Hearst announced its Skiff this week to join the Kindle, nook, and Sony e-Reader. Plastic Logic has a QUE in line to serve the business industry, and I see something from Spring Designs also bouncing around the press release mill. As I write this, HP and Microsoft were supposed to be readying a preemptive strike against the rumored Apple announcement of its iPhone-inspired tablet device later this month. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the e-reader market should be doubling and doubling again in the next few years. Okay, but whatever that market is, you have to divide it among how many vendors? I hope these guys ended their business proposals with a quick exit strategy.
As a gadget geek and reviewer for over a decade, I have played with every variety of e-reader and PDA, all of the "ultra-mobile PCs," and almost all of the Tablet PCs that came, crashed and burned for the past eight or nine years.
All previous attempts to fill the niche between laptop and mobile phone have been a failure, largely because there really was no niche to fill. The compromises in functionality that an in-between device required simply sent users back toward the smartphone or the laptop. UMPCs rarely had cellular support, so users still had to carry two devices. The original slate design of Table PCs (sans keyboard) found a small market among construction and health care industries, where form-filling was more important than large amounts of input. But the handwriting-to-text interface Bill Gates once touted as the future of PCs appealed to no one. Even when later generations of Tablet PCs added a keyboard in a "convertible" design, the market couldn't muster enthusiasm for it.
Argue all you like that the iPhone and mobile touch screens have paved the way for the success of alternative input modes. But when it comes to regular, long-form input, I think touch screens will be a hard sell. After all, any e-reader/Tablet that is large, lush and heavy enough to present rich content in the forms publishers crave, will have to replace something we already carry.
My point is not that e-readers or tablets are doomed. I am fairly sure dedicated book readers of the Kindle variety have already found, and will continue to find, their audience. They are small and light enough to toss in a pocketbook, satchel or portfolio without a second thought -- conceivably vaulting the big hurdle of justifying carrying an additional device.
Personally, I do not like the e-ink readers, and I think the underlying technology has to get much, much better before a wider group of consumers embraces it. In all of the market research now being done on the Kindle and its rivals, I would like to see how many owners continued to use them over time. I know there are a lot of fans of the Kindle, and some people who tell me they bring it everywhere. I still think there are a lot of people like me who have one that's been sitting unused for months.
The color tablets of the sort Apple is rumored to be releasing later this month have an even higher bar to reach. An oversized iPhone sounds way cool. Rumors that it will have 3G connectivity suggest there may be VOIP to sweeten the pot. Having 130,000 or more apps to run on it out of the gate addresses the usual content problems other technologies have. I hope they send me one to review. My Kindle needs company. But what itch does this thing scratch? Whose niche does it fill? Do consumers need this thing -- or publishers desperately seeking a viable replacement for the print experience? Time Inc. and Bonnier have already shown demos of what a tablet magazine experience would be like. And like the promised devices themselves, these concepts are dazzling.
But I have shelves filled with "way cool" gadgets that never wove their way into my everyday use like the smart phone, the laptop and the Nintendo DS did. Each of these devices is highly interactive but in different ways. The smart phone is the best person-to person device that is passable at content consumption and nominal for text input. The laptop is a nominally good at person-to-person communication, pretty good for content consumption (given an Internet connection) and superb for productivity and the kind of text input most of us need to do much of the day. The DS simply has a fun-to-portability ratio that is unmatched. Where does even a kick-ass, connected tablet fit into this suite? It can't really replace a laptop because even a good virtual keyboard is not going to cut it for most of us. Even if it has voice capability, it won't replace my phone. A tablet likely will have interactivity (maybe even advanced voice recognition), but its principle raison d'etre seems to be as a content consumption device, not as a communications device or as a productivity device.
And so I reiterate a question I have been asking all along in this rush towards an in-between device that newspapers and magazines seem to be coveting. Is this about satisfying a real need for consumers -- or is it about fulfilling a need (perhaps a fantasy) for media companies?