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Probably not for a long time. Tablet computers will have to compete with the following e-reader features:

  • Weight: an e-reader is light because you spend so much time holding it. Just think about what a drag large, heavy hardcover books are to deal with. One of the big advantages of e-readers is they have the same weight no matter how big the book is. Right now e-readers are too heavy (the Kindle DX weighs 18 ounces), but they are already losing weight. Unless tablets can get down to the three-to-four ounce range they won’t be acceptable for reading in the long run.
  • Battery Life: An e-reader needs a long battery life. Right now around two weeks (without running wireless) is becoming the standard. By their nature as a computer it is unlikely tablets will be able to compete here, as their charge duration will probably be measured in hours.
  • Simplicity: One of the attractive things about e-readers is how simple they are: my 80-year-old mom can’t deal with a computer, but she can use an e-reader. There are no complicated software installation and compatibility issues, no drivers, no complex peripherals. The importance of this in a broad-market consumer device shouldn’t be underestimated.
  • Cost: as e-reader prices come down they should always be less than tablet computers – at least that would seem reasonable. Some companies aren’t being as aggressive in this area as they should (listening Amazon?).
  • Service Life: Once some standards are adopted in the e-reader market it will be possible to use the same reader for years, since they are not as forcefully driven by the hardware and software industries. On the other hand, if they are cheap enough, the opposite will apply: landfills will get clogged with them as people buy them on the way to work because they forgot theirs at home.
  • Suitability: Reading is a very specific application – if computers were any good for it there wouldn’t be an e-reader market. To be so flexible, computers can’t offer the very specific features e-readers can. And because e-readers will eventually become very inexpensive we should expect the same type of market as calculators: the computer has in no sense replaced the dedicated calculator, although calculators have benefitted from computer technology.

 As a final note: never underestimate the innovating power of the porn industry. As soon as e-readers support color, synchronized stereo sound, and video, the porn pimps will support them in the same way they jumped on the Internet, and they will be driving new features for a time just as they did on the Internet. I know this isn’t the ideal way to get a mature technology into the market, but it does seem to be the way media technology works.