The eBook reader has changed the reading world, but it’s another device to fit into your bag, power outlet, and daily life. Smart phones and tablet computers aim to handle the same task, however major challenges bar the way forward.
(Image Source: Digital Trends)
The year of the eye-opener
2011 will go down as the year when eBooks rocked the publishing industry. In May, Amazon and Waterstones reported eBook sales outnumbering printed books. While the publishing industry gasped for air, business analysts went on to say they expected a five-year growth of some 200 per cent. Suddenly the eBooks, brushed away by some as a unwieldy but small irritant, were on the map
Now the publishing industry scrambles to put digital versions of their products on the market, and some hope to attract buyers by adding extra features to the books, such as web links, blogs, and video clips. But they compete with a host of independent publishers and authors – the digital book needs no stores or shelves, and readers can choose between thousands of independently published books.
The novel has escaped the prison of hardback covers, and it won’t go back.
The Amazon factor
A driving force behind the market transformation is Amazon and its Kindle, currently the leading eBook reader. In the US, the Kindle has been a raging success: while Amazon is secretive with its sales figures, reports say one type of Kindle alone sold almost five million units during the fourth quarter of 2011.
Priced at less than one hundred US dollars, and with an ocean of books on offer at three dollars or less each, the Kindle’s popularity is easy to understand – it’s a portable money saver. And it’s got company: today one can choose between a growing range of competing eBook readers, such as the JetBook, the Nook, Kobo, and Sony’s Reader.
Generally, whichever eBook reader you choose, they are amazing pieces of machinery.
- It weighs even less than many phones.
- It holds thousands of books, easily sent to the device directly from websites.
- Its battery time makes iPhones look like gluttonous power sinks.
- Viewing its screen in sunlight works fine when phone displays are turned into shimmering rectangles.
In short, once you’ve tried one, turning pages on a glossy four-point-three screen is an unpleasant experience.
The eBook reader’s greatest shortcoming is itself – it’s another thing to carry around and keep safe, one more item not to drop or spill drinks on.
Many already own a plethora of electronic tools, such as computers, phones, tablets. Recently, the gap between these has grown smaller – many prefer laptops or tablets over stationary computers, and smart phones are computers in their own right.
The eBook reader, however, is an archetypical niche tool: its processing power is limited, its graphics engine is weak, and its screen is often limited to a few colours. In terms of versatility, comparing a kindle to a smart phone is like putting a moped next to a Jaguar.
When it comes to reading, though, eBook readers leave phones and computers in the dust. With their far superior contrast, text presentation, and battery life, stand-alone readers are peerless for viewing digital texts. But the movement towards the definitive gadget will not end at this stage.
Small dimensions, huge challenges
Ultimately, it is a question of portability, and much of the problem comes down to developing a one-size-fits-all screen. Just as we cannot slip an iPad or a Kindle down our pockets, reading eBooks on phone displays is taxing for your eyesight and easily leads to painful neck-craning.
The middle ground is an elusive patch of land: either the device needs a big screen and then has to go into our bags, or we want it as small as possible. The eBook reader is stuck right between these two ideals: a little too large, a bit too unsophisticated.
Amazon tries to deal with the problem by offering its Kindle Fire, yet it’s a compromise – its screen is only a tad larger than that of a phone, and it lacks in both power and flexibility. And, of course, you cannot use your Kindle Fire for calling the local takeaway.
“I like eBooks because a dozen books or 100 books it weighs the same as none – bit like magic really! However, they’re not as good for reading on the beach because losing a book is easy to get over. But iPads are expensive!”
Another type of problem
Engineers lose sleep over more difficulties. For example, most phones wring every watt from their batteries in a single day, and smooth typing is a major challenge.
Modern touch screens excel at interpreting our frantic thumbing, but there is only so much you can do on a phone display – making calls is easy, but reading is demanding, typing takes lots of patience and nimble fingers, and text editing is outright migraine-inducing.
Size-wise, the eBook reader is more closely related to the phone than to the computer, so there is a chance that they might meet. However, for that to happen, developers need to come up with new inventions.
The road ahead
For example, we need a portable power source that can handle much higher demands than current batteries can muster. Another issue is the input: any developer who thinks up a small-scale method that allows for typing at standard-keyboard speeds will rake in financial rewards along with the praise of millions of users.
However, the biggest rethink needed concerns the screen, and this twofold challenge is perhaps even tougher than inventing a fantastic battery. Developers have to come up with a screen that displays games vividly and in colour while offering the same readability as eBook readers.
Ideally, it should have intense contrast, massive resolution, complete colour range and, at the same time, be able to mimic paper quality. And, as if the above challenges weren’t enough, it should be immune to the glare of daylight. Oh, and it should be unbreakable, too.
On top of that, the screen has to be of a size that appeals to users, i.e. larger than most phones – yet not so large the device become too bulky.
In the lab
Several companies wrestle with the problem of making bigger screens take less space.
Some try to develop foldable phones, which would be a neat solution – unroll to view a huge screen, roll it up when done.
Philips has had a prototype in the works, but it appears to have vanished into the black hole of promising but never realized inventions. Qualcomm has been working on a similar concept, but have yet to bring their ideas to the market.
Of course, there is also the persistent idea of getting rid of the screen entirely, instead either making them part of our clothes or, as in the case of Google’s Project Glass, incorporating them in full-blown augmented reality headwear. The ultimate gadget is easy to define but hard to visualize, but whoever gets there first is set to dominate the market.
This post was written by Erik Boman - Web Designer at award winning web design, digital marketing and branding agency - Obergine.