AS YOU may have heard, a certain Apple device goes on sale outside America for the first time on May 28th. Does the advent of multifunctional, colour tablets like the iPad spell doom for those rather old-fashioned devices: e-readers with black-and-white E Ink screens, like the Kindle and the Sony Reader? Not at all, insists Steve Haber, the head of Sony’s e-reader business. Anything that draws attention to the idea of what he calls “digital reading” will benefit the entire industry and expand the market overall, he says. Eighteen months ago, he points out, he had to explain to people what e-books and e-readers were. Since then the Kindle, and now the iPad, have brought the idea of reading on a tablet-like device to a much wider audience, and that can only be good for sales of e-readers of all kinds.
Of course, you’d expect him to say that: he has to defend his turf. But he may have a point. Some people will want an all-singing, all-dancing iPad; others may prefer a simpler, cheaper device dedicated to reading. Sony’s plan, according to Mr Haber, is to focus on such dedicated (he prefers the term “immersive”) reading devices. “Companies will do different things,” he says. “Our focus is immersive reading, so that you forget you have a device in your hand.”
Mr Haber does not want to attack the iPad by name, but there are implied criticisms of it in his defence of the merits of dedicated, E Ink devices. The fact that you can’t watch movies or check Twitter on a Sony Reader becomes a feature, not a bug, because it means you won’t be distracted. Mr Haber says Sony’s readers are “designed to be lightweight, to fit into your hand, compared with a device that may be heavier or larger”. We all know which device he means: many people’s first reaction to the iPad is surprise at how heavy it is. Not everyone likes backlit LCD displays; to some users it feels like “a flashlight in the eye”, says Mr Haber, and they may well prefer an E Ink display. (He didn’t mention it, but a recent study suggests that staring at the glowing screens of computers and other devices late at night can interfere with circadian rhythms and disrupt sleep patterns.) And Sony’s model when it comes to selling e-books is not “one store to one device, but access in general”, unlike Apple’s more integrated (ie, closed) approach — though, it must be said, the availability of multiple e-reader applications on the iPad means it is arguably the most versatile e-reader around. Overall, Mr Haber concludes, the fundamental difference between dedicated e-readers and “multifunctional backlit LCD devices” (ie, iPads) is what he calls “cosiness” — and a larger, heavier device is “not cosy”.
Whether you regard an iPad as cosier than a Sony Reader, or vice versa, is a matter of taste. (The iPad is a great couch-surfing machine, which counts as cosy in my book.) But it is entirely possible that as in other product categories, such as cars and mobile phones, different buyers will want different things. There has been no convergence on a single “best” design for cars or mobile phones; instead there are lots of products aimed at particular types of users with different needs and budgets. In addition to dedicated e-readers with black-and-white screens on the one hand, and general-purpose tablet computers on the other, there may be room for products aimed specifically at business people (Plastic Logic is trying this), students, children or old people. (It will be interesting to see what Amazon does next with the Kindle; the fact that it is encouraging people to write apps for it suggests that the firm plans to compete more directly with the iPad and the forthcoming tablets based on Google’s Android operating system. The next Kindle is rumoured to have a colour screen, perhaps using Pixel Qi or Mirasol technology, though Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos, played down such talk yesterday.)
The demographics of e-readers are unusual. Anecdotally, I’ve been struck by the apparent popularity of the Kindle among the over-50s, who are not usually early adopters. But they are often avid readers. Mr Haber says buyers of Sony’s e-readers are disproportionately likely to be over 40 and female. “This was the age-group that was leading the shift,” he says. “It’s great because it’s new technology, and it goes to show that you don’t have to be an 18-year-old male to like technology.” But the signs are that e-readers are now appealling to more traditional (ie, younger and male) buyers. No doubt that is due, in part, to the iPad effect. But it is still unclear whether the iPad will boost sales of e-readers more broadly and, if it does, whether buyers will favour dedicated devices as the “cosier” option, as Mr Haber contends.