I can’t even begin to count the number of articles I’ve seen over the past few weeks about the swiftly growing popularity of tablet computers. A week or two after the holiday season has ended, I suspect we’ll start seeing solid proof—one way or the other—in the form of sales numbers, and we’ll finally have a firm understanding of just how many tablet PCs are out there in the world today.

That’ll be an interesting and even important economic factoid for the digital reading community, of course. Because as we’ve been reminded of over and over again, this particular consumer trend—the suddenly massive popularity of tablets—is having the effect of leading dedicated e-reading devices directly down the road to extinction.

According to a December 20 article on the New York Times‘ Bits blog, though, a number of research firms and market analysts have already begun supplying 2012 sales numbers of tablets and e-readers.

From the article:

The research firm the International Data Corporation found a surge in shipments this year of what it called “smart connected devices,” including tablets, smartphones and PCs. That market grew 27.1 percent from last year, to 303.6 million shipments, according to IDC.

Meanwhile, e-book readers are losing momentum. This year, worldwide shipments of e-book readers will fall to 14.9 million units from 23.2 million units last year — a 36 percent drop, according to estimates by IHS iSuppli.

The Bits blog article also mentions a recently-published report, put out by a research firm known as eMarketer, that mentions those very same consumer trends. Other research firms that have noticed (and noted) the simultaneous decline in e-reader sales and the growth of tablet sales—in the United States, at least—include Forrester Research, which predicts that only 5.3 million e-readers will be sold in 2014, down from 15.5 million in 2011.

Of course, none of this will come as too much of a surprise to anyone who regularly follows the digital publishing industry, where the growth of smartphone reading and tablet reading have both been well documented for some time now. Clearly, the e-reader is on its way out as a growth device.

Although as Paid Content’s Robert Andrews has rightly pointed out, one major explanation for the current slow growth in e-reader sales has to do with the fact that most owners of e-readers have little reason to upgrade to a different (or “better”)  e-reading device. In other words, most everyone who wants a dedicated e-reader already has one, and many of those people are perfectly content with their current e-reader model.

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At any rate, here’s my prediction for 2013: This is the year we’re finally going to see Jeff Bezos and Friends giving away the entry-level Kindle Special Offers e-reader for free—or for something mighty close to free—in the hopes that more and more content consumers will find their way into Amazon’s media ecosystem before finding their way into anyone else’s.

Mark my words: By summer or fall of 2013, the entry-level Kindle will be added as a free incentive to some sort of Amazon subscription service.

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone. And may a tablet, e-reader, smartphone, laptop, ultrabook—or even a regular ol’ printed book—find its way under your tree today. (And let us know what you got, will you?) We’ll see you tomorrow.