportion of the population, an e-reader has decisive advantages.
Gray Maddry:With a lot of books loaded it is hard to find one without using search.
Indexing for a lot of books can be problematic for e-readers. The B&N Nook Simple Touch had, in my opinion, the best indexing solution for e-readers, but even it had its limitations. I find the solution is to keep a limited number of books on my e-readers. I use Calibre on my desktop for indexing and searching.
Michael W. Perry:There are virtually cost-free changes Amazon could make to its epaper readers. The same chip that handles its WiFi could also handle a Bluetooth keyboard, which would make note-taking much easier.
Interesting point. Along the same line, I have found the Kindle much easier than the Kobo for highlighting text.
Fascinating. Even within this single thread we see the dichotomy between those who want to create content and the very vocal “I just want to read!” contingent. We need a simple reader with expandable functionality via accessories (e.g. Bluetooth keyboard) to please both groups. The smartphone offers more versatility as well as cost-effectiveness compared to currently available “good enough” e-ink readers.
What do I want? An updated e-ink Apple MessagePad running Newton!
An e-ink device is never going to be well suited to content creation. The display is too slow for the continual updates that you need for interactive software, including modern text editors and word processors. If some future display appears that retains the zero-power consumption of e-ink when static along with the ability for quick changes it could be a player, but I know of no such display technology that is currently under development.
I love my Oasis for my daily trips that include a subway and/or bus ride but don’t involve any significant use of a computing device at the destination. I’m not going to be creating content except maybe an occasional quick email reply on my phone, so an e-reader is perfect for the occasion. But if I’m going to be doing something more at the other end I’ll carry a tablet or a laptop.
For most ereaders you are quite correct – they are underpowered to run any but the simplest apps (how well I remember my early Pandigital Novel). But the display could handle a simple note taking app, a calculator and other PDA level functions. No need for an elaborate GUI. Let them be optional downloads so those without interest needn’t be burdened with the overhead…
I consider TTS to be an essential core feature (hence my choice of the Kindle Touch despite the lack of expandable storage) but would be willing to forego built in speakers in favor of Bluetooth flexibility.
I also want speech recognition even though I favor text entry via keyboard – no problem for a $20 phone but few eReaders have a built-in mike 🙂
I like the idea of the eReaders doing one thing and doing it well. I don’t expect them to do fancy stuff.