SHIFT: How e-readers can succeed

Ever since I first saw the original Sony Reader — wow, almost three years ago now — the product line has impressed me, technologically. From the E Ink screen that resembles paper to the extremely lightweight design, Sony had seemed to think of everything. I was sure it would be a hit. It wasn't.

Then when Amazon came out with its Kindle e-reader, it added something new to the mix: wireless technology so you could download books wherever you are. Cool! It has to be a hit now. Amazon's mum on the number of e-readers its sold, but considering in the year since its debut I've seen someone reading one on the New York City subway exactly once, I think it's fairly safe to say the Kindle hasn't lit the world on fire.

What's the problem with e-readers? It's not like people don't read — when I saw that guy reading the Kindle there were at least a dozen people within 10 feet with their noses in books, newspapers and magazines. Why haven't e-readers replaced them? My theory on why e-readers aren't taking the world by storm after the Continue jump, and how they can improve to become the next "It" gadget.

E-Readers: The Future
Better technology is only half the answer. There are a number of upgrades that e-readers could use in order for them to become a true alternative to print, but they're well on their way. E-readers are already lightweight and easy to use. The E Ink they use in lieu of LCDs does a great job of simulating the look of a piece of paper, and since they don't emit light, they save on power, too.

They could do better, though. Job 1: color. Although Sony says it's "years" away from coming to market with a color e-reader, the slow march of progress is inevitable — color readers will eventually happen. Better wireless abilities are a must as well. Although the Kindle has an always-on network connection, improvements to the speed and coverage are needed, and there should be the option of switching to a much-faster Wi-Fi connection where it's available. Improved memory and battery life will make these things more feasible. And while we're talking about upgrades, a softer, flexible screen would make it possible to create an e-reader that's double sided, just like a real book.

Forget Books. Periodicals Are the True E-Reader Market
The big thing holding back e-readers is that they're focused on the wrong market, namely books. Books are a tough technology to improve upon. They're super-simple, require no power, are very durable (provided they're bound well), look great on a shelf, and are extremely collectable. E-readers take a distant second place to books in every single one of those categories. Anyone making e-readers should move the focus away from replicating books and move to the real market: periodicals.

E-readers excel in one key area that books don't: their content is updatable. For anyone interested in news, this is the killer app. With rare exceptions, people don't save or collect newspapers — the vast majority of newsprint is trashed or recycled. Eliminating the pile of paper, the going to the porch in your bathrobe, and the ink that gets on your hands would a big upgrade for a lot of people.

Of course, e-readers don't replicate the newspaper experience fully — yet. You can't browse in the same way you can on big broadsheet pages, though flexible screens will help. You don't get the same layout, though using PDF files (or something like them) will help. You don't get color, but you will… someday (see above).

Ultimately, though, people get newspapers for the information, and the more timely the better. With its wireless tech, Amazon's Kindle is one of the only e-readers that enables people to have The New York Times waiting for them on their kitchen table every morning. So it's a mystery to me why Amazon lists only 28 newspapers on its Kindle site (Wikipedia lists hundreds, if not thousands, in existence, and that's just the U.S.). Even worse, there are just 18 magazines listed. I think I have more on my coffee table at home. And what about the alternative weeklies, like the Village Voice or the Hartford Advocate?

iTunes for Newspapers
OK, I get it. No one has united newspaper and magazine publishers behind a central marketplace where they can sell their content digitally. No one has standardized all the formats, the functionality, and the pricing. In short, no one has created the iTunes for periodicals. And maybe outside of Steve Jobs and Apple, no one could.

But that needs to happen for e-readers to truly succeed. People love reading books, but the hurdle e-readers can never jump is that people also love having books. Not so with periodicals. The e-reader that becomes a mass-market device will be the one whose maker creates the perfect digital newsstand, the iTunes experience for newspapers and magazines. Sony, Amazon — you'd better do this soon, lest Apple do it for you.