By Elena Morgan 

The e-reader market has spent more than a decade undergoing a fitful and sporadic development into something of major scope, and this process didn’t really start to take off until the end of the first decade of the 2000’s. Today, however, e-readers have finally become practical, easy to use, and also finally have access to a major marketplace of digital books which can be downloaded to them.

However, the e-reader itself as a distinct piece of technology is slowly disappearing to the simultaneous proliferation of the tablet market. Tablet computers are outfitted with almost all of the same features as their purely e-book-displaying cousins, but also come with so many more features, making them the much more popular choice amongst most college students. Essentially, tablet computers are computers with e-reading capacity and thus also qualify as e-readers. Let’s take a look at how both have impacted university students and the campuses where they study.

The Impact of Classical E-Readers

The classic e-reader that has been on sale since 2010 under brands such as the Amazon Kindle, Kobo and Sony Reader has had what could be called a mixed impact on college campuses across the United States and other developed countries. Its limited capabilities are one of the device’s key limitations. Students engage in a process that is much more dynamic than simply reading textbooks and picking up information; this complexity includes information sharing, Google-searching, and communicating (with friends, other students and professors) on a regular basis.

What students generally seem to prefer—according to recent studies conducted by University of Washington researchers—are devices that can give them the ability to read digitized books portably while at the same time allowing open access to the entire Internet and all its social networks and search systems. This is where classic e-readers have failed quite badly, because all they’ve really been—until very recently—are portable e-book-carrying machines.

This basic function is something e-readers still do better than tablets, since their lack of video, audio and other interactive capabilities gives them a much longer battery life, and their specialized “electronic paper” reading format creates much clearer text visibility under bright conditions. For students, however, that doesn’t make up for all the additional features that tablets with e-book capability possess.

Limitations on Copying and Sharing

There is one additional problem with some e-readers: They don’t accept unrecognized formats or digital books that don’t have full copy protection or distribution licenses. Although this is designed to protect publishers’ intellectual rights, the reality is that students who don’t like paying $60 for a digital version of their paper textbooks—especially when they can find cheaper copies online—simply won’t bother with an e-reader that prevents them from uploading or downloading pirated books.

The fact that many of these devices also prevent text copying and sharing is another point against them amongst a a student body that loves to engage with its friends—and friendly websites—across the social networks and the Internet in general.

The Arrival of the Tablet PC as an E-Reader

This is where tablets come into the student picture: The technology author Michael J. Saylor, in his book The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything, says that e-readers will become pointless once the technology they possess is absorbed by the much more versatile and powerful tablet computer. So far, this is proving to be a very astute prediction. Although simple e-readers of all types sold at a rate of nearly 13 million units in 2011, this figure pales in comparison to sales of tablet computers, which were estimated at more than 60 million in the same year, and expected to more than double by the end of 2012.

Tablets are far more widespread amongst students simply because they give them access to everything they’ve already become accustomed to with their PCs, laptops and smartphones. College students get their hands on a tablet computer, and they can use it to read books in almost any format they’d like. They can copy the books, annotate them, and share them with all their friends on social networks and websites.

These are big advantages. And beyond just these e-reading bonuses, there’s everything else a tablet computer allows college students to do: web surfing, photo taking, video capturing, info sharing, and communicating through a whole array of downloadable mobile apps. Best of all (as far as students are concerned), tablets are getting cheaper by the year, and already don’t cost much more than an e-reader with limited abilities.

No normal e-reader that only displays digital books can compete with this kind of technology, even if it costs anywhere from one hundred to a few hundred dollars less. Carrying an e-reader around as a separate item becomes a burden.


Having become the much more popular choice, tablets as e-readers are becoming widespread, and giving college students access to much more portable sources of valuable study information, research tools and communication power. This has led to some problems with students cheating on exams or getting overly distracted during class time, but the overall effect has been beneficial with all the expanded computing portability tablets give to young people.

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About the Author: A former educator, Elena Morgan spends most of her time consulting schools and teachers on how to best utilize technology in the classroom. In her free time, she enjoys interior design and writes for Unison.


  1. Elena, I’d be very interested in metrics that can back up this statement:
    “However, the e-reader itself as a distinct piece of technology is slowly disappearing to the simultaneous proliferation of the tablet market.”

    Additionally, are there any studies that provide insight into the percentage of tablet owners who read on their tablets regularly? Owning a tablet is not the same as reading on it. I have two tablets, but 95% of the time, I read on my Kindle.

  2. Sony has been making e-readers since 1992 and became more readily available in 1998, that is also when libraries started offering e-books to be ‘checked out’.

    Sony was my first e-ink reader, bought back in 1998.

    My 7,9, and 12 year olds will be getting tablets for Christmas. My 12 yr old loves my old Nook Color.

  3. Hey Xendula, I don’t know if Elena is checking comments, so I’ll email yours to her. I did a quick search for the exact same thing before posting this, but didn’t come up with anything. If Elena can steer us in the right direction, though, I’ll update the post with links and/or graphs.

  4. Copy and paste is even disallowed with non-DRM ePub documents in the on iPad and other iOS devices. This should be an area where multi-function devices present an advantage. Students have writing assignments that require quoting the text. So here we are in the digital age where we still find students transcribing letter-by-letter just as they had to do with print. In iBooks one can make notes and then email them to oneself so maybe that’s an advantage but it seems clunky to me. What students really need is a proper way to collect quotations and annotate them in a single document that is separate from the eTextbook.

  5. Thanks, Dan.

    Does anyone here member how awesome the Microsoft Reader was? You could highlight, copy and paste take handwriten notes in the ink color of your choice, all on Pocket PCs so far back as 2002! It amazes me how advanced their ebook “app” was in comparison to any ebook app on any platform today.
    It may experience a come-back with the MS Surface, since MS is investing in Nook already, but will it be too late for them?

  6. “Houghton, Sarah. “[13]I’m Breaking Up with Ebooks (and you can too)”
    [14]Librarian in Black (1 August
    ude.html). – Every once in a while there is a blog post that rises well
    above the daily outpouring of text on the web. This is one such piece,
    and the response to it (over 100 comments as of this writing) is
    testimony to that fact. As the technically-savvy library director for
    the San Rafael Public Library (CA), the author can be considered on the
    front lines of the disaster known as e-books in libraries. And this
    post makes it clear that she’s fed up and won’t take it any more. Using
    a brilliant metaphor of breaking up with a “bad boyfriend”, Houghton
    skewers the e-book publishing industry. Contrast this treatment of the
    subject with the much more restrained piece “E- Books in Libraries: A
    Briefing Document Developed in Preparation for a Workshop on E-Lending
    in Libraries” cited elsewhere in this issue of Current Cites. I won’t
    give away Houghton’s punchlines, as you need to go read it, but I will
    leave you with this introductory paragraph which helps set the scene:
    “eBooks is to libraries what that awful boyfriend (or girlfriend) was
    to you. Think about it. And when I say “eBooks” I mean the whole messed
    up situation-the copyright nightmares, the publishers, the fragmented
    formats, the ridiculous terms of service, the device incompatibility,
    the third-party aggregation companies libraries do business with-all of
    it. eBooks is the guy who takes advantage of your good nature and
    generosity only to exploit every last weakness you have for his own
    personal gain. The guy your family loved the first time they met him,
    who swept you off your feet, but who everyone came to regard as that
    unwanted interloper who would never leave. Well, my friends, it’s time
    to boot eBooks’ ass to the curb. There are better boyfriends to be
    had.” You go, girl. – [15]RT”

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