The bearable lightness of tab-lites

November 23, 2011
As the old saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But fixing something seems to be what Amazon and Barnes & Noble are doing with new tablets which burnish their stable of e-readers beyond e-ink and into an entirely new arena still dominated by the iPad.

In recent weeks we saw the unveiling of Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet, a faster/lighter/smarter version of the discounted, year-old Nook Color. With the high-end becoming even higher it’s now possible to pay as little as $80 for Amazon’s entry-level Kindle e-reader and as much as $250 for a Nook Tablet, with plenty of other options in between.

In other words, e-readers have become so widely accepted that there is room for flavors and price points to be all over the map, just like there are a multitude of iPods when there was once only one.

But does the reading public really need what isn’t so much an improvement on the e-ink reader but an attempt to eat a bit of Apple’s lunch? Is it confusing — or clarifying — to have tablet readers from two of the major innovators in the e-ink revolution?

Jeff Bezos made it clear in an interview with Wired that, as far as he is concerned, the Amazon Fire tablet is clarifying. “They’re going to buy both,” he told Steven Levy, when asked whether his customers would favor the e-ink reader he had previously evangelized to the exclusion of all else. A year earlier he told Levy that tablets and e-ink readers preached to non-overlapping choirs. “It’s a different audience,” Bezos said. “We’re designing for people who want to read.”

That was then. This is now.

Ok, developing relatively inexpensive tablets as e-readings devices with benefits isn’t necessarily a bad idea when the undisputed leader is $500 and, not counting used or late models, isn’t likely to be sold for less any time soon. After all, nobody has yet to come up with something that can last one round against Apple’s tablet, much less be considered an iPad killer.

The latest casualty — you had to see this coming — is the $200 Playbook. That would be the $500 Research in Motion Blackberry Playbook, now deeply discounted, at least for the holidays. Hewlett-Packard also wanted to take the world by storm with the TouchPad, but that device’s 49 days on the market made Kim Kardashian’s marriage seem like a lifetime commitment. And let’s not even gently taunt Motorola, whose Xoom sold fewer units in Q3 than Apple sold iPads each day in that reporting period.

There is a reason why all these companies are trying to make a splash in Apple’s swimming pool even if it seems in vain — the tablet market that Apple discovered is huge and will only get bigger. These companies have no choice but to dive in. The delicious irony is that the most credible iPad competitors are coming not from computer companies, but retailers who understand that it’s not about the device but what the device can deliver.

My own experience with these two tablets over the past few days has reinforced my initial impression that they do not represent the next great leap in portable electronic readers. Neither are they likely to give Apple agita. In a world where tablets have captured the public’s imagination it might seem strange if the e-reading powers didn’t add them to their lines.

But it’s a potentially dangerous game. If tablets are marketed as high-end reading devices, then the real breakthrough technology that was e-ink gets sullied by what is, frankly, a relatively inferior tablet experience. And if they are positioned as inexpensive slates — oh yeah, they have apps for reading books, magazine and newspapers, um, just like the iPad —  then these companies are putting more than a bit of reputation on the line as they hurtle down a highway already littered with the wrecks of other tablet wannabes.

It’s either a big mistake or an incremental side business, but I don’t see how these tab-lites — or is tween-lets a better description? — become the natural successor to e-ink.

The other irony, of course, is that they may be all about becoming not the third device — the thing you’d maybe consider carrying as well as a smartphone and tablet — but your household’s second tablet, instead of another iPad. Now, that would be amazing.

2 comments

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I’m sure the geeks will stick with Apple, but Apple doesn’t have millions of books for immediate delivery (many of which are free), the most music and movies by far, etc., etc..

I think the author of this piece missed Mr. Jeff Bezos’ main points. First of all, it’s a big market, and there´s enough room for all. Secondly, if Apple sells an I-Pad, that´s good news for Amazon, because this will probable result in increased internet sales for Amazon. Thirdly, if Amazon sells a pad computer, that’s not necessarily bad news for Apple, because the majority of Kindle Fire buyers would never pay Apple prices for a pad computer. However. it´s probably bad news for Microsoft, as the Kindle Fire’s browser and silk operating system are definitly superior products, and when you buy a Google operating system and browser, it’s not only cheaper and better than the microoft software, but you get a free computer along with it (at least, that’s one way of looking at it).

I love my Kindle so much that I never carry with me for fear it may be lost, swiped, or damaged. Now that I’ve bought a Kindle Fire, I can carry it with me on buses, in restaurants, etc., to read the 200+ books I’ve gotten so far from Amazon, and if something happens to my Kindle Fire, I wiil just buy another one.

Posted by gAnton | Report as abusive

I think all three devices are the solution although not carried at the same time. My Sony Reader is mostly a stay at home and is used for the heavy duty reading that makes the eInk screen a blessing for the eyes. iPad goes traveling with all its great ability to stay connected. And its screen is OK for the light reading of a trip: travel guide and bedtime novel. And of course the phone all the time.

I think B&N and Amazon have to be careful marketing. A lot of people who would be so pleased with just an eInk reader are going to buy something they will not like as much because it is the “best” or more exepensive one.

Posted by winc06 | Report as abusive