Mike Elgan, the veteran technology journalist, mused last week in a Computerworld article that eBook readers would make lousy gifts. I don't necessarily agree with all of Elgan's points, but it got me thinking about how useful a one-trick device is for users. If you think about it, we began to solve the problem of carrying multiple devices with the iPhone. Suddenly we didn't need a camera, a phone and a notebook computer with internet access because we had it all in a single device (and we have access to all those Apps).
But reading a book is a unique experience. Trying to transfer that experience to a cell phone screen takes a bit of a leap. Sure, you can do it, but it's not the most comfortable reading experience in the world. Enter the eBook Reader, a device designed for the needs of the reader, but it begs the question: Do we really want a separate device even if it suits our needs?
The Apple Tablet
Elgan thinks the long-rumored Apple Tablet will blow the eBook Reader and the Netbook market out of the water and he could be right. But earlier this year, Forrester conducted a consumer survey and asked users how much they would be willing to pay to buy an eBook Reader. The vast majority of people said the price needed to drop below $100 in order for the eBook Reader to find mass consumer appeal.
I've written the only way that's going to happen is if the eBook Reader makers, especially the ones whose primary business is selling books like Barnes & Noble and Amazon, discount the Reader in exchange for a commitment to buy X number of books over a 2 year period, much like the cell carriers discount the phones in exchange for a 2 year contract. So far they haven't done this, but bringing in an Apple Tablet, which is likely to be much more expensive than any of the reader devices currently on the market seems counter to the Forrester survey data.
More Than One Trick
What the Apple Tablet would bring to the table, however, would be a portable multi-function device that would do much more than just provide a way to read eBooks. Keep in mind we've been hearing about an Apple Tablet for a long, long time and we still haven't seen one. Seems it would have made sense if one is in the works to make it available for the holiday shopping season. But let's suppose Apple comes through with one in the first quarter next year. It will also be a fully operating computer with internet access and everything that goes with that.
But a tablet would still lack the portability of an iPhone, creating a middle of the road of the device that is light-weight yet doesn't fit in your pocket. My feeling is that we are in a technological gray period where a device like the Tablet, if the price is semi-reasonable could provide a bridge to what comes next: flexible screen technology. Some time in the next five years, I'm predicting we will likely do away with the need for multiple devices because the screen we use will expand or contract depending on the task. If this technology comes to pass, then we can create the device we need from a single screen.
The Apple Tablet could be a market changer just like the iPhone was, but it still could be a stop-gap measure on the way to whatever comes next. Whatever happens, unless eBook Readers drop in price fast, they may go the way of the "car phone" because a one-function device is going to be a tough sell.