Are e-readers 8-tracks in disguise?

The Wall Street Journal ponders this question:

Books are having their iPod moment this holiday season. But buyer beware: It could also turn out to be an eight-track moment.

While e-reading devices were once considered a hobby for early adopters, Justin Timberlake is now pitching one on prime-time TV commercials for Sony Corp. Meanwhile, Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle e-reading device has become its top-selling product of any kind. Forrester Research estimates 900,000 e-readers will sell in the U.S. in November and December.

But e-reader buyers may be sinking cash into a technology that could become obsolete. While the shiny glass-and-metal reading gadgets offer some whiz-bang features like wirelessly downloading thousands of books, many also restrict the book-reading experience in ways that trusty paperbacks haven’t, such as limiting lending to a friend. E-reader technology is changing fast, and manufacturers are aiming to address the devices’ drawbacks.

Yes, the WSJ brings us the hard hitting journalism that tells us that if you don’t have disposable income and/or aren’t a gadget person you may not want to spend hundreds of dollars on a dedicated e-reader!

“If you have the disposable income and love technology—not books—you should get a dedicated e-reader,” says Bob LiVolsi, the founder of BooksOnBoard, the largest independent e-book store. But other people might be better-off repurposing an old laptop or spending $300 on a cheap laptop known as a netbook to use for reading. “It will give you a lot more functionality, and better leverages the family income,” he says.

Wow! I never would have figured that out myself. To be fair, the article does go on to offer some contrasting opinions on the pros and cons of various devices.

But I find this debate tiresome in some ways.

As I have sad on numerous occasions there are a number of reasons why e-books are here to stay:

  • If you read a lot of books and are on the go a e-reader is an incredible convenience.  hundreds of books – and access to more books in seconds – with only the size and weight of a trade paperback.  This is a no turning back type of luxary.
  • Those without the space for a vast library will appreciate having a book collection without the space issues.
  • Being able to access a book in 60 seconds is pretty sweet, BTW. Find out about a book you want to read? No more ordering and waiting or driving to the book store.  Click and you are reading it.

These seem like obvious reasons why people will want e-books and e-readers. Does this mean that the Kindle or the Sony or the longed for Apple Tablet will be around forever in the same form they are today? Of course not.

Is the price point too high for many people? Sure.  But given what people spend on phones and other accessories it is not ridiculously so. Are there features that consumers want and are not currently available? Yes.

I fail to see how any of this makes e-readers akin to the eight-track tape players (and even if they are is that so bad?).  Technology evolves a little fast these days and people have adapted accordingly. I am sure the format and feature battles will shake out with winners and losers and some early adapters might regret their choices – this is neither unexpected nor a tragedy.

Netbook computers are cheap and widely available to be sure.  But I don’t see myself using one to read books. For me, and many readers I would guess, there is something important about just reading the text in a “book-like” way – the dedicated aspect of it appeals to me.

I have enjoyed my Kindle(1) immesely (it was a Christmas gift) and don’t feel like I was giving technology that is on the verge of being obsolete. If cirsumstances change maybe I will updgrade or buy a device that isn’t even available right now.  But in the meantime I will continue to enjoy my e-reader for the reasons listed above. And as noted years worth of enjoyment is not a wasted investment in a failed or superseded technology.

If the business and publishing folks want to freak out about how this whole thing will sort out, fine. But can we quite pretending that these e-readers are anything but a great development for readers who want and need them?

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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