Why iPads Will Beat E-Readers

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iPads may give e-readers more of a challenge than marketers think. The conventional wisdom, doled out by analysts and vendors in this week's story about the future of e-paper displays, is that the e-reader market has been cloven in two. Multimedia content consumption is to be ceded to the iPad while plain old black-and-white e-book reading should go to e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle.

When a growing pie splits no one gets too worried. Strong growth in sales of both e-readers and iPads would seem to bear out the argument that there's plenty of room for everyone in the pool. Right?

Maybe not. The problem lies in the future of e-book content. While it's true that the cute girl at poolside can read her e-paper Kindle display in bright sunlight while the hapless iPad user, with his unreadable backlit LCD, looks on; and while it's true that battery life is much shorter with an iPad, I am not entirely convinced that users want a dedicated e-book reader device and an iPad. And everyone seems to want an iPad these days.

E-book reading is a subset of what an iPad or other tablet computer can do. But reading e-books is all that e-readers can do well. They're a one-trick pony.

As a platform for e-reading, an iPad may be good enough for all but the most ardent readers. I have no trouble reading e-books or newspapers on one. As for battery life, an iPad charge lasts for about as long as most readers would want to sit reading in one session.

But even assuming that I'm wrong on this point, marketers are missing one important fact: E-book content itself may be about to undergo a major transformation.

Last July Amazon announced that it was shipping 1.5 e-books for every hard cover it sold. As the market moves from paper to a primarily electronic medium, a new generation of authors will rethink what it means to write a book.

As a way of telling a story, unembellished black and white text is so 20th century. Keith Richards' Life is a good example of the wasted opportunity of the paper paradygm. Richards took the traditional approach: Assemble a bunch of black and white text pages, add a cluster of photos in the middle and you're done. Enormous amounts of rich content over a decades long career were never woven into the story line. Had the book been written by a ghostwrier in 2020 it might have tightly woven a wide range of interactive multimedia elements into the storyline. In the future the author won't just tell you. You'll see for yourself.

The iPad is optimized to be a multimedia content consumption device. E-paper, with its one-half to one second page turn times and newly released, inferior color technology, is not. For viewing the color photos in the center of a traditional book it's perfectly fine. But slow performance and washed out colors aren't likely to work in the new age of multimedia books.

This story, "Why iPads Will Beat E-Readers" was originally published by Computerworld.

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