General-Purpose Devices: The Future?
In recent years, as cultural production and cultural consumption have become increasingly digitized, book publishers of all sizes have worried tirelessly about the prospect that the printed book might give way to some digital form. Looking at the situation from every imaginable angle, book publishers have questioned whether or not book publishing would become a digital medium, as well as what it would mean if this were to occur. More recently, however, this focus has shifted. For most book publishers, it now seems inevitable that book publishing will be digital, and as such, much of the focus has turned toward an internal debate about what this digitization might look like. With the sense of an imminent digital takeover lurking in their minds, book publishers have begun to heatedly dispute the ways in which digital books will be purchased and read by consumer. Adding to (and, in many ways, monopolizing) this debate has been the emergence of dedicated e-reader devices, and more recently, the emergence of multi-purpose tablet computers. Today, the ethos surrounding these two types of devices has fractured into at least two major camps: For some, the dedicated e-reader represents the future of reading and the future of book publishing (Teleread.com, 2010; EcoChild’sPlay.com, 2011). For others, though, this future belongs, without a doubt, to the generalized tablet (Farwestab.com, 2010; handheldebookreadersite.com, 2011; HufingtonPost.com, 2011). Drawing on some of these perspectives, this paper will attempt to assess the potential for the specialized e-reader and the general purpose tablet to survive and succeed in the marketplace. I will begin by describing some of the existing arguments in favour of both devices. Following this, I will reference current sales data and market research to critically evaluate the validity of these arguments. To conclude, I will argue that, due to changing market conditions and advancing technology, the general purpose tablet should see more success than the specialized e-reader.
With the rise of multi-functional tablet computers over the past several years, the dedicated e-reader has come to be seen by many as an antiquated and inadequate piece of machinery, one that will quickly give way more generalized devices (Farwestab.com, 2010; handheldebookreadersite.com, 2011). The logic behind this doomed trajectory is simple, according countless numbers of bloggers and technology enthusiasts, and even some publishers: general purpose tablets have rendered the dedicated e-reader obsolete (Farwestab.com, 2010; handheldebookreadersite.com, 2011). This is true for several reasons as Geoff Kratz (2010) highlights: First, the tablet does precisely what the dedicated e-reader can do. Owners of general purpose tablets can just as easily use these devices to read e-books, and many tablet manufacturers even have their own versions of online e-book stores (Farwestab.com, 2010; handheldebookreadersite.com, 2011). Moreover, as Amy Lee from the Huffington Post (2011) explains, many of the tablets on the market now have the ability to imitate the “Kobo experience” or the “Kindle experience,” for instance, through Kindle or Kobo applications. So, users do not need to purchase a Kindle in order to benefit from any perceived advantages of Kindle’s services. The tablet’s increased functionality is another commonly cited reason as to why the dedicated e-reader cannot survive. Unlike dedicated e-readers, Kratz (2010) elaborates, tablets offer the user more than just e- reading capabilities. Tablets can be used to read e-books, of course, but they can also be used for a myriad of other purposes. Kratz (2010) sums this point up nicely when he says that generalized tablets “support a range of applications for social networking and personal communications, games and entertainment, news and information, and for business or personal productivity” In essence, therefore, the tablet negates the need to carry a number of different portable devices (i.e. a laptop, a music player, and an e-reader) by combining the functions of these devices into one convenient package. For those individuals who want to use all of these devices, and who would otherwise have to carry all of them separately, the tablet offers a more practical and up-to-date solution.
Despite claims that the general purpose tablet has pushed dedicated e-readers to the brink of extinction, many a commentator has jumped to defend the longevity of these single-function e-reading devices. While the general purpose tablets have many advantages, they claim, these devices do not serve well the reading needs of certain groups of people. One such group, according to Joanna (2010) from Teleread.com, is that of elderly people. One reason for this, Joanna (2010) believes, is that dedicated e-readers are better suited to alleviate many of the physical impairments that older individuals face as a part of the aging process. She points out, for example, that these devices are generally smaller and more lightweight than their general-purpose counterparts, making them easier for arthritic hands to hold (Teleread.com, 2010). Also, as a score of “Tablet v. E-reader’ competitions have emphasized, the e-reader’s e-ink screen is much comfortable for older people who are used to reading printed books and who are especially prone to eye strain (ZDNet.com, 2010). In addition to the advantages that dedicated e-readers offer for elderly readers, according to Joanna (2010), these devices should also prove just as beneficial for children, a sentiment that is supported by Jennifer Lance of EcoChild’sPlay.com (2011). Here again, they both explain, the e-reader’s relatively lightweight and small design would work best for children’s not-yet-fully-developed hands (Teleread.com, 2010; EcoChild’sPlay.com, 2011). Lance (2010) also points out that, as a reading tool, the dedicated e-reader is less liable to distract a child who may be easily sidetracked by the different applications and multi-media capabilities offered on a general purpose tablet. Finally, as Lance (2010) implies, children can be very powerful forces of destruction, which makes the e-reader’s comparatively inexpensive price tag an attractive selling point for parents. At approximately $500, a broken tablet could present a considerable financial setback. At a third of the cost, conversely, a broken e-reader should prove to be less of an issue. For these groups, the general purpose tablet equates to an unrealistically expensive and overly complicated toy, while the specialized e-reader serves as a useful reasonably priced tool for reading.
Much of the discussion surrounding dedicated e-readers and generalized tablet computers pits one device against the other in a way that makes the independent survival of both appear impossible. Recently released market research suggests, however, that both the e-reader and the tablet computer have continued to fare well in the marketplace when compared to each other (PewResearch.org, 2011; PRNewswire.com, 2001). A study by the Pew Research Centre (2011) has found, for instance, that the number of American adults who own an e-reader (at 5%) closely resembles the number of American adults who own a tablet (at 4%). An Affinity study has also found similar, if a little more optimistic numbers regarding the general ownership patterns for these two types of devices, at 12% for dedicated e-readers and 8% for generalized tablets (PRNewswire.com, 2011). The difference between the specialized devices and their general purpose counterparts, according to this research, is simply a matter of consumer demographics: dedicated e-readers are more popular in some markets, while generalized tablets sell better in others. A few statistics from Affinity’s study illuminate this difference clearly: The study’s results show, first, that Baby Boomers (adults aged 47 to 66) are “19% more likely” than the average consumer to own and use a dedicated e-reader device (PRNewswire.com, 2011). Responding to the 2011 survey, an impressive 8.2 million American Baby Boomers admitted to owning at least one dedicated e-reader, with 10 million more planning to purchase this type of device within the coming months. In contrast to these findings, Affinity (2011) also indicate that younger generations (adults between the ages of 18 and 44) prefer to use general purpose devices like tablets and smartphones, noting that this age group is “16% more likely” to purchase a tablet than the average consumer (PRNewswire, 2011). So, although the general purpose tablet and the dedicated e-reader do not sell well across all markets, each continues to thrive within certain specialized markets. This means that both of these devices are (at least for the time being) able to survive, despite one another.
This is a discussion about technologies that are, in many ways, only the infancy stages of their development. As such, it is not possible to develop a relevant analysis of these technologies without accounting for the possible large-scale and widespread changes that might take place over the next five, ten, fifteen years or more. The increasing age of the Baby Boomer generation ensures, for instance, at least one significant change in the marketplace over the next several years and decades. As this generation progresses in age, its numbers will certainly begin to drop, a fact which is likely to leave a major dent in the dedicated e-reader market. Furthermore, these older markets are being replaced by younger individuals who have spent much, if not all, of their lives interacting with and relying on electronic devices. Even today, there are individuals who have never lived without a laptop computer or iPod, and even more of these technological natives are to come. It is this group of people that will drive the marketplace in the near future. And, as the Affinity study has pointed out, this group prefers general purpose devices like the tablet computer (PRNewswire.com, 2011). It is not too farfetched, therefore, to suggest that the e-reader’s popularity will begin to fade as these new generations become even more influential in the marketplace. Another important point to keep in mind is the exponential speed at which these devices are advancing, both in terms of software and hardware. As the technology develops even further, it likely that the two types of devices will merge with one another in a way that effectively combines the greater functionality of a tablet with the many of benefits provided by a dedicated e-reader (i.e. low cost, small size, etc.). This can be seen already as many of the once-specialized e-readers now move closer into tablet territory. Amazon’s Kindle is a prime example of this: The Kindle began its life as a tool solely devoted to reading. Within the last few years, however, it has developed to include other functions, those such as Wi-Fi and 3G-enabled internet browsing (and other multi-media capabilities as of the past week). Devices like the latest versions of the Kindle can no longer be considered dedicated e-readers. These examples are only two of the many predicting and justifying the eventual downfall of the dedicated e-reader. But, even based just on these two examples, it should be apparent that there is in the works a rising trend toward devices which are more generalized in nature. This trend will only grow even more prevalent and persistent as the social and technological changes begin to take hold.
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Amy Lee. May 5, 2011. “Tablet Takeover Suggests Ereader’s Demise.” Huffington Post. (blog). http://portables.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=portables&cdn=gadgets&tm=5&gps=431_369_1189_508&f=22&su=p284.12.336.ip_&tt=2&bt=0&bts=0&st=10&zu=http%3A//www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/05/ereader-tablet_n_857766.html/ Accessed September 30, 2011.
Geoff Kratz. November 30, 2010. “Why Would a Tablet be Better than a Dedicated eReader.” Farwestab.com. (blog). http://farwestab.wordpress.com/2010/11/30/why-would-a-tablet-be-better-than-a-dedicated-ereader/ Accessed September 30, 2011.
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Joanna. January 28, 2010. “Why Dedicated E-Book Readers Will Not Die.” Teleread.com. (blog). http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/why-dedicated-e-book-readers-will-not-die/ Accessed September 30, 2011.
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