Is the Kindle really the only e-reader that matters?

By Nathaniel Mott , written on September 3, 2013

From The News Desk

Reports of the Kindle's death have been greatly exaggerated. Reports of other e-reader's continued slide into obsolescence, however, appear to be spot-on.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that the Kindle's share of the Japanese market dwarfs that of homegrown products made by Sony and Rakuten -- not because the Kindle's competitors are technologically inferior, but because the Amazon Web Store is easier to use than Rakuten or Sony's online marketplaces.

It's true: Amazon has created a simple, easily-browsed marketplace through which consumers are able to easily purchase e-books (and televisions, and toilet paper, and anything else you might want to buy). But is the Kindle really so compelling that other companies should simply exit the e-reader market?

Research firms like IDC and iSuppli say "yes." The e-reader market is expected to decline almost 20 percent between 2013 and 2016. I'm not overly fond of nautical metaphors, but the e-reader market seems to be the Titanic, and time makes for a hell of a glacier.

Allowing one company to control an entire market, however, is the surest way to encourage so-so products that rely on incremental updates instead of compelling iterations. (When was the last time you were excited by the announcement of a new iPod?) The Kindle products are good, but they're hardly revolutionary enough for us to point at the e-reader market and say, "That's it, it's done, everyone else can go home."

Rakuten understands this better than most. The company recently announced that its Kobo e-readers would automatically sync with their owners' Pocket queues, allowing them to read articles pulled from the Web on an always-updated device with better battery life and readability than most smartphones and tablets.

That's the kind of feature that might convince someone like me to purchase a (probably cheap) e-reader, even if it meant having to deal with a frustrating books marketplace. Having easy access to all of the interesting things I find on the Web is more important than being able to purchase a new book that will probably collect just as much virtual dust as all of its counterparts.

It's possible to sync read-it-later services like Pocket, Readability, and Instapaper with Kindle devices, but it's a multi-step process that would probably confuse most readers. (Here's a step-by-step guide to syncing Instapaper and Kindle devices; would you rather do that or just sign in to the service on the device?)

There's no denying that Amazon has turned the Kindle ecosystem into a veritable juggernaut against which few companies can compete. The company today announced that customers who purchase a print book will be able to purchase its digital counterpart for a low -- or no -- cost, making its website an even more compelling bookstore.

But there's a whole other world of words out there, one which is currently easier to access on smartphones and tablets and PCs. Rakuten seems to understand that and is working to bring that same accessibility to e-readers. Would we really be better off if it didn't even bother trying?

[Image courtesy Antony Bennison]