Do eReaders have a chance to replace paper?

A long time ago, Amazon thought of Kindle as a means to replace not just books (the physical shell of books) but paper itself.

Since that time, a lot has changed. Now Amazon is more enamored by Kindle Tablets and all the multi-tasking digital-content-buying rainbows and unicorns that Tablets promise.

However, the question and the opportunity remains. Replacing paper is, if you think about it, a far bigger opportunity than Tablets.

Do eReaders have a realistic chance to replace paper?

Well, let’s consider what aspects eReaders have to cover to be able to have a shot at replacing paper –

  1. Cheap. Getting to be as cheap as paper is difficult. However, eReaders should be cheaper than they currently are. We are already approaching $50. For eReaders to truly replace paper, we’ll need prices in the $5 to $20 range.
  2. Runs Forever. For this we’ll need solar-powered batteries or some other renewable/infinite energy source. This, however, is a problem on the price front as solar cells aren’t cheap.
  3. Doesn’t break. This is a very problematic area. We have flexible eInk close to being released. However, is it merely ‘hard to break’ or is it really ‘unbreakable’? Also, flexible displays cover just the screen. What about the internal electronics?
  4. Light. We’re close here. eReaders are already in the 5 oz to 8 oz range. That’s good. It would be better to get even lighter eReaders.
  5. Compact and/or Foldable. Flexible eInk displays might be able to address this. There will be issues around making the electronic components fit in with the ‘foldable’ designs.
  6. Writable. This is a big problem area. It’s really, really easy to write on paper. Most eReaders don’t really have handwriting recognition or stylus support. Those, if added, add to the cost. Also, most eReaders have really tacky input methods. Paper is still far quicker for writing and much better suited.
  7. Intuitive. Hard to say whether eReaders can be made as intuitive as paper.
  8. Crisp and Readable. eInk is almost there. eReaders perhaps need 2-3 generations of further improvement before they can rival paper on readability.
  9. Tearable into pieces. This may or may not be possible and desirable. One of the good things about paper and paper notebooks is you can tear off a piece or a page and do something with it.
  10. Easy to Store and Carry and Transport. This is a tough one. eReaders are very fragile. Paper is fragile too – However, it’s easy to store and carry and is fragile in a narrower sense of the word. Flexible eReaders that have unbreakable screens will help make eReaders less fragile. However, we still have a lot of vulnerabilities.
  11. Available in lots of sizes. This is quite a tall order. Kindle DX is selling for $299. For eReaders and eInk to be able to replace paper we need eInk to be splittable and joinable OR available in lots of different sizes. Given that the yield of screens goes down dramatically as screen size increases, thus leading to much higher costs, this might prove to be one of the toughest problems to solve. There’s no easy way to get eInk screens in different sizes while keeping prices low.
  12. Color. With paper you can use different color pens and pencils and crayons and get a lot of different colors. Color eInk eReaders aren’t yet available.
  13. Drawing. Paper allows for easy sketching and drawing. This isn’t possible with eReaders yet (the easy part).
  14. Multiple Color Backgrounds. Not sure whether this will be easy once Color eInk gets developed. For now, all eInk screens have white backgrounds only.
  15. Tactile Feedback and the Feel and Friction of Paper. Paper has a very nice friction and feel to it. In some cases it’s necessary (writing with a pen or paper). In some cases it just gives you a nice feel (turning pages). What can eInk do to afford easy writing (based on friction) and easy tactile feedback?
  16. Long Life. Journals and notebooks last for decades, sometimes centuries. Books last longer. Our eReaders might last 5-10 years if we’re lucky.
  17. Ownership Rights. Everything you buy on an eReader is licensed and owned by someone else. With paper and books you can share and resell and hand it to your kids or their kids.

If you consider all the items in the list above, and any other qualities of paper we’ve missed, it’s a very tall order. The interesting thing is, we’re slowly but surely getting close to knocking items off the list. Companies like Kobo are showing that even if Amazon forgets eReaders and fixates on Kindle Tablets and Kindle Phones, the push to make eReaders and eInk better will continue.

eReaders and eInk have several advantages of their own. This means that eInk doesn’t have to match every item on the above list. It just has to match some of the qualities of paper. After that, the paper qualities it replicates, combined with its own unique advantages, will make it a better choice than paper.

Things eReaders do better than Paper

  1. Reusable. Use a sheet of paper and it’s gone. You can’t really reuse it. With eReaders you can reuse the screen again and again.
  2. Large Storage Capacity. eReaders can store thousands of books or millions of sheets of notes. eReaders with SD cards can store even more. EReaders effectively double up as your bookshelves.
  3. Easy to Search. Want to quickly search through all your books and notes – do a quick text search on your eReader. Much better than having to go through 20 notebooks and 200 books to find what you’re looking for.
  4. Adaptable. You can read books and magazines or search the Internet. You can play a simple game or write a journal entry. eReaders are more adaptable and can be used for lots of different things. Note: This is still heavily limited by the reluctance of eReader companies to open up their devices, especially when it comes to apps that could be used to organize, manipulate, or process ebooks.
  5. Switch between Pages and Books quickly. It’s much easier to switch between books, and to jump around within a book, with an eReader.
  6. Not as Easily Lost. It’s easy to lose a sheet of paper. eReaders are comparatively harder to lose or misplace. The downside is that if you lose an eReader the monetary loss is much, much higher.
  7. Don’t use Trees. eReaders save trees, at least to an extent.
  8. Double up as a Bookstore. You can shop from the eReader itself and get books instantly.
  9. We can come up with more advantages. Hopefully, the above eight advantages gives a good idea of what eInk and eReaders can offer beyond the capabilities of paper and paper books.

eInk basically replaces the physical ‘paper’ and ‘books’ and ‘notebooks’ with digital versions. This makes transportation and replication and browsing and searching much faster and easier. It also provides near-infinite storage capacity and offers lots of possibilities.

eReaders and eInk offer a lot of possibilities that are untapped

We haven’t really seen any ‘open’ ecosystem that allows third-party developers to extend eReaders. In a way, companies making eReaders are holding back eReaders and eInk from what they could be. Imagine if there were a few hundred thousand apps for eReaders – Who knows what creative uses and features 3rd party developers would have figured out.

Most common pain points – poor PDF support, poor organization, no easy way to print, no easy way to get notes off of the device, no easy note-taking, no writing features – would be easily fixed if one or more eReader companies took a more sensible view of what eReaders could be, and how other companies and people could help.

Everything we have seen so far is just the handiwork of a handful of high-strung companies, working in a very tightly controlled environment. Once access to eReaders and eInk gets democratized, we’ll see the features and power of eReaders grow exponentially. It’s almost as if the companies want to hold back eReaders – as if they fear unleashing all the possibilities of eInk.

These companies are restricted by their imaginations and by their need for profit and control. Their vision of what eInk and eReaders could be is far too narrow. Imagine if the iPhone had no Apps. If the Internet had no websites except for a few hundred ‘approved’ by a handful of companies that controlled the Internet.

That’s basically what we’re seeing with eReaders and eInk. A technology and a class of devices that are held hostage by a handful of companies that lack the wisdom and intelligence to leverage the power of hundreds of thousands of third-party developers. Sooner or later, some company is going to figure out that what is truly needed is to set the technology free. Sell screens. Sell blank devices. Let people make apps and accessories that interact with the devices and with the ebooks.

Let the technology grow naturally and freely. You aren’t God, just a gardener.

Even without Apps & Freedom, eReaders and eInk will grow

While companies making eReaders are showing a striking lack of ambition and imagination, the companies making the screen technologies are much more active and are persevering.

Companies like eInk/PVI, Qualcomm, and Pixel Qi are trying out eInk and multi-mode screens in various areas – smart phones, smart watches, tablets, displays. As they keep pushing, they are bound to find some areas that stick. They are also going to run into a smart company sooner or later. A company that leverages all available resources and focuses on replacing paper instead of artificially narrowing down the scope of what eReaders and eInks can do and what they can be.

It’s only when we expand the scope of eInk and eReaders, that we can make real progress. Focusing on books limits what eInk can do. Even simple improvements in vision like trying to add ‘writability’ will result in big jumps. The real progress and biggest jumps will happen when companies focus on replacing paper in all senses of the word. Right now it’s as if they’ve inherited a car and are using it only to exercise horses.

What is Amazon waiting for? Some deals

First, for your Kindle, some deals –

  1. The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son by Rupert Isaacson. Price: $2.99. Genre: Parenting & Families, Special Needs, Autism, Spirit Healing. Rated 4.5 stars on 55 reviews. 
  2. The Power of Half by Hannah Salwen and Kevin Salwen. Price: $4.77. Genre: Getting More out of Less, Giving Back, Sharing is Caring. Rated 4 stars on 71 reviews. 
  3. In Her Name (Omnibus Edition) by Michael R. Hicks. Price: $1. Genre: Epic Fantasy, Adventure, Science Fiction, Military Space Opera. Rated 4.5 stars on 58 reviews.

It’s quite interesting to see a book with so much promise (the third one) stuck outside the Top 1,000. How do you manage to get 4.5 stars on 58 reviews, be at $1, and still not be in the Top 1,000?

Anyways, this brings me to something even more perplexing.

What is Amazon waiting for? Why doesn’t it release a Kindle Tablet?

Nook Color is rumored to have sold 3 million units. It’s also rumored that B&N is taking delivery of 600,000 to 700,000 Nook Colors a month.

There are three big markets here –

  1. People looking for a dedicated reading device. Some portion of them are buying the argument that Nook Color is a Reading Tablet.
  2. People looking for a Tablet-eReader hybrid. Nook Color is almost perfect for this group of people.
  3. People looking for a cheap Tablet. Nook Color is almost perfect for this group too.

Amazon is losing out on some Kindle sales because of 1, i.e. Nook Color as reading tablet is competing with Kindle as dedicated reading device.

However, far more worrying are the two niches where Amazon isn’t even competing –

  1. Amazon doesn’t have a Tablet-eInk hybrid. Now that Apple has set up its patent defence with an eInk-LCD hybrid tablet patent, Amazon might never be able to create such a hybrid.
  2. Amazon doesn’t have a tablet. There is a huge market for a non-Apple tablet – No one is stepping up to the plate. The situation is so bad that Nook Color is selling millions of units just because it has ended up being the best non-iPad tablet-like device. Think about that for a second – the market demand for a cheap Android Tablet (or a cheap tablet, period) is so high that people are buying a reading tablet and trying to use it as a full tablet.

Amazon is literally spurning these two markets – Go, get a Nook Color. We have nothing for you.

Where is Amazon’s Kindle Tablet?

It’s been nearly 5 months since Nook Color was introduced. It’s been nearly 5 months since people began talking about the danger of Nook Color. It’s been 4 months since the main stream media realized that Nook Color is a huge threat.

Yet, nothing from Amazon.

  • Perhaps Amazon doesn’t realize that if Nook Color sales get to the 10 million mark, and the Nook App Store isn’t a total disaster, then B&N will be set for the next 10 years.
  • Perhaps Amazon feels that because it has set up its Android App Store it can delay the actual hardware. That Angry Birds Rio will make up for a 5-6 month delay in the hardware.
  • Perhaps B&N took Amazon by surprise. It certainly took everyone else by surprise.

Here’s the question – Would you rather have an Android App Store with 10,000 apps or would you rather have 3 million Reading Tablets in circulation?

I’d take the latter every single time. 3 million Nook Colors makes for a huge customer base. It means that B&N is getting data points it can use to build a stellar Nook Color 2. It means that Amazon’s Kindle Tablet will have the odds against it.

3 million is a huge number – especially in the first 5 months. If this were Apple we would be getting presentations about a revolutionary new category having been created and about Nook Color outselling the first version of Wrigley’s chewing gum.

How much more time does Amazon have before the game is lost?

Amazon probably thinks it can release a Kindle Tablet in Fall 2011 and still put up a fight.

Reality is that if Amazon doesn’t release a Kindle Tablet within the next 2 to 3 months it will have B&N as a rival in the Reading Tablet and Tablet markets for a very long time. If it delays beyond 5 to 6 months, it might never be able to catch up.

The iPad is eating up most of the high-end Tablet Market. Nook Color is eating up a lot of the low-end Tablet market. Despite its huge strengths, Amazon can’t afford to let Apple and B&N lock-up huge pieces of the Tablet market. There’s a huge difference between fighting for an undecided customer versus stealing away another company’s customers. Just ask all the people trying to compete with Windows and Google Search.

An Inflection Point of the strangest sort

What’s happened since Nook Color launched? Nothing.

What has Amazon done since Kindle 3 launched? Not much.

So, we have had a stretch of 5 to 8 months with very little happening. And that very nothingness might have been an inflection point. B&N has probably created the post-eReader reading device and Amazon has let it grow and prosper sans competition.

There is still time. Amazon should announce something within the next few weeks and it should get something out within the next few months. If it doesn’t, it might be left wondering how it was too blind to realize that the post-eReader reading device, the Reading Tablet, is a far bigger threat to the Kindle than Publishers and Apple and physical books.

What happens when the 10,000 hours rule kicks in with eReaders

The Kindle has been in the market for around 3 years and 3 months. It was in development for around 3 to 4 years before that.

Sony Reader has been in the market for nearly 4 years. Perhaps there was 2 years of development before that.

Nook has been in the market for 1 year and 3 months. It was in development for around a year before that.

We’ve seen eReaders evolve and improve over that time period. However, you have to wonder how close we are to a truly glorious eReader. An eReader that is timeless.

Let’s consider two questions that might help us figure out how long we have to wait before the superstar eReaders arrive –

  1. Does the 10,000 hour rule apply to products people make (in that same way that it, perhaps, applies to skills people learn)? 
  2. When would eReaders hit the 10 years/10,000 hours mark?

And after that we’ll wonder –

  1. What happens when eReaders hit the 10,000 hour rule?

Let’s start by jumping into the 10,000 hours rule and our assumption that such a thing as the 10,000 hour rule exists.

10 Years/10,000 Hours = Mastery

A concept brought up in numerous books like Talent is Overrated and Outliers is that it takes a certain amount of ‘deliberate practice’ to attain mastery in a skill.

These books talk about the process of mastering a skill as something very distinct from randomly doing something for fun.

  1. They claim Mastery requires deliberate practice. Deliberate Practice is a special type of practice that involves a very conscious, almost painful, focus on improving/learning.
  2. They also claim it usually takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill. For some areas it takes 20,000 or more hours.
  3. Additionally, they claim that this 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is usually spread out over a period of 10 years.

If we make a giant assumption that such a 10,000 hours rule exists, we have to ask ourselves what happens when a person has attained mastery. One possible answer is that the person starts working on her/his masterpieces.

How long does it take an ‘expert’ to make a masterpiece?

We have an expert. She has spent 10,000 hours over a period of 8 to 10 years and attained mastery in her craft. Now she sets off to create her masterpiece.

How long would it take her?

That’s a good question, and one assumption we could make, one that seems awfully convenient, is that it would take her another 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate application’ of her skills to create her masterpiece.

Let’s run with the assumption because, well, it is rather convenient. Plus it’s better to overshoot the figure than undershoot it.

It’s better to assume a 10 year period than a 2 year period

Let’s take eReaders. If we say that truly skilled people can create a masterpiece in just 2 years we would have the Nook 1, the Sony Reader, and the Kindle all labeled masterpieces. While they’re all good, it’s doubtful that any of them represent an eReader masterpiece.

If, on the other hand, we assume a 10 year period, we can hope that in around 2013 the best Kindle ever made will arrive. That in 2013 Sony too will exceed itself. That the best Nook ever will arrive in 2015.

What happens then?

What happens when eReaders get 10,000 hours of deliberate application?

We haven’t really gotten close to where we could be with eReaders.

Kindle – 6 to 7 years. Sony Reader – 6 years. Nook – 2 years.

Yet, already, we have around 10 million eReaders sold. We have eBooks at 10% or so of the US Book Market. We have the beginning of the democratization of Publishing and the rise of indie authors. We have a fall in book prices.

What happens when eReaders get their full 10 years and become true masterpieces?

Everything accelerates – the quality of eReaders, the adoption of eReaders, the spread of eBooks, everything.

Perhaps these are the main improvements we’ll see by 2013/2014 (when at least Kindle and Sony Reader have hit their 10 years) –

  1. Prices around $50. 
  2. Color support.
  3. eReaders you can also use as eWriters. 
  4. Unbreakable eReaders.
  5. Flexible eReaders.
  6. Availability of 90% of books that are published.
  7. eReaders that can be folded out into screen sizes that are larger than their carrying sizes. 

It’s hard to say what features we’ll see over the next 3 to 4 years. Text to Speech wasn’t really a feature many people anticipated. Neither was the free-hand drawing that Sony Reader added in its second generation eReaders. Hopefully, there will be lots of good surprises.

We are still in the beginning stages

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this ‘eReaders still have to hit 10,000 hours’ post is that we’re still only 50% or 60% into making good eReaders. By 2013/2014 we’ll get our first superstar eReaders. The real masterpieces.

By then lots of other things will have improved too – resources for authors, publishing, platforms, services, software.

It’s going to be a very different world and it’ll be interesting to see how the people who are predicting 25% market share for ebooks by 2015 handle the new reality.