Figures from IHS iSuppli suggest sales of dedicated ebook readers may have peaked with shipments due to fall “a steep 36 percent” in the current year.
While the firm’s claimed 14.9 million sales for the current year looks low, the traditional ebook reader is hampered by a number of factors that means it is almost certain to become the minority way to read.
First is our old friend convergence. Over the past few years the speed with which users have eschewed standalone devices for all-in-one solutions has gathered pace.
As we know, modern mobile phones combine a number of devices in one, saving owners from carrying a separate MP3 player, games device, digital camera and mobile.
While in some cases the user experience offered by a shared device is less than a dedicated device, consumers have shown themselves time and again to be willing to sacrifice bells & whistles for portability.
Purists may maintain that e-ink screens are better than the LCD screens of smartphones and tablets, but do users really care? They certainly didn’t when the similar claims were made about the quality of pictures for digital cameras versus camera phones.
The second reason I suspect IHS iSuppli’s predictions are right is the difficulty ereader manufacturers have in differentiating their devices from those of their competitors.
Innovation in ereaders is generational – the first devices needed to be connected to your PC to add books to them, then came WiFi which rapidly became the norm and today all three major booksellers – Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo – offer models with a lit screen.
Perhaps one day they’ll offer a decent colour e-ink screen, but if that day comes it’ll be because of the investment of e-ink themselves who will want to sell the technology as widely as possible.
The reliance on a very small number of technology partners makes for any of the three sellers to come to market with a feature that’s not also heading to their rivals’ products.
At best they get a month or two head start before their USP is now a standard feature.
If a customer is unsure why they want an e-ink reader at all – as opposed to reading on their phone or tablet – how are they supposed to make a decision between lots of near-identical products?
Present a customer with a confusion choice and the chances are they’ll make no choice at all.
More and more people are likely to read on their phone or tablet, and the big ebook brands know this. Which is why they’re all releasing tablets of their own.
By doing so they hope to follow Apple which has cannibalised its iPod sales by introducing the iPhone and iPad.
The important thing for Apple is that users buy A device from them. Likewise Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo would rather that if you’re going to buy a tablet over an e-ink device, you buy it from them.
The traditional e-ink reader isn’t dead and I doubt any of the big players will drop theirs anytime soon, but they will account for a gradually dwindling share of ereading.