E-reader decline prompts user debate over e-reader vs. tablet

'I love my Kindle,' one user laments

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The prognosis for e-readers is indeed poor by 2016, when IHS said 7.1 million will ship, down 66% from the high point of 2011, when 23.2 million sold.

"Certainly e-readers will be supported two years and beyond, but with any low margin business, the number of vendors ... will be limited," Reith added.

Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble sell e-books for their e-readers, but they also sell their own tablets that can be purchased for less than $200, including the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook.

Some analysts believe that the solution is for those digital booksellers to continue to sell e-readers at bargain prices for several more years, or longer, while also enhancing tablets.

Meanwhile, textbook publishers are converting paper textbooks into e-textbooks for use on devices that schools hope will cost even less in two years than they do now. The e-textbook trend could help prolong the life of inexpensive e-readers, but school administrators will still have to decide between e-readers and low-cost tablets, analysts said.

"To be honest, we see more education investment in tablets than we do e-readers," Reith said. A trend in Asia is for schools to buy Android tablets in bulk from Chinese manufacturers for the equivalent of about $95 a device, he said.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble "will continue to go down both paths," of making e-readers and tablets to access their content, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "I don't see e-readers going away. Content is what both want to sell." Both companies will subsidize the price of content-consumption devices like e-readers to sell books, movies, TV shows and more.

What will be left in two years, and possibly much longer, is a market that still offers choice, with lower-priced e-readers (with far fewer sold than in 2011) as well as a market with a variety tablets that are lighter and feature better glare-reducing screens, analysts said.

Ultimately, users will decide which PC, tablet, or smartphone they want to get content from a vendor like Amazon, or they can get an Amazon- subsidized device at a lower cost for the same purpose," Gold said.

When it comes to ultimate technology visions, some users of tablets and e-readers believe that both devices will eventually be replaced by other technologies to come. E-readers and tablets are both "bridge" technologies connecting past computing platforms with future ones, noted reader Gerard Cerchio.

"Both will be replaced, probably with eye glasses or contacts that use any conveniently designated surface as a display," Cerchio wrote.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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