Reading Devices Changing

As 2012 draws to a close, a trend we are watching is the changing universe of devices used to read ebooks. A year ago, monochrome “e-ink” reading devices (such as the original Kindle) dominated the market. That dominance has eroded through 2012, and by the time Christmas sales are tallied I expect we will see a new leader.

E-ink readers became mainstream when Amazon launched the Kindle. Before that, Sony and others had sold well-made but pricey devices. Amazon brought mass production and low-margin, high-volume sales techniques to the business and prices quickly descended from around $400 to around $100. All these devices had screens of between six and seven inches (diagonal measure) and almost all used display panels from one vendor. While each maker chose their own rendering engine (the web browser-like software that actually displays the text on screen), all but Amazon stayed quite close to the EPUB version 2 standard; Amazon chose to use its proprietary and quite rudimentary Mobi standard for competitive reasons.

Inexpensive single-purpose reading devices with reasonably good screens, long-lasting batteries, and pricing around the $100 mark were supported by a huge increase in plain fiction titles in both formats. Amazon, inevitably, discounted those titles aggressively. Hard core readers (the people who read multiple books every week) were the early adopters of this new ecosystem, buying large numbers of reading devices and very large numbers of low-priced ebooks. By “plain formatting” I mean straight text with few or no embellishments such as bullet lists or illustrations.

Color Tablets

Apple’s iPad, launched in April, 2010, introduced new classes of devices to ebook reading: multifunction tablets, as well as smartphones and Apple’s iPod line of pocket-size devices. Apple’s rendering software for ebooks worked on iPads, iPhones, and iPods. Apple used the EPUB-2 standard, with a few proprietary additions.

After a brief period in which other vendors watched to see if a $400-plus, multifunction device would actually catch consumers’ attention, it became obvious that Apple had established a new market category that huge numbers of consumers wanted and would pay for. Amazon reacted by launching the $199 Kindle Fire in September, 2011. In September this year two models of the Kindle Fire HD were added to the line (the latter only for the US at this time).

Barnes & Noble, who launched their first e-ink reader in 2009, introduced a rudimentary color tablet in November 2010 and a more competent model, the Nook Tablet, in November 2011.

Kobo entered the e-ink market in mid-2010 and introduced the Kobo Arc color tablet in September, 2012.

Amazon, B&N, and Kobo have all released “apps” for reading their books on iPads, Android devices, and computer desktops. Other vendors, such as BlueFire, have also released multi-device/screen reading apps.

The Change

With the advent of the color tablets mentioned above, as well as a large number of color tablets built on Google’s Android operating system by companies like Samsung, e-ink reader sales have slowed and reports from Asia suggest new manufacturing orders are being cut back sharply. Apple in particular, and Amazon, were selling very large numbers of tablets as 2012 drew to an end and were expected to sell very big numbers during the holiday season.

The color tablets have made it possible to produce ebooks with somewhat better formatting than was initially possible on e-ink readers, and makers of those devices have responded with upgraded rendering software. But I think the days of the dedicated ebook reader are numbered, and am reasonably sure that 2013 will be the year in which multifunction, color tablets become the dominant technology for reading ebooks. This is a double-edged sword: on one side, the tablets permit the use of color and also handle design elements like lists and tables better; on the other side, reading is just one among many entertainment options on a tablet and the reader is potentially distracted by options like video, games, social media, radio, music, and many more options.

From my own experience: when I finished an ebook on my Sony reader, I tended to go looking for another one to read; I didn’t want to just put it away in a desk drawer. I don’t have that same compulsion with my iPad, because I can just switch to watching a movie on Netflix, or catch up on family email, or check into my social media places, with a few taps on the screen. So I am unsure what the impact of the dominance of tablet sales will mean for ebook sales. I don’t think it will be bad, because I believe that the early adopters of e-ink readers were a fairly small cohort of people who read (fiction) voraciously, and they are an outlier group. My positive feeling is, tablets are being purchased by a far more diverse audience than the one which bought e-ink readers, and that should be a good thing.

In my next post, I will talk about ebook formats and the challenges posed by both evolving standards and proprietary rendering engines.

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