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Calling for the demise of E Ink readers is premature

By Juli Monroe

[1]I’ve been reading posts saying that “E-Ink is dead” for, well, years now. The general argument goes something like this:

“People really want tablets. They don’t want a single-function device. E-ink is too slow to refresh and isn’t good for anything except reading books. And people don’t read anyway.”

All of those things are true (well, except for that last one), but it misses the point. I’m active on Kindleboards [2], an online forum for Kindle lovers, and discussion, purchasing and love for the E Ink Kindles is alive and well.

The Kindle Paperwhite [3] was sold out through most of the holiday season, both on Amazon and in retail stores that carry it. I was at my local Best Buy just before Christmas and noticed something interesting in the open box cabinet: lots of iPad Minis [4]. A couple of $69 Kindles and no Paperwhites. (Bummer for me. I was kind of hoping to pick one up on the cheap.)

Do I think that means the iPad Mini is a flop? No, but I do think it means people love their Kindles. Sales are flattening, yes, but in part that’s because E Ink devices [5] are sturdy and last a long time. They aren’t as feature driven as tablets and don’t become obsolete as soon. I know people who are still happy with their first-generation Kindles.

If you listen to e-book readers, a significant number of them want a device that does nothing but allow them to read books. I’m one of them. I have an iPad and a Kindle Touch, and I read on both, depending on my mood and where I’m at. I’m pretty sure Amazon is listening to them, and they will continue to produce Kindles as long as there’s a market for them. Which means their competitors will do the same.

Will E Ink go away eventually? Sure. Floppy disks did, too. But I think it’s going to be far enough in the future that calling for its death now is silly.

This article originally appeared on GadgeTell [6].

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Calling for the demise of E Ink readers is premature"

#1 Comment By Gary On January 13, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

I agree completely.

e-ink readers serve a section of the market very well. They may be replaced by some other type of device in the future, but that is years away, if ever.

In the meantime, there is a huge, unfilled market for portable electronic devices in the developing world. As the price of these devices drops, the number of potential customers increases. Some of those new customers will buy tablets; some will buy dedicated e-readers with e-ink displays.

#2 Comment By Gary Frost On January 13, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

mobility agenda is complicated by touch page navigation. audio still possible. black only is genre limited.

#3 Comment By Michael W. Perry On January 13, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

I agree fully. There’s also a comfort that comes with a low price. I can relax riding a bus or leaving a sub-$99 Kindle on my desk at work. I don’t get that comfort with a $499 iPad. I end up carrying it with me when I get up. And an ePaper reader may be a one-trick pony, but it’s one trick is very useful.

Of course, Amazon and others could make their ePaper devices more useful. They can have browsers so there’s no reason why they couldn’t handle email via WiFi. The fact that they can’t have as many useful apps doesn’t mean they can’t have some.

#4 Comment By Michael Long On January 13, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

According to the Online Publishers Association, adoption of the tablet – which made its debut just two years ago with the launch of the original iPad – is now at 31% of the U.S. population that uses the Internet, equaling 74 million users. That’s up from 12%, or 28 million users, in 2011.

By next year, sales will balloon even more, with penetration expected to reach 47%, or 117 million users.

So if e-ink reader sales are “flattening” at the same point in time when tablet sales are skyrocketing…

I’d say the writing is indeed on the wall.

#5 Comment By Jussi Keinonen On January 14, 2013 @ 11:03 am

Michael W. Perry wrote: “so there’s no reason why they couldn’t handle email via WiFi”

Now that you mentioned it, I guess it wouldn’t be too difficult to auto-redirect all e-mails to your Kindle e-mail address to read on your Kindle. Of course you couldn’t reply to them.

On the other hand, I’d hate getting my email to my Dedicated Reading Device. Although I do use Send To Kindle for all longer web articles.

Michael Long: you’d need more data on how people are REALLY using their products to make a claim. My Kindle and Kobo are so much better for reading that I’ll never change to a tablet. And tablet’s will probably never get lighter, because they’re for multimedia and therefore are filled with efficient tech.

Oh, and one more thing. A tablet that needs charging every few hours is a no-go to serious readers. E-ink wastes so little electricity that it really is filling the role of your movable library.

#6 Comment By MarylandBill On January 14, 2013 @ 11:11 am

@Michael Long,
With respect, your argument is a variation of Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (Translated as after this therefore because of this), or to put it another way, association does not imply causation. Television sales have also been lagging in the last year or so, yet people are not claiming that the days of television are numbered despite the fact that both can be used to watch videos. In the case of both ereaders and HD Television, I think market saturation is a better explanation.

Tablets have capabilities that overlap those of E-Ink readers, but they really are a different product. A tablet is designed to be a general purpose media consumption tool (and in fairness it does an excellent job of it). Its audience therefore will include people interested in watching videos, browsing the internet, playing games, reading magazines and yes, reading books. But like many devices that converge multiple functions into a single device compromises need to be made. Sure a tablet might be good for watching a video on the bus on the way home, but given a choice between watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster with your family on a 9″ tablet or a 60″ television screen, which do you think will be the choice?

Dedicated Readers will, I believe, often prefer dedicated e-readers. The experience still feels much more like reading a book than using a phone or a tablet does and the extensive battery life means that if you get sucked into a marathon 8-9 hour reading session (even with half your battery gone), you don’t need to worry that the reader’s battery will wear out before you do.

#7 Comment By Michael Long On January 14, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

@MarylandBill: I stand by what I said. We’re two years into the “tablet” generation, and already 31% of the US population has one. And that’s projected to increase yet again to 47% over the next year.

And yet again, tablet sales are declining. This is why, by the way, Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc doesn’t apply, it’s not this follows that, it’s that sales fell during this same exact period of explosive growth and adoption. The consumer is making his choice known.

Also, while we’re delving into logical fallicies, your “Hollywood blockbuster” question is a nice use of False Dichotomy, as it artificially restricts the possible responses to one of those two possible choices. And to which you immediately followed up with a No True Scotsman argument, where you imply that “Dedicated Readers” will prefer dedicated e-readers.

So let me express MY beliefs. I believe that in a few cases, e-ink is a better choice. Those cases are, however, limited to sitting in direct sunlight, or if, say, you’re going to be camping for a week with no access to power whatsoever.

Everyone else, however, needs to ask the question as to whether or not they want to carry, charge, and otherwise deal with yet another dedicated device… or if a multipurpose device, while perhaps not perfect, will get them 90% of the way there?

And, as indicated, I think the market is answering that question.

BTW, I’m a dedicated reader, and I’ve quite literally read thousands of books and articles on my iPad, iPhone, and even prior to that, my HP iPaq. (Anecdotal Evidence)

@Jussi: And you are setting up straw men. My iPad doesn’t need charging every “few hours”, unless you count over ten hours at a stretch as a “few”.

As to “And tablet’s will probably never get lighter….” Seriously? Never?

I mean, it’s pretty well known that Apple is going to shrink the weight and thickness of the next iPad, (not to mention the size and weight reduction of the iPad mini), but I think it’s more than a little presumptuous to assuming that they’ll “never” get lighter just two years into the program.

That would be like looking at a Kaypro “luggable” portable computer twenty years ago and saying that the same functionality will “never” get to be the size and weight of a MacBook Air.

Look. You guys like your Kindles. I get that. But general purpose devices have a way of superseding dedicated devices as they get “good enough.”

Do you carry or wear a watch? LED flashlight? P&S camera? Calculator? Dictionary? MP3 player? Or do you carry an iPhone or smartphone that does all of those things, and more?

#8 Comment By MarylandBill On January 14, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

First, lets clear up a few points.

1. My “false dichotomy” argument as you put it, was in fact an analogy, never meant to restrict one’s choice, but rather to highlight the fact that while in some circumstances a tablet might be the the right choice, it is hardly the best choice for watching videos in every circumstance. Likewise, it is hardly always the best choice for many as a device for reading.

2. I implied nothing about dedicated readers preferring dedicated e-readers, I flat out stated that they would often prefer dedicated e-readers. Now, if I had used the singular, then this would in fact be a “No True Scotsman” argument, but since I am referring to readers as a group, my use of the word often does not require all dedicated readers to prefer dedicated e-readers, only that a sizable proportion of them do.

Again, your association of the timing of the decline in dedicated ebook readers to the growth of tablet sales actually proves nothing. As I pointed out, television sales also declined at the same time — In other words, association does not imply causation.

Dedicated e-readers are admittedly a niche product, I never expect that they will be in every home or even that they will be used by a majority of people. As a result, I think that five years after the initial release of the Kindle (And even years since Sony started with the PRS line), that the majority of readers who are interested in e-reading already have dedicated e-readers.

Lets address your particular examples. I never carried a flashlight, so I think that is probably a poor example for me, and most people. I still wear a watch since a watch was never just about telling time (Though it is actually easier than fumbling for my smartphone and turning the screen on). Yes, my smartphone is what I use for portable music, but then again it has absolutely no disadvantage over an mp3 player. As for the calculator, I have yet to find an app that really matches the best scientific calculators out there (not saying it exists, just I haven’t seen it). Now, the camera is an interesting case. It is absolutely true that the smartphone is killing the market for commodity P&S cameras. It is also equally true that neither a Smartphone Camera nor a point and shoot can adequately replace a DSLR or a ICL camera, or for that matter any camera with a large imaging sensor. Sure, some photographers might be satisfied with a smartphone camera, but not all… and I contend the same is true for ebook readers.

#9 Comment By Michael Long On January 14, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

“I implied nothing about dedicated readers preferring dedicated e-readers, I flat out stated that they would often prefer dedicated e-readers.”

I’m a ‘dedicated reader” and I flat out hate e-ink. It’s gotten better of late, but that’s only because it started out so far in the hole. My eyes aren’t that great, and reading 80% gray text on a 30% gray background sucks.

Next, of course, you’re going to try to tell me about the headache-inducing qualities of LCDs… while failing to mention, of course, the headache-inducing distraction where e-ink inverts the entire page on every page turn. (Modern readers, of course, only do it seemingly at random.)

But is it just me?

“Earlier Thursday, Barnes & Noble (US:BKS) blamed its disappointing forecast primarily on lower sales of its Nook Simple Touch, an E-Ink–based device that competes with the popular Kindle from Amazon.com (US:AMZN). This was offset somewhat by apparently stronger sales of its Nook Tablet, which uses an LCD screen…”

“E-ink’s nearly 3 year long bubble, which had been fueled by their screen tech dominating the ereader market, has come to an end. This morning Digitimes reported that E-ink posted their first quarterly loss following 10 quarters of profitability. … Note, though, that this should have been expected at some point. E-ink’s screen tech was at best a compromise. It ruled the roost when its benefits (bi-stable screen, battery life) outweighed its detractions (grayscale, slow to refresh, cost). As soon as there was a viable alternative people adopted it in droves.”

“iSuppli says sales of e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Nook have peaked. It’s all downhill from its 2011 high of 23.2 million units. The iPad, Kindle Fire HD, and other tablets are killing the e-reader, says iSuppli.”

“Research firm IDc says that e-reader sales declined 28% in 2012 – despite the fact that e-reader variety grew, and the prices dropped.”

“Total e-reader shipments, including Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle to Barnes & Noble’s (BKS) Nook to Kobo, reached 23.2 million units in 2011, and this year. But their sales are projected to drop by a staggering 36% to 14.9 million in 2012, and to 10.9 million in 2013. Moreover, this trend is likely to continue with shipments falling to 7.1 million units by 2016, as the dedicated e-reader fulfills the same niche as other failed, intermediate technologies.”

Nope. Not just me. And not just opinions, but facts. Tablets sales are on a dramatic adoption curve. E-ink/e-reader sales are on an equally dramatic decline.

#10 Comment By Michael Long On January 14, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

“Sure, some photographers might be satisfied with a smartphone camera, but not all… and I contend the same is true for ebook readers.”

Operative word in that sentence: some.

And like those willing to carry a DSLR or high-end dedicated P&S, those numbers are steadily declining. Convergence wins.

#11 Comment By MarylandBill On January 14, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

At this point I think I can only conclude that you are deliberately misinterpreting what I am writing. since if you had taken the statement you are quoting in context I specifically allowed that not all dedicated readers would prefer dedicated ereaders over tablets.

As for your quote of analysts, you are first of all, making an appeal to authority which unless the authority can be established as impeccable is another logical fallacy. Further, as the financial world has proven time and again over the last decade or two, it can often be shockingly wrong in its prognostications. The question here is not whether the sales of eInk devices are down (they are), or whether tablets will be much more popular than ebook readers (they will), the question is whether tablets are directly responsible for the drop in sales. Its easy to point to tablets, but I think it is too easy and ignores the fact that dedicated readers are a relatively small percentage of media consumers. Even a year ago there was reason to believe many of the eInk devices sold and given as gifts were rarely actually used by those who received them.

With respect to cameras, DSLR and CSC sales are actually up, as I think are sales of high end P&S cameras; it is the low and mid range that is really suffering.

#12 Comment By Malignant Carp On January 14, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

I seem to recall a PEW study recently that indicated only a small fraction of the US population are avid readers. That only covers the US, not us Canadians or any other international citizens. But when you consider it, only people who spend much of their day reading would bother getting a dedicated e-reader. And once they have one, why should they buy another? That seems a more plausible explanation for the decline in e-ink device sales than tablet sales digging into their market. They’re two different devices with two very different purposes.

I’m sure a number of readers opted for a tablet over an e-ink device. I know one. She found that the tablet had a number of games that kept her toddler occupied, so she went with it over the Kindle. I’m sure there are plenty others with similar stories. Now, myself, I have no use for a tablet, so stick with my Sony PRS-650 or my Kindle Touch. I’m sure there are plenty like me as well.

And if anyone’s interested, I carry an LED flashlight, a regular cell phone (though it does have a camera–hard to find one without), a wristwatch, and an MP3 player. I do math in my head and have yet to find a need for a dictionary while out and about. All of those devices put together cost $180 and if one breaks, I only have to replace it.

#13 Comment By Michael Long On January 14, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

Numerous analysts, Amazon, B&N, and even the company that makes e-ink screens has posted precipitously declining sales:

E INK HOLDINGS May Sales Fall 66.88%.
E INK HOLDINGS said unconsolidated sales in June fell 71.09%

But hey. You’re right. The sky’s not falling, and I’m sure e-ink will move to be something more than a niche player any year now.

#14 Comment By Malignant Carp On January 14, 2013 @ 8:41 pm

@Michael Long: It would appear to me (and please correct me if I am wrong) that your argument here is that increased tablets sales are causing a decrease in e-ink sales (such can be inferred from your first comment). You’ve cited numerous articles to support the sales increases and decrease. Yes, statistics indicate a decline in e-ink device purchases and a decline in the actual e-ink screens used in many devices. This does not, however, in any way suggest that tablets are responsible for the decrease in sales.

As e-ink readers are a dedicated device with only one real use, there is going to be a smaller market for it than that of a multi-purpose device (with some overlap of people choosing tablets over e-readers simply because they can make use of the tablet’s other features; I do not fit in this group, I just need an e-reader). Thus, it is (in my opinion) more reasonable to say that the market is reaching saturation. Those who want e-ink devices are no longer purchasing them not because they have or prefer a tablet (though I am sure there are plenty for whom such is the case) but because they already have one and do not need a new one.

Not everyone likes buying every new revision of every device they own. I used the same desktop computer for 10 years, only replacing a piece of hardware if it died (over those 10 years, I replaced one hard drive and one optical drive). I’ll continue to use my Kindle Touch until it dies and then buy the newest device if it’s still around $120.

Could my assumption be incorrect? Could it be tablets? It certainly could, but there’s absolutely no evidence of that. Statistics do not show causative relationships. They show what, not why.

Is the sky falling? Maybe. We won’t know until it actually does. Does it appear that e-ink is going away? Sales are declining, but it’s too early to tell if sales will stop altogether. All of the major e-ink players came out with new devices over the holidays (Nook, Amazon, Kobo). Clearly there is still a market for it. Is it a niche market? Possibly. Will it become a niche market? The trend would seem to suggest that. Is it because of tablets? Impossible to determine.

Just because tablet sales are on the rise and e-ink device sales are going down the crapper does not mean that one caused the other.

And I apologize in advance if I seem in any way adversarial.

#15 Comment By Michael Long On January 15, 2013 @ 1:07 am

I’m not arguing so much that the increase in tablet sales is causing the decline of e-reader sales, as I am saying that we’re early in the adoption cycle for both devices, and as such sales of both should be progressing. That is, unless you think every hardback and paperback book lover that will ever buy a Kindle or e-reader has already bought a Kindle.

E-reader and e-ink sales, however, are declining. And that, to me, indicates that the market, given a choice between the two devices, is choosing to buy the more general-purpose device instead of the dedicated e-ink device. By huge margins.

The only way to know for sure would be for Amazon to release actual sales figures. And they refuse to do so.

#16 Comment By Michael Long On January 15, 2013 @ 1:09 am

Could I be wrong? Perhaps. All I know for sure is that I’m not investing a single solitary dime in E INK HOLDINGS. And I’d strongly suggest that you don’t do so either…

#17 Comment By Juli Monroe On January 15, 2013 @ 8:30 am

Wow. I had no idea my article would generate so much heat. I never denied sales weren’t declining of e-Ink readers. They are. Tablets are becoming very popular for the e-reading audience, and I’m delighted for that. I’m reading more on my Nexus 7 right now than my Kindle Touch. Of course, that might be because the Nexus 7 is brand new and shiny.

However, I do think there is a market for the e-Ink readers and that they will be around, at least for a while. How long is “a while?” 5 years? 10? More? Not sure right now. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes over the next few years.

Oh, and as to “watching video on 10″ device vs. 60″ TV?” Our TV languishes, unwatched, while my husband and I curl up with our iPads. But then, I like smaller devices for video. It’s the “cozy” factor. :)

#18 Comment By Barry On January 15, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

As much as I like my e-ink Kindle, I have to agree with Michael–e-ink is probably not the future, unless they can keep upgrading its performance. I think it’s more likely that tablets get better at mimicking e-ink. Already the latest iPad has amazingly crisp text, for example, and I’ve read that there is emerging tech that would reduce the “staring into a lightbulb” feeling.

That said, e-ink devices may well remain competitive for a while. They’re lighter, cheaper, and have better battery life, mainly; but many people also appreciate that they’re not LCDs. I love reading before going to sleep, for example, but if I do that on a computer screen (tablet or laptop or cell) then I have a hard time going to sleep. Even so, e-ink devices will probably just serve a smaller market of heavy readers who have those specific preferences.