The day my father lugged home a LaserDisc player, I was sure we’d entered the space age. It weighed as much as a small car, but its silver disks were things of futuristic beauty. I held cinema days for friends. ‘It’s great,’ they said. ‘Really groovy’ – this was the early 80′s – ‘But can’t it do anything else?’
They’d heard of machines able to tape television while you were out.
They’d seen the future.
LaserDisc players are no more, and this year’s must-have bit of kit is the e-reader. A herd of cheap devices are lining up to be the next electronic white elephant. Everyone reads digital these days, in case you didn’t know. Books are so last year. Think of the trees.
Although ebooks account for close on 20% of sales in North America, take-up in the more fragmented European market has been slow. That was until Amazon launched the Kindle in the UK. Within nine months, the internet giant was shifting more digital downloads than hardcover print books. Germany finally got the Kindle in April, the French jumped on board in October. Spain and Italy are next.
Even with the Kindle whipping up a storm, industry insiders poured scorn on Amazon’s savvy move to connect unpublished writers with income sources. But Amazon knew what it was doing. These inexperienced writers were happy to accept peanuts in exchange for a presence on e-readers. Free downloads and novels for a quid helped to send Kindle app downloads through the roof.
2011 saw major publishing houses pull their heads out of the sand and rush for the stable door (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor), anxious to round up the bolting horses.
Online communities became must-haves. The same ‘experts’ who scorned ebooks, embraced their ‘untapped revenue’. Back-pedaling became a national sport.
After years as America’s overpriced cousin, the UK market is ripe for exploitation. WH Smith has primed 6,000 staff to push their new branded Kobo e-reader. Even supermarket chain Asda wants in, offering Binatone’s £65 ReadMe Daily alongside the frozen peas and cornflakes.
But has all this come two years too late? Apple and Samsung have opened our eyes to the joy of tablet computing. We no longer need a beige box in the spare room or a ‘bulky’ laptop. Our gateway to the online world fits in the nattiest of clutches or the most stylish man-bag. One little device lets us carry around whole book collections, read the news, fling angry birds at pigs and share photos of dogs in sunglasses.
What of the dedicated e-reader? In the words of my school-friends: ‘Can’t it do anything else?’
Amazon recently announced a mid-priced tablet. Until now, for anything visual, publishers had to invest serious money to build standalone apps. Now they’re lining up enhanced digital editions that exploit two income streams – their online communities and their books.
Their support for devices that do more than let people read books seems inevitable.
WH Smith, Waterstones, et al are each eager to tout their ‘Kindle Killer’; but is this all too little, too late, with the Kindle Fire tablet poised to cross the Atlantic?
Will dedicated e-readers go the same way as standalone word processors (not to mention my family’s LaserDisc player) – fun, futuristic and in many ways better at the job than what followed – but ultimately destined to languish in the cupboard under the stairs, replaced by something better and more fully-functioned?