Better Readability Today won't save E-Readers Tomorrow

Sorry Barnes & Noble Nook and Amazon Kindle fans slightly better readability today won't save e-readers tomorrow.

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My goodness. When I wrote about the Barnes & Noble Nook and Amazon Kindle's price-war as showing the way to the end of dedicated e-readers, I didn't expect quite so many people to insist I was wrong. Wrong I tell you!

Of course some people, like ZDNet's Jason Perlow agreed with me that "eReader devices face mass extinction." A lot of other people flooded me with arguments for why dedicated e-readers would keep going.

Their arguments amounted to two different factors. The first was that Amazon and Barnes & Noble could afford to sell e-readers for ultra-low prices because they made their real money from selling books for this platform. This sort of business policy is known as the razor-blade plan. The idea is you sell something cheaply, the razor itself or, in this case, the e-reader, while making your money from the razors, or book in this example. This works. This same plan is why we can buy great printers for less than the cost of manufacturing while paying through the nose for printer ink and toner.

The problem with this plan is that it breaks with e-readers. Tablets, like Apple's iPad, and the coming wave of Android Linux-powered and ARM/MeeGo Linux tablets, can do everything that the e-readers do using Amazon and Barnes & Nobles' own software, and more. Even if you drop e-readers prices below $100, as Ron Miller suggested, you still can't get around the fact that the competition will be able to do so much more than a dedicated e-reader.

Besides, let's look at this from Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's point of view. It would make sense to sell razors ... if they knew people would have to buy their razor blades from each company, but they don't. Any tablet will be able to display the content from any of the providers. So, why should someone whose main business isn't hardware lose money making devices when Apple, Nokia, et. al. are making devices instead?

The other argument is that e-ink is much, much better than the screens used in general purpose tablets for reading. I beg to differ. To my eyes, unless you're trying to read in bright sunlight there's no discernible difference and I won't read with sunlight's 50,000 or so lumens glaring on paper much less a device given a choice.

That said, clearly, some of you really do like reading your e-readers under bright lights and prefer the black & white e-ink Vizplex display that they all use.

Here's the problem I have with this electrophoretic technology: it's only black and white. While that doesn't matter with novels, having color sure does make a difference for many technical books. As my friend Carla Schroder, writer and editor of Linux Planet, put it, "Books in color is where it's at, especially technical and how-to books. Why would I want to put my Audacity [an excellent, open-source audio editor] book on the Kindle, for one example, when being able to show blue waveforms and green level meters and red clipping bars adds tons of useful information."

OK, so that by itself won't be enough to kill off dedicated e-readers. What will be enough is that other color technologies are on their way, like IMOD (interferometric modulator display) from Qualcomm and TLCD (transflective liquid crystal display). TLCD, especially the model being made by Pixel Qi, looks like the long-term winner here.

So, tell me, where exactly will one purpose e-readers be when their makers can't make money from them and color display technologies can equal to today's e-ink? Sorry e-reader fans, I still don't see dedicated e-readers making it past 2011's holiday season. On the other hand, the next generation of tablets should make even the pickiest e-reader happy.

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