Don't Write Off Ereaders Just Yet

This picture, taken at the R&D labs of the New York Times (featured on the TOC blog), seems to be saying that far from reading devices going away, they are now on an unstoppable trajectory: investment, diversification, rapid innovation, everything is there. Yet in many ways, other than the blip that was the Kindle 2.0 launch, 2009 has conspicuously not been about the device. Think of Amazon's recent announcement of an iPhone app; the meteoric rise of Stanza, unbowed by the Amazon play; the emergence of GoSpoken as reading software in there with the carriers and a range of smartphones. Think of the solid sales of the Nintendo DS reading package. This has been a year when buzzwords like mobile and twitter have taken on all comers and seen them left in the graveyard of 2008, not even worthy of a # tag.

New displays, new ways of reading. E-ink seems a remnant of a digital past as much as the future.

However I think we shouldn't take our eyes off the reading device, and that this will still be a major, if not the only, focus of digital reading.

Why?

Because reading experiences on readers are very good and replicating that on other formats is extremely difficult. As the NYT pictures shows, this is a very healthy space.

There is a problem though. For reading devices to break out into the mainstream, to force their way back into the conversation, they have to become wildly desirably and also achieved a heightened simplicity. This might be sumamrised by saying people need to want them, and then need to be able to use them to a degree that has hitherto not been the case. I want / I can.

Two examples: Apple and Google. When Google first launched the general search engine strategy was to be an overall web portal, with search as one feature amongst a large and complex content menu. Google zoned into search and just search; their design was clean, focused, easy to use, without distraction and solely consumer centric in it's layout and absence of extraneous content. The number of words on the homepage was, and as far as I know is, ruthlessly limited to avoid clutter and confusion. You can say Google's growth was driven by any number of factors but only a fool would suggest this effortless interface wasn't one of them.

Again, the iPod had a phenomenally intuitive control, especially given the bemusing buttons and rollers of it's competitors (and I should know as I held out for some time, before caving in with a combination of resignation and glee). Characteristic of it's manufacturer this no doubt has been an enormous boon to the device. Beyond that though the now iconic look from legendary Apple designer Jonathan Ive was what made us want one. The iPod wasn't just useful, fun etc- it was jaw grindingly desirable.

Usability and covetability. Two principles for world domination.

What strikes me as being the interesting parallel with these two, aside from the the slightly obvious observations just outlined, is that both came from behind. They did not have first mover advantage. Instead they used these design concepts to leapfrog into pole. Indeed, it could be argued that precisely not coming first was an advantage in that it allowed the pair to fine tune their product and get these two crucial areas right.

Going back to the ereader then, I get the sense that we are on the cusp of when useability and covetability collide, uniting in a glorious burst of reading device nirvana. Ok maybe not quite, but once those user interfaces have been tweaked, and once someone like Ive gets there hands on a reading device, they will be back.

Don't write off e-ink yet.