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Long live e-book reading but are
e-book readers dead?

Back in 2010 a study into fashion and jewellery trends included a note on people’s attitude toward the humble wristwatch: it showed that one in seven people (about 7.2 million people) in the UK no longer saw the need for a wristwatch. This figure more than doubled for the 15 – 24 year old age group.

It appears the limited functionality of the wristwatch is being rapidly superseded by the converging technologies that find their form in smart phones and tablet devices. Time is another app on your mobile.

But, at least the wristwatch has had a good innings, and remains a status symbol for many people.

A report from late October this year by the PEW Internet and American life project revealed that only 23% of the 16-29 year olds surveyed used an e-reader to consume their e-books. In contrast 41% used their phone and 55% used a computer (interestingly, 46% of 30+ year olds use an e-reader).

What the wristwatch and e-reader seem to have in common is that they are rapidly being replaced by the popularity of mobile devices. Is the e-reader anything more than a short lived transitional technology that will soon be consigned to the technological history books?

While it may be a little premature to declare the death of the e-reader just yet (this month alone has seen the release of the new Kindle Paperwhite and the Nook from Barnes and Noble), how do the tablets and phones, these technical jack-of-all-trades compare with the specialists in e-reading? What does a world without the e-reader look like?

In an effort to start to think about a post e-reading device world, I have concocted my top 5 anti e-reader list!

“So, like wristwatches, are e-reader devices like the Kindle and Kobo going
to disappear over the next few years? Or will they survive because they do one
job so well?”

Ben Showers
Jisc programme manager, digital infrastructure

1. iPhone

Why start my top 5 with a phone – in fact a phone that’s got a screen no bigger than 4.5 inches? It hardly seems like the right place to start. Well, this is an anti e-reader list after all!

Increasingly our smart phones (Android as well as Apple) are becoming the de-facto e-readers for both short and long-form content. For some the size of the screen and possibility of glare are significant disadvantages to reading on your phone. Increasingly, however, there is a desire for portability and personalisation which the smart phones can deliver. They also provide social aspects of the reading experience not provided by e-reading specific devices. Price for the iPhone5: from £529

2. iPad

If the iPhone and its Android equivalents provide portability, then the iPad delivers a much broader range of reading opportunities than ever before. Magazines, newspapers, comics, interactive content... the list continues to grow. The new generation iPads with their retina displays have improved the experience of reading on backlit displays, but they still suffer from some of the issues of glare and causing tired eyes. They are also quite large, so portability is compromised somewhat (although there is now the iPad mini, so there is a smaller option available). Price for the iPad (fourth generation): from £399

3. Kindle Fire

The Kindle Fire is itself the embodiment of the transition from e-reading specific devices to tablet computing.  The 7 inch tablet is equivalent in size to the iPad mini, and in comparison to the mini it is a better device for e-reading. The specs show it has a higher resolution display that is denser; this will ensure it provides a better reading experience.  The fire is also very well priced at around £129, and means you get the advantages of a tablet device with the expertise that Amazon have developed creating the Kindle.

Maybe the biggest disadvantage is that the Fire doesn’t support Amazon’s Play store (despite running on a version of the Android operating system). This means the ecosystem is limited and closed, so not many apps or e-books are currently available. The Fire is really a media device – films, books and music are where it is strongest. Price for the Kindle Fire: £129

4. Nexus 7

In contrast to the limited ecosystem that underpins the Fire, the Nexus is seamlessly integrated with Google’s Play store, so you can access a huge range of books, as well as films, games and apps. The Nexus is also in the same size category as the Fire and iPad mini, so is able to take advantage of greater portability. The Nexus is also open, so it is possible to tinker with annoying features, or customise your settings.

So, if this wasn’t an article about e-reading the Nexus would undoubtedly be higher up the chart – but reading on it is a bit of a disappointment. Specifically lacks the specs of something like the Fire and iPad’s retina display, and there have been a number of reports of flickering on the screen when the brightness is turned down (especially against white backgrounds, as in the case of reading). Price for the Nexus 7: £159

So... what takes fifth place?
There’s still plenty to choose from: Galaxy, Kobo Vox, even the new Surface. Well, inspired
by the fact that 75% of the PEW Internet survey’s 16-29 year olds still read print, it’s going to be:

5. Print

As one of the respondents to the PEW survey explained: “I prefer the overall experience of reading an actual book. It somehow feels more warm and personal.” But maybe the future of print is going to be less clear cut than it has up till now. How will the ability to overlay and augment paper content with mobile devices affect print? If print is here to stay (at least for the medium to long term), how will our experience of it change as our expectations of how we interact with it develop? Maybe developments like the EverNote Moleskine notebook point to a less ‘solid’ future for print, where physical print interacts with web based resources and content.

So, like wristwatches, are e-reader devices like the Kindle and Kobo going to disappear over the next few years? Or will they survive because they do one job so well? Do you use your phone to read long-form articles, or prefer a computer to the paper version? Is print a legacy format that will eventually disappear, or is its future tied more closely to the electronic devices that seem to herald its demise?

More info…

Ben Showers profile.





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