Like many people these days (“these days” being any day after November 19, 2007), I own a Kindle. And while I’m definitely a fan, like any self-respecting Kindle owner, I also wish it were an iPad—not because iPads do what the Kindle does only better (they don’t), or because they do everything else better (they do), but because I could then sell my iPad, buy a Kindle, and still have a couple hundred bucks in my pocket for eBooks and hookers or whatever.
But eBooks and hookers only go so far. The bigger question is, is there even room for an ereader in a tablet’s world? According to the HuffPo’s Amy Lee, the answer is no. In an article published last Thursday detailing the imminent demise of the dedicated ereader for reasons similar to those discussed during my brief eulogy for the Flip cam, Ms. Lee announces that, “The ereader’s days are numbered.”
Whoa. Dramatic. Please continue.
Though 6 million ereaders were sold in 2010, experts predict it is all downhill from here for these devices, which will be edged out by the growing number of increasingly affordable tablets on the market. By 2015, twice as many people will own tablets as do ereaders. By the end of 2012, the number of people owning tablets will overtake the number of those owning ereaders, according to research by Forrester, a tech research company.
A reporter from Forrester continues:
It’s between [ereaders] and tablet PCs, led by the advancing charge of the iPad. It’s a fight that ereaders will not win…The reason is simple: Tablet PCs like the iPad are a new computing form factor — a portable, comfortable, personal media and information device with the power to run whatever app developers can and will throw at it.
But here’s where the argument breaks down, at least for the near future. Instead of recognizing and examining the single biggest drawback to tablet computers that hope to duplicate ereader functionality, Lee glosses right over it:
Though Kindle devotees will tell you they love the paperlike display of the screen, which, unlike a backlit LCD screen, doesn’t have glare issues in direct sunlight, all the Kindle provides is text, font size control, and a way to turn the page. Basically, it replicates the experience of the paper-bound book. But it’s not just about the book versus the screen anymore: It’s about reconsidering what it means to read.
Ahh, but you see, it is about the book versus the screen still, and for avid readers, the book-like experience will win out over the screen-like experience every time. Why? Because the benefit to reading from a non-backlit screen isn’t just that it “doesn’t have glare issues in direct sunlight”—it’s that it doesn’t murderlize your fucking eyeballs to read for more than a few minutes at a time.
Ever pore over a long magazine or newspaper article on your computer? Know how when you finally reach the end of that article, you tend to look away from the screen for a little bit doing that eye-widening/scrunching thing for a few seconds until they start to feel normal again? Now extrapolate that article to novel length and ask yourself this: Do you really think anybody is going to stay up all night reading The Next Harry Potter on their iPad when it comes out?
Well, yeah, of course they are. Especially if they don’t have any other way to read it. But. Will they regret it in the morning? And will they look forward to repeating the experience, even correcting for a slightly more judicious consumption of content?
Americans already spend eight hours a day in front of screens, which means that their retinas aren’t begging for more retina displays begging for a break. And the actual ink contained in eInk displays provides just that by replicating the previously denigrated “experience of the paper-bound book”—not out of some nostalgic attachment for pigmented liquids, but because it puts the least amount of strain on our eyes.
iPads and their ilk aren’t going to be able to truly supplant Kindles and their ilk until a device comes along that can split (or, I suppose, toggle) the difference between reflective HD color displays and non-reflective eInk ones.
Cue adorably appellated start-up, Pixel Qi: the first company to develop a new class of low power screen that, “combines epaper with color and video. With the backlight on, this screen is color and looks and acts just like a standard LCD; with the backlight off, it becomes a highly reflective e-paper display with support for rapid update and video.”
Unfortunately, despite being touted by Popular Science no fewer than 16 months ago as The Next Big Thing, so far, Pixel Qi displays are still only available for do-it-yourselfers who aren’t afraid to swap out their netbook screens themselves and early adopters willing to take a chance on the unevenly reviewed and marketed Adam tablet by Notion Ink.
That said, it’s only a matter of time before Pixel Qi technology (or something similar) becomes ubiquitous in all purportedly portable media devices. After all, if the specs and price point are there, it’s the ultimate no-brainer. Not only do such screens provide the aforementioned boon of non-reflection in their eInk mode, but they also reduce the weight and increase the battery life of whatever device they’re installed in.
If Apple can get over its own still-lingering obsession with proprietary technology (as it partly did when it conceded its chip sets to Intel), or if it can convince its own in-house geniuses that dual-displays are the way to go (assuming they’re not pursuing them already), it won’t be long before a single charge of the iPad— of any tablet computer, for that matter—will be able to provide not only a dozen hours of HD media consumption, but a dozen hours of HD media consumption— and—dozens of hours of eyestrain-free reading in whatever light you find yourself in.
Until that happens, no one who knows what it’s like to curl up on the couch with a feverishly anticipated book at 8:00 pm and roll sluggishly off it at 5:00 am the next morning is going to be willing to trade his or her “paperlike display” for a backlit tablet, no matter how many bells and whistles the latter features.
After all, majority rules. And in this case, the eyes have it.
Sidebar: The following paragraph toward the end of the article also caught my attention:
“More and more, reading is taking on a bigger definition,” said Allen Weiner, a VP of research at Gartner, a technology research firm. “It’s expanding in terms of content—not just books, but newspapers and magazines. It implies the need for color, graphics, other forms of media.”
While it’s a given that tech-savvy writers and publishers are going to be doing some very cool things in the near future to take advantage of said expanded definition of reading (see, for example, Alice in Wonderland on the iPad fairly riveting demonstration of the very least that can be done with this technology), there is always—and I mean always—going to be core of readers that will yearn for unadorned text on paper or its e-quivalent. And that’s because the human brain will always be capable of painting a more evocative image in your mind’s eye than the human hand can create for your actual eyes.
While some—and perhaps many—future works will be positively complemented by accompanying animations, interactive illustrations, and Jobs only knows what else (children’s literature, in particular, is going to get pretty rad), sometimes you just want the words to animate themselves. Peter Jackson and co. did a fantastic job adapting Lord of the Rings for the big screen, but do you really want to see how Peter Jackson-lite adapts it for the iPad if it means reducing the the omni-dimensional, 10 million-inch experience in your head to a two (or even “three”) dimensional, 10-inch experience in your hands?
- Trevor Macomber / Brutish&Short