What's an eReader? What's a great eReader?

All the talk of the Apple iSlate reinventing eReaders, revitalizing eBooks and killing all existing eReaders is confusing.

Firstly – What is an eReader? 

Secondly – What makes for a great eReader?

What is an eReader?

An eReader is a device that is optimized for and focused on reading books.

The success of the Kindle has already shown that there is a big enough market for a dedicated reading device. It’s also a market that is growing rapidly.

Now, we have to figure out what device fits in best. There are 3 possibilities when people think eReader –

  1. A device focused on reading books.  
  2. A device that does other things and at the same time is excellent for reading. 
  3. A device you can read onwhich is however unsuitable for reading.

We are excluding the third category – that means PCs and laptops are excluded completely.

We’ll be looking at netbooks, phones, tablets, and other devices and seeing if they fit into the second category.

There’s a huge assumption implicit in this post i.e.

We want an eReader that is great for reading books. Readability has to be one of its main qualities.

The MAIN use of the device will be reading books.

It’s great if the eReader also does other things – However, not at the cost of compromising on the reading experience.

What makes for a great eReader? Important Qualities and Features

Let’s start by taking some ideas from this O’Reilly TOC blog post (with additions based on what people usually ask for) –

wireless (evdo + wifi), wireless with web browser, free wireless,  

eInk for better battery life, full color eInk screen

read PDF, Word and ePub, be open, support every format,

ebook sharing, social features,

touchscreen, ability to add notes and marginalia, handwriting recognition, unbreakable screen, slider keyboard or on-screen keyboard,

lots of storage, memory card slot,

price around $200, price around $100, cost subsidized with subscription,  

light weight and 7″ or 8″ screen, foldable,

very simple design, great contrast, parental controls

focused on reading

There’s a clear demarcation with 70% tending towards an eReader and 30% tending towards a device that does a lot more than read.

The non-customer for eReaders is perfectly illustrated by this comment –

I’m holding on to the dream that I’ll someday have one mobile device that can handle everything I need, so a dedicated e-reader contradicts my overall goal. I’m focused on e-reader *software*.

This is the exact person not to listen to if you’re interested in an eReader because their goal, in a sense, is to kill off eReaders.

It’s someone who’s not ready to accept that another person could want a dedicated device for reading.

Shifting the focus back to the perfect eReader we begin to see Patterns.

What people want in their perfect eReader

Here are the main things that come up again and again –

  1. A very readable screen – very close to paper, high contrast, easy on the eyes, can read for long stretches without eyes tiring, and so forth. eInk meets this need perfectly and for a lot of people LCD does not.  
  2. Ease of Getting Books – This includes both a large range of books at reasonable prices and convenient wireless downloads.  
  3. Focus on Reading – People want something that focuses their attention on reading and has features and a design tailored for reading.  
  4. Font Options – Changing Font Size, changing line spacing and formatting, selecting fonts, adjusting boldness and more.
  5. Portability – Light weight, compact size, and great battery life. Also the capacity to carry a ton of books.
  6. Dead Simple to Use – No learning curve, no tech expertise needed – something that just works.
  7. Dead simple interactivity – A very easy way to add notes and highlights and interact. This could be a touchscreen or writing support or just a very good keyboard.  
  8. Wireless Internet Connection – For reference, to find and download books, and for reading related purposes.
  9. Universal support – An eReader that supports books from all stores, books in all formats and library ebooks.
  10. Value-add Features related to reading – Text to Speech, and other things that add to the value of a book and to the reading experience.
  11. Sharing – Users do want to be able to share their books.
  12. Cool Features – Things like remembering your place in a book, syncing across devices, in-built dictionary, search and more.
  13. Support for Audiobooks including Speakers.
  14. Low Prices or Good Value for Money.

Notice that I’ve left out all requests that are not related to reading – It’s not a mistake.

Amongst most current and prospective eReader owners there’s a very strong vibe of –

Give me an eReader and leave out things not related to reading.  

 That’s what actual eReader customers want.

There are people who are never going to buy an eReader and will never buy more than a book a year – they still jump in and have opinions on what device readers should want.

We aren’t concerned with them at all. There’s an iPhone for them.

Could a multiple purpose device still be an excellent eReader?

We’re going to find out tomorrow, aren’t we?  😉

Look at the list of features that people want in an eReader and you instantly see how multi-purposeness starts eating away at them –

  1. Support for videos means eInk can’t be used. 
  2. Support for games and video processing means battery life plays second fiddle to graphics performance.  
  3. Adding in all these features leads to higher prices. 
  4. As you increase the screen size to show movies and games in all their splendor the size and weight become too much for an eReader

It’s difficult for a multi-purpose device to be an excellent eReader.

Apple may very well pull off a miracle – However, it would have to be a pretty big miracle. 

As you make a device more and more multi-purpose its ability to focus on reading disappears.

It’s difficult for an excellent eReader to be a multi-purpose device.

Have written in the past about the two indispensable eReader functions i.e.

  1. Being able to get books. 
  2. Being able to read books.

The first is clearly possible on any device.

However, to make an eReader great for reading books we have to make design decisions that focus us on reading – that often means leaving out other things.

The pattern of favoring reading over other potential uses continues as we factor in various reading related requirements-

  1. The Screen Quality and Size required for reading. 
  2. Making an eReader very easy to use.
  3. Portability.
  4. Searching documents.
  5. Content Portability.
  6. Notes and Highlighting.
  7. One Handed Use.
  8. The requirement to be able to read in bed, read at night, and read in bright sunlight.

And so forth.  

As we take an eReader and make it better and better for reading we lose out on more and more possibilities.

Dedicated eReaders are just starting off

A lot of the vulnerability of dedicated eReaders is a function of their relative youth.

We still don’t know how good an eReader could be

Think about the various factors –

  1. eInk technology is still evolving. 
  2. Other ePaper technologies (Plastic Logic, Mirasol, Liquavista, PixelQi) haven’t even arrived in the market yet.  
  3. We haven’t achieved economies of scale yet. In fact we’re not even close.
  4. Amazon is the leader and this is the first device they’ve ever made. They’re bound to get better.
  5. All the companies are having teething troubles.
  6. eBook range is still being built up. International book rights are still being negotiated.  

eReaders are in their infancy and that makes them seem less promising and vulnerable. A few more years and we’ll have a big gulf in reading experience and value for money (for people who read) between dedicated eReaders and do-everything devices.  

We don’t know how good 3rd party apps will make dedicated eReaders

The whole iSlate is going to kill eReaders argument isn’t a new one – it was the iPhone before the iSlate and so forth.

It’s worth pointing out that it was actually –

  1. The iPhone. AND
  2. The iPhone as tens of thousands of developers had envisioned it.

That was taking on eReaders. A lot of why the iPhone began to be considered ‘capable of anything’ was developers molding its features and flexibility to new uses.

eReaders survived and thrived anyways.

Now, eReaders have an ace up their sleeves –

  1. We’re getting an eReader App Store (for the Kindle).
  2. App Stores for other eReaders ought to spring up soon.
  3. Finally, developers get to show what they can do with eReaders.
  4. We ought to see things we couldn’t possibly imagine (as we did with the iPhone).  

Once developers’ ingenuity gets added to eReader strengths we’ll begin to see eReaders really shine.

eReaders, even in their infancy, are surviving

The biggest factor to keep in mind is that eReaders haven’t died. In fact they have been selling like crazy and progressing in leaps and bounds.

Their growth has shown a few things –

  1. Readers are committed to dedicated reading devices.
  2. eInk technology has enough merit to survive challenges from LCDs.
  3. eReader companies are committed to readers and eReaders.
  4. This might well turn into a huge market.

We finally have competition and investment and revenue streams. eReaders are getting better and better.  

  1. Perhaps the iSlate really is magic – perhaps its so good that even a cursory focus on reading, an eReader App, lets it knock the wind out of eReaders.
  2. Perhaps it eats up a lot of eReader market share.

However, eReaders are here to stay –

  1. It might be end of the year when new ePaper technologies come out.
  2. It might be 3 months before a wave of killer apps for eReaders are invented.

However, eReaders will re-establish their position as the #1 choice for readers.

In fact, even with the iSlate being the most anticipated device ever, it’s not a given that eReaders will lose their status as the dedicated reader’s chosen reading device.

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