Switched On: E-readers drive to digital distraction

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Spring proved cruel for the sparse population of products that combine e-paper and LCD displays. Startup Entourage announced that it was discontinuing its Edge dual-screen e-reader / tablet combo. And then Barnes & Noble closed the book on the original Nook to introduce a successor that had only one screen and one button. In doing so, it leaped over (or is that under?) even the Kindle's minimalism.

E-readers have followed an unusual demographic adoption curve for a consumer electronics product. The first buyers were, like those of many other tech products, more affluent, but the majority of them were also older and female in keeping with the book-buying habits of physical books. They were attracted to the crisp display and high contrast of e-paper displays. And many were (and continue to be) attracted by a focused product that allowed them to concentrate on the text without distraction of other media type, the Web or thousands of apps.

While smartphones have cannibalized a chunk of the low-end digital camera market -- leaving enthusiasts to seek out digital SLRs and mirrorless camera systems like the Panasonic Lumix G and Sony NEX cameras -- tablets are paradoxically pushing some early adopters toward a product that does less.

Of course, many readers of digital books are indeed interested in all manner of multimedia. In addition to a wide array of tablets, the Nook Color addressed those consumers, but left the original dual-screened Nook looking a bit long in the tooth. With the new Nook, Barnes & Noble covers the key features of WiFi and a touchscreen, and continues to abstain from cellular to keep prices lower and create a nearly distraction-free reading experience. But Barnes & Noble thus gives up something in the new Nook, too -- a target platform for its budding third-party development efforts.

As today's inherent compromises between e-paper and LCDs continue to fade, we will see displays that combine the sunlight readability and long battery life of the former with the color and video support of the latter. At first, these will cost more than today's monochrome e-paper screens, but over time they will be suitable for inexpensive e-readers such as the Nook and Kindle.

As these the less versatile generation of displays fades away, so too may the idea of a product focused purely on reading. Returning to the digital camera market, advanced amateurs and pros long snubbed the video capture capabilities in point-and-shoot digital cameras in the name of a pure and undistracted experience of capturing superior still images. Visit a high-end photography conference, though, such as PhotoPlus Expo in New York, and you'll see that many pros embracing video capture, and that their assignments are increasingly requiring it.

Just as these extra features have not made for worse images, do-it-all e-readers haven't -- and won't -- mean the end of a pure reading experience. Limited technology, though, may no longer help one focus. Just as for the passionate pro photographer who must now decide when to capture a still versus video, the exercise of electronic book reading will require the exercise of self-discipline.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.