Dedicated e-readers are being superseded by tablets and big-screen phones
Dedicated e-readers are slowly giving way to tablets and big-screen phones. But the freedom from distraction these devices provide will be missed.
The invention of the e-book caused a seismic shift in publishing. But is the e-reader it gave rise to now on the wane?
Like the PDA, the digital camera and the iPod, it was once the hottest gadget around, but the mono greyscale screen with the month-long battery is quickly giving way to tablets and big-screen phones.
Forrester's World eReader and eBook Forecast reported in June that just five years after Amazon released the original Kindle, more than 25 million people in the US owned e-readers in 2012. But that figure is set to decline to seven million users by the end of 2017.
Sales figures of e-readers - which also include those by both Kobo and Nook - are hard to come by, but it's certainly the case that the e-book revolution has so far been slightly suppressed in Hong Kong, where copyright issues mean hardbacks and paperbacks regularly become available before electronic versions.
But the popularity of e-books locally appears to be on the rise. A survey of 805 of the one million visitors to July's Hong Kong Book Fair revealed that 35 per cent of respondents bought e-books in the previous year, up 19 per cent on 2013, while 61 per cent had read an e-book in the past month.
Those figures tell us much about modern reading habits, but little about e-readers; an e-book can be read on a tablet or smartphones, the latter of which continue to grow in size.
For that reason, Amazon has not only released a range of Android-based Kindle Fire tablets, but followed them up in June with its first Fire Phone, a 4.7-inch handset that's ideal for one-handed reading and also has a decent sized screen.
So has the company killed the e-reader it invented? "Amazon is smart. It knew it had to develop a stable platform first and did this through the more traditional reader who saw the transition of book to e-book as a progression," says Darren Laws, CEO of Caffeine Nights, a publisher that specifically targets those reading on tablets and phones with a dedicated app.
"Older readers take up the main ground when it comes to adoption of e-readers, while younger tablet users will occasionally read on a tablet, but Amazon's next challenge, and that of the publishing industry, will be how to transition older readers to newer technology than traditional e-readers," Laws says.
The death of the e-reader is a shame, particularly for avid readers and travellers for whom the device has always been better suited to long stints in aircraft, airports, buses and trains than a tablet.
The latest Kindle Paperwhite weighs just 206 grams (even an iPad Air reaches 478 grams), has a month-long battery that's great for long-term travel, and uses a greyscale eInk display that's far less eye-straining than the glare of a tablet.
But despite the Paperwhite's ability to light up in the dark - thanks to a line of LEDs around its edges (something now also found on rival e-readers, the Kobo Glo and the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight) - Amazon has been downgrading the genre for a while.
Perhaps most annoying to travellers has been the disappearance of all but the flagship devices of Amazon's 3G Whispernet network, which permits downloads from the Kindle Store from almost anywhere in the world. The mainstream models now feature only Wi-fi, which has the same limitations as a tablet.
Amazon has also made its Kindle app widely available on multi-platforms; ironically, navigating it on an iPhone or iPad - which has its own iBooks app - is a far more pleasant experience than on any Amazon-made device.
"People used to talk endlessly about eInk and eye strain, but these topics are no longer on the agenda," Laws says. "Now it's all about multifunctionality. From day one Amazon recognised this and has been building towards a natural transition."
Not everyone agrees, instead seeing a future where all kinds of devices are used at different times and in different places for reading the same books. "I think e-readers will maintain their popularity," says Matt Graham, technical consultant at app developer Apadmi.
"I don't see a big overlap or competition between e-readers, tablets and phones because tablets and phones cannot compete with an e-reader's unique selling points," he says, citing an e-reader's long battery life, ability to read in bright light and lack of eye strain.
Calling an e-reader a "genuine replacement for a book with no drawbacks", Graham thinks that, "e-reader owners more than likely already have a smartphone and a tablet alongside their e-reader, potentially with the Kindle app installed, and this will probably continue to be the case". That smartphone might just happen to be an Amazon smartphone and the tablet might just happen to be an Amazon tablet.
Where opinion on e-books coalesces is on the emergence of a new kind of multimedia-rich e-book that looks and behaves more like an app. We're talking about hyperlinks, graphics, sound and video embedded within digital text, with the result being an enhanced, immersive experience.
"I can certainly see a new genre of tablet-based book," says Graham, whose company Apadmi has already produced such app-based books for Lexus and the British Museum in London. "These apps wrap informational content in a more interactive experience for the user."
But the rise of interactive e-books isn't guaranteed. "People still want to read plain text and get lost in their imagination, and not have their imagination mapped out for them - for that we already have movies," says Laws.
The supposed death of the e-reader needn't be a negative for book publishing as a whole. That survey at the Hong Kong Book Fair found that almost all respondents had bought printed books in the past year, with 99 per cent saying they had read a printed book in the past month.
"Anything that encourages people to read in their leisure time is good for the industry," Laws says. "It doesn't matter if they are picking up a traditional hardback or paperback, or scrolling through a list of downloaded titles on their tablet or e-reader. Publishing is offering the choice of how they would like to consume books."
Amazon's latest salvo across the publishing industry is Kindle Unlimited, a service that costs HK$78 per month (after a free 30-day trial) for unlimited access to more than 600,000 e-books and audiobooks.
It follows the successful model for streaming TV and movies created by Netflix, but it's come in for criticism as books from major publishers such as HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, and Macmillan aren't included.
Amazon's new virtual library card is more proof that the once-dormant book publishing industry is now in permanent flux. But we should mourn the marginalising of dedicated e-readers.
Despite their varying sizes, smartphones and tablets aren't designed for concentrated reading; sit down with a good e-book on a smartphone or tablet and you'll inevitably wish they were larger and lighter, respectively.
But the real advantage of an eInk e-reader, like an old-fashioned paperback, is that there are no distracting messages or e-mails, no temptation to surf the web. For casual readers, relying on tablets and phones, getting lost in a book has never been so hard.