Anyone who follows popular technology trends at all will have noticed the rise in interest and competition in ereaders (I hope a better name emerges for them). Currently, people don’t seem to be acknowledging the significance of potential propogation of ereaders throughout society. Should ereaders become common, it would represent a major step for the internet and computers.
The natural trend of the web is to emulate and then replace all previous forms of communication. But let me make a case for that statement: one could say that the computer is the ultimate machine because it can simulate any other machine conceivable. The ability of the internet to replicate all other forms of communication is a result of these ultimate machines being connected between one another. Over the past few years different tools have been developed for the internet that are slowly replacing our previous communications technologies. Television was the most recent development in communication before the internet, and watching tv and movies online has become extremely common. In some small part, phone calls are being replaced by skype, VoIP, google voice, and others. You’d be fooling yourself if you claimed that skype is truly on the way to replacing phones, but one can see that the internet is moving in on phone calls from different angles. Cell phones are clearly replacing land lines and almost all cell phones now are internet-equipped. How long until all of our voice-communication happens over the internet? Letters have been entirely replaced by email, newspapers are suffocating due to online news. There seems to be only one mode of communication left that hasn’t been supplanted by the web; the oldest communication technology around: books.
Ereaders have become a bit of a hot topic lately, the main competition seems to be among Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Nobles’s Nook and Apple’s iPad. Later I’ll talk about the features of all these devices and which makes the most sense for consumers, but when it comes down to it there is something that is going to be much more important than specs in the field of ereaders. The truth is that reading something off a screen is not very pleasant; paper and ink is just better designed for reading large amounts of text. People can handle and even prefer reading their mail and news online because those things are usually short, they don’t involve much scrolling or wear and tear on the eyes. Reading books is a whole different thing, and a lot stands in the way of the success of ereaders. Reading a book is a pleasurable tactile experience; people will cling to the tradition of reading from a book for as long as they can. That said, the same argument could have been made for newspapers and that didn’t last very long. Nonetheless, people don’t collect newspapers on shelves all over their houses and apartments, don’t fill libraries and bookstores with them.
Books are ingrained in our culture, in our psyches. We like having them around, we like looking at them even if we don’t read them. The success of online books would mean choosing practicality and technological progress over something which is traditional and which seems fundamentally good. The only way this could occur is if a device emerges which is more pleasurable to read from than a book. Personally, I don’t think that’s provided by the current generation of ereaders, and I don’t think they’re going to be overwhelmingly successful. But we’re getting there.
So if you’re going to support the progress of the internet towards becoming the ultimate communication network by buying an ereader the question then becomes – which should I buy? Well the differences between the Nook and the Kindle are negligible. You can decide for yourself, but the Kindle seems to be a better device. The Nook is mostly grasping at straws in an attempt to compete; it uses a slow, mostly nonresponsive partial touchscreen; its operating system is slower and laggier than the Kindle’s. The prices for books are about the same but the Kindle has a larger library of books available. Because of the touchscreen the Nook has less battery life than the Kindle, 10 days as opposed to 14 days. This battery life is so long because they both use “e-ink” screens which have no backlight and look just like ink and paper. This means no strain on the eyes and no glare in sunlight but also no low-light reading.
Here’s why I think that if you’re looking for an ereader the iPad makes more sense. Ereaders will eventually fail. They have to because they don’t make sense within the scheme of the internet. The idea is to have all different forms of communication and information transfer available within one device; this is the true advantage of computers in the modern age. Spreading different forms of media across different devices is against the core philosophy of technological progress. You might point to the iPod as a counter example. Like books, music is something people want available in a small package for portability. It was because of this that the iPod originally gained prestige, but even now Apple is moving the iPod back towards general computing with the iPod touch and the iPhone. Pretty soon the only version of the iPod which is only for music and other basic media will be something analogous to the shuffle: small, cheap, and simple. With the iPad we move closer towards having extremely portable computers which emulate every form of communication and information technology available. It just happens that the iPad also makes a great device for reading. It’s true that ereaders are currently in the limelight, perhaps they will even expand their market and gain a measure of success for some time. But eventually as the hardware gets more sophisticated ereaders will be replaced by devices which perform all the tasks necessary to call them computers, not just storage devices with screens configured for easy reading. It might make sense to buy an ereader for now, they’re cheaper and lighter simply because they’re specialized. But eventually the technology will catch up and we’ll be provided with a a fully-functional computer similar to the iPad which can also provide a pleasurable reading experience and is also light and cheap and portable, and that will spell the end for ereaders. I don’t think we’re very far away.