Friday, 9 April 2021

The decline of e-readers and e-books

Electronic reading solutions only gained mainstream traction in the last decade or so. The Kindle keyboard - released in 2010 - was an affordable, sleek device that popularised e-readers. The added functionality of touch with the Kindle Touch was a significant upgrade that brought in more users. However, since 2014, e-book consumption and uptake of e-readers in the UK continued to decline until recently (the pandemic has resulted in increased e-books and audiobooks sales, but it is still early to see if this will become a trend). While technological development has transformed many industries, publishing has continued to see the domination of the printed book. There are many reasons behind the decline - below is a list of some of these reasons:

Amazon no longer focuses on e-readers

The Kindle was central to Amazon to the extent that Jeff Bezos personally announced the release of new Kindles in designated launch events. However, Amazon has turned its focus to Alexa-enabled devices and the streaming of multimedia content. Consequently, there is less drive to innovate when many users use the Kindle app on their phone or tablet. Further, for those already owning an e-reader, it might not be justifiable to upgrade considering there is little difference between each generation, e.g. other than warm lighting, there is little to distinguish between the Kindle Oasis 2 and Kindle Oasis 3. It appears Amazon are content to keep a serviceable line of e-readers for those users invested in dedicated e-readers and to offer some choice for those that have not purchased a Kindle before.

The sheer size of Amazon also affected the pressure on E-Ink to innovate to meet new demands. Thus, since E-Ink Carta, there has been no significant upgrades  - I would argue, from experience, the difference between E-Ink Pearl and Carta is negligible, and the more substantial factor in clarity is text resolution.  

E-Paper solutions that appeared promising and then disappeared

The demand for interactive digital content and distant learning has increased. Many promising e-paper solutions were announced to meet this demand, but most never moved beyond the prototype stage. Consequently, E-Ink still has a near-monopoly in the e-paper space. As is known, E-Ink is suitable for text-based solutions but is inherently incapable of displaying advanced interactive content. 

Many of these promising technologies could have pushed e-reading device into education with added functionality and multimedia content that E-Ink lacks. Recently, NXTPaper was announced by TCL as the new solution that would provide the benefits of a dedicated e-reader - long battery life and outdoor viewability - with the capability to stream multimedia content. It will be seen if the display technology delivers what it promises. 

We have larger note-taking e-readers, but they are targeted at a small niche user base and priced too high to be taken up by schools and other educational institutions. 

E-Ink colour hasn't matured

Kaleido Plus is the latest colour E-Ink technology. While the colour dimension might be helpful for some content - e.g. comics, textbooks and maps -  it still depends on a colour filter array on top of the Carta layer. The colour filter layer can display a maximum of 100PPI, and the colours are nowhere near the vibrancy of LCD and AMOLED displays. Currently, the technology still hasn't matured to be adopted by more prominent vendors like Kobo and Amazon. 

Of course, the reasons noted above are not exhaustive. For example, price-fixing of e-books and big publishers being reluctant to license e-books to libraries are other reasons. The proliferation of open-access digital content has the potential of revolutionising learning, but publishers have a vested interest in imposing artificial scarcity

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