E-Readers: The New Tablet?

A funny thing happened on the way to the e-reader revolution. First, Sony released its e-reader to little fanfare, then in late 2007 Amazon dropped a bomb with the Kindle, a standout not only for its clean design but also for its content distribution model. Since then, we've had one Kindle refresh, the maxi-Kindle DX, a wave of new Sony devices and perhaps dozens of other released or teased e-reader devices from a range of small specialist companies from China to the Netherlands. 

Most of the e-readers on the market are very much "me too" devices, many built around e-paper technology from one company, E-Ink, with varying levels of thinness or ease of use at the interface level. The two big name devices, Kindle and two upcoming releases from the Sony line, feature wireless connectivity. The Plastic Logic e-reader, promised for next year, will take thin to a new level, and several companies are said to be cracking the color e-paper issue.

Will this new category of devices extend beyond being a functional e-book reader? Quite possibly. Already some e-reader makers are extending beyond the consumer or business book market to load the devices with other kinds of reading material. A while back company called ARINC loaded the iRex iLiad with navigation charts and other flight manuals for pilots. One can imagine similar applications for, say, architects and construction teams, able to work from the same set of plans, digitally updated, without having to haul a laptop or, of course, paper. Likewise, service technicians might save on weight and the abuse they give even ruggedized laptops by passing out e-readers with technical manuals on board. Watching my cable installer recently with his Acer Aspire netbook, he did very little actual computing, mainly invoice generation and order updating. Give that e-reader a wireless print driver and off you go.

Add color and video-capable refresh rates, as startup PixelQi promises to do, and, while the big PC companies are fussing about whether they can make their laptops in tablets, cheaper e-reader-based tablets will appear from below, costing less than $300 and providing suitable utility as network-connected tablets. Are they tablet killers? Hardly. Just another class of connected device, living alongside mobile Internet devices (MIDs) and below full-fledged tablet computers, with no browser and only appropriate apps for collaborative reading or document markup, great for professional and educational environments but without the unnecessary extra software baggage (Sept 4: and maybe a little VoIP to boot). While everyone is looking for more computing and functionality crammed into a thin, sleek tablet, e-readers might provide a better option while no one is looking.