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Entelligence: Of ebooks and suburban moms


Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.
There was a raging debate going on last week at Engadget HQ over the role of dedicated ebook readers that spilled over on to the Engadget Show. You can watch the show here, but essentially big boss Joshua Topolsky and Paul Miller feel that the new Barnes and Noble Nook is going to be a hit -- the one machine that gets suburban moms to buy. On the other hand, Nilay Patel, rationally (as he agrees with me) says it's not going to happen and there's no mass market for dedicated ebook readers. I'm going to weigh in and say Nilay is probably right.

Now don't get me wrong, this is not entirely an integration vs. convergence story. I believe there's a market for dedicated devices: cameras have not been displaced by music phones, media players have not been displaced by music phones and ebook readers could serve bibliophiles, especially those who travel a lot. However, mobile reader apps like those from Amazon and Barnes & Noble can easily tap into more casual markets, allowing users to leverage the investment in screens they already own instead of buying a dedicated device. That's one reason why I think it has been important for Amazon and B&N to get their ebook platform onto as many devices with screens as possible, and why Sony's making a mistake by ignoring the opportunity.

There's a lot that's right with dedicated ereaders like the Nook and the Kindle, however. Yes, there could be more content available, but retailers are making sure there is enough important content -- bestsellers make a difference. It doesn't matter how good hardware is, if there's nothing to read.

There's also no PC required to use a dedicated ereader, thanks to the integrated wireless, which comes at an invisible cost to the consumers. A user has the ability to get content anywhere. Of course, this is also true on other mobile devices.

Finally, price. I love ebooks and have been reading on the go for years, but ebook pricing has been way too high until recently -- what's the difference between a "hardcover" ebook or a "paperback" one? Amazon understands this and sets prices accordingly low, but neither B&N or Sony seem to get it looking at the prices in their stores.

But fact is, none of these things are going to drive Nook sales or any other sales to the suburban mom. There's still far too much missing before ereaders become mainstream.

1. First, ereaders need to be cheaper. The current ereader price points are just way too high for devices that fundamentally only do one thing. Who on earth is going to use a Nook as an MP3 player? Sure, the Nook is great for users who travel a lot, buy a lot of books, hate carrying paper, and have a lot of discretionary income. So is the Kindle. For the mass market, however, prices have got to come way down. Suburban moms are on a budget these days.

Reading is a function that's going to get subsumed into more general purpose devices.

2. Backlighting. Yes, I know electronic ink tech doesn't lend itself well to backlighting. One of the big advantages of epaper is not needing ambient light for reading, but backlighting is important in places like bedrooms and airplanes. One more reason why I'll more likely read an ebook on an iPhone or PC than a Kindle or Nook.

3. Higher refresh rates. Electronic ink has gotten a lot faster since my first Sony Librie, but it's still not good enough and I continue to find the pageturn flash distracting. So will most mainstream users.

The Kindle and the Nook are cool. They fill a need, and if ebooks help encourage people to read more, even better. But there's difference between functionality and something that's deserving of a dedicated device, and ebook reading is a function that's going to get subsumed into other more general purpose devices. If you think your current laptop or phone isn't up to the experience, well, the next generation is around the corner. How would you feel about reading on the mythical Apple Tablet or Microsoft Courier? In the long run, that's where the mass market will be captured. Sorry, Joshua, mom's going to go to Barnes & Noble, perhaps smile at the Nook, and then buy her paperback book and get back in the minivan... at least for now.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. His weblog can be found at, and he can be emailed at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.

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