E-book readers: will secondary features win consumers' hearts or leave them cold?

How many e-book readers do you think are out there right now for you to choose from? If you did a little digging, I bet you’d find 50 or so. Maybe 10 really worth checking out. But right now is a bit of a weird period in e-reader history. The Kindle cemented e-readers in the consumer headspace, catapulting them from weirdo alternative technology to mainstream gadget. That’s what the iPad threatens to do with tablets — we’ll see about that. But the Kindle and the iPad are two important forces in the current e-reader wars; the question, upon the answer of which depends the success of many a device, is whether “bonus” features like second screens and weird form factors in e-readers will be enough to differentiate them from the high-profile devices pressing them on both flanks?

Take a second to imagine it as a battle between three armies. On one side of the field is the steadfast Kindle Corps, seasoned and numerous. On the other is the glorious Apple Brigade, untried in e-reader combat but veteran of other battles. In between them is a menagerie of Sony, Asus, and miscellaneous independent mercenaries, bristling with foreign and barbaric weapons, gathering together only because they don’t stand a chance by themselves. In real life, they are not gathered at all, but that doesn’t work with the metaphor. Maybe they have a non-aggression pact or something, I don’t know. Regardless, the battle is about to begin.

See, the vast majority of e-readers were designed as a response to the Kindle, not to tablet computers, which may or may not obsolete e-readers altogether. It’s a bad situation: the whole time you’re improving your competitor’s product, someone else is skipping your entire device class on the grounds that it will be made ridiculous by their awesome gadget. Some of the special features developed to combat the Kindle will stay, and some won’t live to see their own first birthday.

Personally, I think e-readers will stick around next to tablet computers, since it’s just as much of a problem for a device to do too much as it is for it to do too little. You may not want your e-mail and browsing device to be the same as your reading device. And of course the Kindle isn’t the end of all readers: the generation currently being released has among its members a few interesting features… and a few duds. Let’s take a look.

The nook is what people think of when this type of e-reader is brought up, and for good reason. It’s a sexy little bugger. Now, compare it to its rivals: the upcoming Spring Design Alex and the Entourage Edge. What do you see? A larger secondary screen. Better, right? Unfortunately, the secondary screen does two things that pretty much sabotage the idea.

First, it takes away from the readable area (the main screen); 90% of the time you are using an e-reader, you are reading. That is the device’s stated purpose. When you put in a secondary screen, you are subtracting from the functional part of your device. I think it’s an unstated but obvious goal of design that your device should primarily do what it does.

Second, it implies uselessness on the part of the e-ink screen for UI stuff, and suggests to the consumer “If you want to do stuff other than read e-books, you’re better off with a device that’s all secondary screen.” It’s like admitting a strike against your product before the consumer even sees it. Bad idea.

Not to mention having a color LCD screen raises the cost of the device considerably. It is for these reasons that I think the secondary screen is a one-generation fluke, not likely to be seen again after 2010.

There actually aren’t many that fall under this category, but they are on their way, and I believe this is something that will stick around. Depending on the technology used (Mirasol, pigment pores), there may be no downside to having a color screen other than cost. That is to say that reflectivity, weight, responsiveness, contrast, and resolution will remain the same, except now you have color (however washed out in these first devices).

As I said, there are practically none of these devices on the market right now. Asus has an OLED-based one it wants to push, but at six inches it’s not very tempting, and of course it’ll be expensive. And it’s more of a tablet anyway, so it gets ignored. But you can bet that Amazon, Sony, and every other company is pushing display R&D like none other trying to get color e-ink to work for a decent price. We’ll probably have a few announcements this year, but no products until next CES.

On the other hand, we already have Pixel Qi, which may beg the question of color e-ink before the latter is even viable. On that front, we have the popular Notion Ink Adam, demoed here, which is one of the few devices which genuinely falls under both the e-reader and tablet categories. Personally I’m bullish about it, though I’m afraid it may crumple under the combined pressure of Amazon and Apple, both of which will be gunning for it.

At any rate, color is here to stay. Whether it’s an unexploited e-ink technology or a hybrid like Pixel Qi, you better believe that color will huge in the next year. Not only does it open up capability for running some applications, but it also lets the device and creator tap into the huge academic book market, which needs color. Believe me, I wouldn’t have passed my Neuroanatomy classes with a black and white textbook.

Are you kidding me? Almost every interactive device in the world is going to be touchable by the end of 2010. Any e-readers that don’t have this feature by the holidays are going to be laughed at long and hard. Touchscreens you can write on are going to be key as well; if your e-reader can replace the “back of the napkin” sketches, diagrams, and calculations you do already, then hell, why not?

The Entourage Edge needs another mention here, since it has that book-like format, but as I noted before, that actually ends up being a weakness. You’re splitting your functionality and essentially the user can only use half the device at any given time, and is all the while thinking “Man, I wish the other half of this thing didn’t exist right now.” The Courier, which obviously is not e-reader but tablet, solves this by having both sides active at all times. Not possible for the Edge.

Here’s a tough one: the Samsung E6. Its slider form factor reminds one of their slider phones — this thing in particular. But there are plenty of objections here. You see it and immediately think, “an e-reader with moving parts? No thanks.” I mean really, simplicity is key with a device that’s meant to replace a paperback. And anyone will be able to tell you’re doing something wrong when you need a whole huge sliding mechanism just to reveal a D-pad and a couple buttons that could easily have been put where the Samsung logo is. And the speakers are on it too! What the hell, guys? Well, we can all agree that the E6 is going to sell about three units. I think sliders are out.

But what about a sliding QWERTY keyboard? I haven’t seen one of those yet, but I’m afraid it might have the same issues as the E6. Besides, better displays means better on-screen keyboards. These things aren’t meant for typing anyway. Leave it to tablet computers to figure this out.

What about ultra-slim? Hey, why not? My favorite e-book reader out there is the Plastic Logic Que, for no other reason than that it’s slim and handsome, just like me. Seriously though, a touchscreen (however primitive) and a thin, refined design will sell against the most robust competitors, and the Que is refined as all hell (though sadly, delayed). If someone really and truly just wants to read books and magazines on an e-ink screen, they don’t want or need anything else, but they do care whether it looks like they’re reading a gigantic BlackBerry or not. Slim, buttonless designs will stay. You can be sure the next Kindle will have one (though will likely keep its signature side buttons).

Flexibility? The Skiff is working at this, and it’s something e-ink and (kind of) OLEDs are uniquely capable of at the moment, but I get the feeling it’s going to end up on the low-end devices. See, as long as a consumer is paying $400 or so for a device like this, I think that for the time being, they are going to want build quality that suggests that. They want glass, metal, rigidity, sturdiness, all that. Until you can actually roll or fold up your e-reader, I don’t see this being a big selling point. But don’t count it out completely; this feature isn’t dead, it’s just sleeping.

Another tough one. I don’t have a problem with Android on e-readers — it adds a little credibility somehow, and I’m sure there are going to be a few apps (if there aren’t already) that are meant to run only on e-readers, for customizing this or that, or finding free books. If Android is to be the de facto OS of e-readers, so be it. I feel that Chrome OS will be too much for an e-reader, so it doesn’t pose a threat, nor any of the other mobile or free OSes. They could just as easily run a different Linux-based OS, but Android has name recognition and probably some handy 3G and mobile wi-fi stacks.

There is the issue, however, that in some devices Android does more to show what the device is not capable of than what it is. Look at this little thing from Gigabyte. The OS looks completely out of place there, and is a mess to navigate.

As for Apps in general, well, I think we’ll see a basic stable of apps develop — things that are applicable to e-ink screens, probably features that the creators should have included. Most e-readers don’t have the kind of displays or usage patterns as other Android devices, so lots of the Marketplace will be pointless. And as for other apps, I guarantee anything worth getting will be integrated into the second generation of the reader as a native function. Color screens and better responsiveness might change this (as would a Pixel Qi rout) but for now I’m saying Apps aren’t going to win any battles. Besides, Apple’s got them licked there.

It should be noted that there are plenty of perfectly nice-looking e-book readers out there that are not “special” in any way. Look at this Asus one. Doesn’t it look nice? Yes. But the competition will bury it unless it’s stupid cheap. The Kindle clones will disappear because the vanilla Kindle form factor and feature set will start to show its age to casual consumers this year, especially as alternative and open book stores begin to proliferate (options!) and alternative e-readers penetrate the collective attention bubble. And of course you can expect a totally new device from Amazon this year as well, though they got a bit of a late start.

And what will be the effect of the iPad on all this? I don’t want to say much on this, because there’s still a lot to be learned about that device. I said earlier that e-readers will exist alongside tablets for some time, and I stand by that. If people really like to read books on a device of this form factor, I doubt the iPad (or similar devices) will be their only device.

Personally, I’m sticking with books, and looking forward to tablets as a way to read newspapers and magazines, which obviously require color and a net connection, neither of which is a guarantee with the current or impending generation of e-readers. I’ll be interested to see how my predictions fare against reality, but I think I’m on solid ground with most of them.