Or a Life of Technophilia
Convergent vs dedicated is an endless question when we talk about digital devices. Specialization or jack-of-all-trades. Roy Tennant said recently that the single-purpose e-book reader was “dead, dead, dead.” Convergent devices are often seen as “killers” of the specialized. But over the past 10 years I’ve found that not to be the case.
I’ve been hunting the convergent device since I first started shopping for a PDA in 1999. I didn’t want a Palm device of the time, because I wanted to sync and use my Windows Office documents. I also thought it would be nice to store and play my mp3 files. It took a few months of comparison shopping. By then the Compaq (later the HP) Ipaq came on the market as the most powerful PDA available. I grabbed one up and even moved to the second generation model.
Before long it was clear that the iPAQ didn’t really do everything I wanted. I was still carrying a cellpone, and wishing I had a digital camera. I did read books on the iPAQ, many books. It was, in truth, kind of a crappy experience. I used Microsoft Reader. Nice interface, but not really enough screen real estate to come up with the ideal combination of font size, line length, and page size. (Those things are perfectly realized in most print books.) After my last iPAQ began to have battery problems, I switched to a Treo 700w (Windows Mobile model, so I still wasn’t a real Palm customer).
Now I had a PDA, cellphone, and digital camera all in one device. Life was good. Again, I used Microsoft Reader to read books, but, in fact, there was even less screen real estate than on the iPAQ. I read, but it wasn’t good. I took a lot of photos with the Treo. It was handy for that, but all in all, the photos were really quite bad. I’ve since purchased two digital cameras: a Nikon Coolpix L3 (compact point-and-shoot) and a Nikon D40 (low-end digital SLR).
I think cameras are a good example of how the do-everything device doesn’t always win. Virtually all cellphones now days have a built-in camera. Yet people continue to buy single-purpose digital cameras. That is because they have functions and features that are difficult to cram into the small space of an all-in-one device. And people sometimes want to take a picture that is better than the fog and blur of a cameraphone photo. Performance matters. Video cameras like the Flip also continue to be successful despite the ability of many phones to do video. Televisions are another single-purpose device that continue to sell, even though people can watch TV on their computer. A big television screen is better.
After my cellphone reading experience, I began to think about what kind of computer I could get that would function as an e-book reader. A laptop didn’t really seem like the right thing for the job. Oddly, two solutions came available in the same year. The Sony Reader and Microsoft’s secret new tablet form factor the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC). I got my library employer at the time to buy a Sony as a test platform for the staff and I bought a UMPC myself, the Samsung Q1. That’s the Q1 pictured at the upper left of this post, being used in e-book mode. I bought it specifically because I thought other tablet PCs might be too large and bulky to function as an e-book.
The Sony Reader, you’d have to say, is a single-purpose device. The Q1, because it is a Windows PC, is a convergent device. I did a bit of a product comparison on Google video back in the day. In truth, they both function nicely as e-book readers. Sony works quite well with their own proprietary format and with EPUB files. The Q1 displays PDF better than the Sony, and can work with other file formats that are more at home on a PC.
The Sony clearly is not a multifunction device and it has some drawbacks as an e-reader: poor typographic versatility, lack of network connectivity (solved in newer models), no color. All of those will likely be improved as e-readers mature. The Q1 has problems as both an e-reader and a convergent device: backlit screen, which produces eye strain, poor battery life, lack of multi-touch screen. Text input with a stylus is not really a very pleasant operation. The fact that tablets have never really taken off suggests that people like keyboard input for many things. Most people who have a tablet (even the convertible models with a keyboard) probably have some other computer.
Lots of people are eagerly awaiting the new (fabled?) Apple tablet and calling it a “Kindle Killer.” But tablets have been around since 2001, well before the Kindle. Is there any reason to believe the Apple entry in the field will be any more murderous? Is there reason to believe that people will give up all their other computing devices to adopt the Apple tablet as their convergent device? I don’t believe so. It too will be a special-purpose tool.
The new (but not yet released) Microsoft Courier tablet model looks very promising as an e-book reader as well. (I want one!) Its two facing screens look very book-like. It looks like it might be a very nice enterprise tool, but enterprise tools don’t always appeal to every sector of the market.
Lots of elements figure in the success of a product in the market. (Something Tennant eludes to in his article.) Price-point, style, and features battle it out for the heart and pocketbook of each individual consumer. Some people want more functions for $400 than they get with an e-book reader. Many folks, on the other hand, don’t want to (or can’t) pay the $1,000 or more pricetag on a more powerful device. I would be very surprised if either the Applet tablet or Microsoft Courier enter the market at less than $900. That alone will make them specialty devices. I’d also be surprised if either has the battery life of a Sony or Kindle. If you want to spend a day untethered from the power grid reading a book, I don’t think these devices will get you there. In short, I don’t see these devices being so market dominant that they drive e-book readers from existence. I’d be willing to bet (a cup of coffee) that Sony, Amazon, and several of the existing manufacturers will still be making reading devices in 10 years. (I find some irony in Tennant’s post when he says single-purpose readers are “dead, dead, dead” and links to three of his previous posts going back over a year… and yet e-book readers are still around!)
A lot of the features the e-book doomsday folks admire in a tablet are desirable to have in a reader: connectivity, integration with our other networked tools, note-taking, writing, and other computing functions. We shouldn’t have to give those up because we now want to read a book. But many features of an e-reader are desirable too: non-backlit screen, long battery life, book-like form factor. When we talk about convergence, I don’t think we are talking about one form “killing” the other. We’re not talking about death, we’re talking about merger or reproduction even. I think there will be devices in the future that perform the functions of both the tablet PC and e-reader, but it won’t be because one form killed the other. One could just as well talk about the telephone being dead, since most phones now do something more than make calls, but we never talk about the PDA or the camera “killing” the phone. (Ironically, you can still buy a phone that does nothing but make calls.)
I think there will be many sectors of the computing market that will have continuing success. Three types of devices I see hanging around for a long time: a multi-function communicator that fits in a pocket or purse, a larger device I can do more with but still move around with readily (tablets, netbooks, AND e-readers), and a workhorse that has a lot more power and storage than any of the mobile devices. Not everyone will have each of these, but they don’t really compete with one another either.
The e-book reader is clearly a specialty device, if for no other reason than not all people read books now. But the people who do read won’t be giving it up any time soon. Whatever Steve Jobs thinks, there is still a significant market for books. Many of those readers are still very attached to print books, but as the market pushes publishers to adopt e-books as a viable format and the reading devices themselves improve, many readers will happily make the transition to e-books. Many of those readers won’t find it necessary to have an e-reader that can create spreadsheets, or send a text message, or take a photograph. They will be content to have a device that just lets them read books.
I should say that I now own an iPhone, a Kindle (1st generation), and a netbook (Asus Eee PC). The iPhone is the best convergent device I’ve ever owned. It does a great job of functioning as a PDA, keeping me connected with my social media, and snapping the odd photo.
I knew that I wanted an e-book reader of my own after using the Sony Reader at my place of employment. Now that I have changed jobs, it’s good that I don’t have to fret about leaving the Sony behind. The Kindle is functionally pretty much the same as the Sony, with the added benefit of wireless connectivity.
Because I can buy Kindle books on the iPhone, I can read anything in my collection on either the Kindle or the iPhone. The iPhone, however, suffers, in my opinion, from the same problem as all other cellphone-sized devices: not enough screen space to create a truly enjoyable reading experience. It is handy to have access to the collection to read a bit when I don’t have the Kindle nearby, but it doesn’t replace the Kindle at all.
The netbook, well, it functions primarily at a mobile outpost for the home computer. It doesn’t have the functionality to really be an e-book reader. This is mainly because I can’t rotate the screen to read in a portrait kind of mode. In landscape mode the screen is too short to display a page-sized window. Some applications like the Adobe Reader have rotating ability, but many don’t. Even though the rotated screen is a good size for reading, having the keyboard hanging out there to the side doesn’t really aid the reading function.
So, this post has been like a catalog of all the gadgets I’ve bought over the years. I have had an urge to buy devices that do more than one thing. There is, however, a limit to that convergence. Maybe one day we’ll have devices that perform all functions equally well and still fit into a small package. Until that time, I anticipate that people will buy whatever device best performs the task at hand.