Commentary

EReaders: Birthing a Middle-Child Gadget

"Wouldn't you like one of those GPS thingies for your car instead of having to use your iPhone?" my 72-year-old mother asked me over the phone the other day. Mind you, this is a woman who has never opened an email. Her blood pressure rises so much when I try to introduce her to a PC mouse that I have asked her to stay away from computers for health reasons. When I do have to call her on her emergency cell phone, I know to let it ring a good ten times while she figures out... again... how to answer it. She and my stepfather call me regularly to walk them through a particularly thorny DVD menu.

My mother, a busy family therapist, is far from doddering or inept. She just decided years ago to forgo advanced technology. Fine, but where does she get off trying to sell me a GPS gadget just to make her holiday shopping easier?

 

I explained to Mom that I really didn't want an LCD screen glaring at me from the windshield of my Mini Cooper (there is a real scale issue in there, by the way) and that the mapping and directional programs on my iPhone and Android phones were good enough for when I needed them.

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"But isn't it easier to have it right there in front of you?" she kept pitching. What has become of us when my 72-year-old technophobe mom is shilling a GPS and arguing the benefits of high-tech to me?

It is gadget lust all over again. There seems to be that sentiment abroad again that consumers will embrace a new range of tech gadgets aimed at particular aspects of life. Obviously, GPS is a hit because it does integrate so nicely with existing auto technology. But pie-in-the-sky projections around new set top boxes and Internet-connected TVs are crowding the trades this season, for instance.

And now we get a wave of enthusiasm over eReaders. Amazon, in their usual coy fashion, is alluding to record sales of the Kindle  -- even though they still won't tell us how many actually are being sold. Two Forrester analysts predicted an explosion of reader gadgets in 2010, with Barnes & Noble carving out some market share from Amazon and Sony. Another analyst claims that by 2012 color tablet readers will be in the market and the technology will get down to $50-$60 price points by 2020. We understand that several print companies like Time Inc. and Hearst are developing both software and hardware strategies that will vault over the current hobbled e-ink technologies with something that better serves newspaper and magazine presentation. And yesterday Sports Illustrated editors were giving many of us in the press demos of a digital version of SI designed for touch-enabled tablet devices that aren't even in the market yet.

All of this eReader self-love is going on in the midst of the worst recession in half a century. Who is going to buy this stuff, and when? My guess is that we will get a 2010 with a ton of R&D, press releases out the wazoo, and even more attempts by the key players to convince us how popular the gadgets are without actually enumerating how many they are selling. Watching Jeff Bezos on stage playing with ebook sales percentages to reflect Kindle popularity is now more comical than a fine Cirque de Soleil contortion routine.  

My main skepticism over the eReader is that it is trying to be an in-between device -- a tough sell when user habits seem to have coalesced around cell phones and laptops. The eReaders I have seen, and the larger ones print publishers are gushing over, lack the portability and voice connectivity of a smart phone and lack the broad functionality of a laptop. Arguably, the netbook was able to slip into the picture in the last year because it does indeed have the functionality of a laptop in a smaller size. But in most cases an eReader now is poised to add to the clutter, even as it sells itself with efficiency.

I am less concerned about the abstract rationale of these gadgets than the practical matter of how they fit into established habits and the practicality of everyday life. Yes a Kindle can carry thousands of books and newspapers and magazines, but the reality is that most of us usually only carry one of those things at a time. And then once we get to the pricier, larger screen tablets Apple and others may launch next year, the question is even bigger. Am I really getting added value from these things, or are the newspaper and magazine publishers fantasizing that I will embrace a gadget whose main purpose is to make their business models survive? 

The people in the industry I have grilled with this problem seem to think that convergence will solve it. Almost everyone agrees that people are not likely to cart around three devices, so an in-between device will have to successfully cannibalize the functionality of a laptop or a phone or both. Despite the revival of touch screens on smart phones, the dismal failure of the Tablet PC demonstrated just how important a hard keyboard is to anyone trying to do a range of tasks on a computer.

As for embedding voice communications into a tablet-sized device - that may be fine for the midtown Manhattan publishing execs who live out of their leather portfolios and day books. But there is no way in hell that even a sliver of America at large is going to allow voice functionality to move from something that fits in their pocket to something that has to fit in a pocketbook.

Which is not to say there won't be a place for some of these devices. I already see Kindles out in the wild, and most of the people I ask tell me they absolutely love the device and take it everywhere. But they also agree they are carrying three devices now, and I am not sure that situation can stand with most of us.

And as these devices get larger and more colorful -- more to accommodate publishers than us -- the challenge of adding another device climbs. And many more people I know are getting more accustomed to absorbing media via their smart phones than any of us expected. EBooks seem to be doing surprisingly well on the iPhone, and the recent mobile-ready app version of GQ magazine was pretty compelling. As eReaders try to find their in-between niche, the laptop market is intruding from above with more portable and functional Netbooks while the smart phones are pressing from below with better content experiences.

I don't know where this heads, but I do know that eReaders face some fundamental challenges that should make hardware makers and publishing cheerleaders ask themselves some hard questions first. Are they developing these platforms for consumers or for themselves?

But who is to say yet what gadgets ultimately catch on. Tech love is in the air.

"How about a TiVo?" my mother tries, because she must have her hand on some catalog as she quizzes me.

"Mom, do you even know what a TiVo is?"

"No. How about a 'Blue DVD Disc Player?'"

"Ma, stop before you hurt yourself."

"Even at 51, you're still a wiseass. Just like your daughter."  

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