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The problem with the e-reader explosion

The glut of e-readers heading to market is liable to result in significant casualties “ on the part of both buyers and manufacturers “ when all is said and done, according to an article in the Silicone Alley Insider (reprinted from Gizmodo). Reporting on the number of Kindle and Nook knock-offs that cropped up at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, which wrapped up yesterday in Las Vegas, Wilson Rothman writes that the people who end up satisfied with their e-readers will be those who purchase a unit sold through a store they already buy books from (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) or those who buy a cheap, disposable reader with a wide range of file compatibilities, then end up pirating the books they want to read from torrent sites. Other purchasers will find to their chagrin that their new readers are incompatible with various digital rights management platforms that publishers insist on, or that they can’t import files from a Kindle or a Nook.

The innovation that made the flood of e-readers possible “ the introduction of e-ink “ is itself responsible for the current situation, writes Rothman:

But the introduction of e-ink-based readers by many big tech companies and a handful of feisty little ones threatens to sow confusion in the market place, encourage piracy, and screw over any company who gets in and then can’t really hack it against Kindle and Nook. And all of it will be a pointless exercise when long-lasting slates are a reality.

E-ink is an interim technology, a stopgap measure to keep our attention till we have full-color video tablets (slates?) whose batteries last for “days.” A flood in the market might ensure that everyone buys one by this coming Christmas, but it’ll become increasingly hard to distinguish the good from the bad, will emphasize cheap devices over quality of interface and service, and will render most people completely confused and off-put.

Whereas the Kindle vs. Nook showdown was once positioned as the VHS vs. Betamax of the e-reader technology, it now appears that a different comparison is more appropriate. Rothman points out that the number of imitation e-readers currently appearing in the marketplace more closely resemble the dozens of MP3 players that cropped up to compete with the iPod. And what happened to all of those, again?