E-readers like the original Kindle and the original Nook did a pretty good job of replicating the experience of reading a printed page — and that was one of their big selling points. When Amazon introduced the first edition of the Kindle late in 2007, the company went out of its way to emphasize the device’s “paper-like” screen.
The black-and-white E Ink display, CEO Jeff Bezos said in a marketing video, “doesn’t look like any computer screen you’ve ever seen. It looks like paper.” The point was underscored in the video by some best-selling writers, who praised the Kindle’s resemblance to a book. “It looks like ink,” said Michael Lewis. “It’s not like reading a computer screen. The genius of the thing is you don’t notice that much difference between reading on the screen and reading in a book.” The Kindle was presented as a specialized gadget, designed specifically for displaying the text of books and other written works. “Amazon Kindle is for reading,” Bezos declared. In designing it, he said, the company “focused on simplicity and making reading as great as it can be.”
The “paper-like” pitch was intended to encourage book buyers to give e-books a try. And it worked. But there was reason to believe, even back in 2007, that the specialized e-reader was doomed. Single-purpose computers, particularly networked ones, have a hard time competing against general-purpose computers once the more versatile machines incorporate the more limited ones’ specialized functionality. A single-purpose device tends, in other words, to morph from a piece of dedicated hardware into a simple application running alongside other applications. Multitasking beats unitasking. Amazon itself, with its ambition to be not just a digital book seller but a digital media conglomerate, had a clear incentive to steadily push its customers away from e-readers and toward multipurpose devices able to display all the forms of media that it sells. Even when Bezos was stressing the original Kindle’s purity as a reading device, one had the suspicion that his ultimate ambition had little to do with replicating the simplicity and calm of ink on paper. The original Kindle was a bit of a Trojan horse.
Now we have evidence from the market that the specialized e-reader is indeed a transitional device. Sales of e-readers have already peaked. Last year, 23 million of them were sold. This year, sales have plummeted an estimated 36 percent, to just 15 million units, according to market researcher IHS. By 2016, IHS foresees e-reader sales dwindling to just 7 million units. Displacing the e-reader is, of course, the multipurpose tablet. As e-reader sales have fallen, tablet sales have exploded. About 140 million tablets will be sold this year, and the number is projected to approach 200 million in 2013. That’s despite the fact that tablets are considerably more expensive than e-readers. “Last year it seemed that the market might be big enough for both dedicated e-readers and tablets,” observes Technology Review‘s Mike Orcutt. “But now it appears the versatility of tablets is winning out.”
That also means that, when it comes to the reading of e-books, the once-vaunted “paper-like” screen is losing out to the computer screen, and the simplicity of a specialized reading device is losing out to the complexities and distractions of a general-purpose, networked computer. If book readers continue to shift from the page to the screen, as a new Pew study suggests is likely, the text of books will end up being displayed in a radically different setting from that of the printed or scribal page that has defined the book for the first 2,000 years of its existence. That doesn’t mean that readers won’t be able to immerse themselves in books anymore. The technology of a book is not rigidly deterministic. The skill of the writer still matters, as does the desire of readers to get lost in stories and arguments. But the importance of the technology in shaping reading habits (and publishing decisions), particularly over the long run, shouldn’t be discounted. If the technology of the page provided a barrier against the distractions of everyday life, encouraging the focus that is the essence of deep reading, the computer screen does the opposite. It inundates us with distractions, encourages the division of attention. It fights deep reading rather than promoting it.
For the last few years, we could tell ourselves that, as Michael Lewis put it, there wouldn’t be “that much difference between reading on the screen and reading in a book.” We’re not going to be able to tell ourselves that much longer. Whatever the future of the e-book may be, it seems pretty certain that it won’t be “paper-like.”