A couple years back, we condemned digital photo frames as the spam of CES—this year, in the wake of the Christmas of Kindle, every company has its own ebook reader. And that's a bad thing.
There will soon be two kinds of happy ebook-reader owners. The people who paid a fair amount for a reputable ebook reader from one of the companies they already buy books from, and the people who spend like $50 on a no-name ebook reader that supports a lot of formats, who gets every book they can think of as a pirated copy over BitTorrent. Everyone else—both the buyers of tier-two ebook readers and the makers of them—are going to be screwed.
You know we have an ambivalent attitude about the big-name ebook readers. The Kindle is the best ebook reader you can buy right now, if you're in the market, but it's still hampered by a slow e-ink black-and-white display—not to mention a heavy reliance on Amazon's own book sales operation, which bothers some people. We respect what Jeff Bezos and Amazon have done to teach the world about digital book reading, and we understand why Barnes & Noble has to get in this game in order to plan for the future—or simply survive.
But the introduction of e-ink-based readers by many big tech companies and a handful of feisty little ones threatens to sow confusion in the market place, encourage piracy, and screw over any company who gets in and then can't really hack it against Kindle and Nook. And all of it will be a pointless exercise when long-lasting slates are a reality.
E-ink is an interim technology, a stopgap measure to keep our attention till we have full-color video tablets (slates?) whose batteries last for "days." A flood in the market might ensure that everyone buys one by this coming Christmas, but it'll become increasingly hard to distinguish the good from the bad, will emphasize cheap devices over quality of interface and service, and will render most people completely confused and off-put.
They will buy some $100 reader, then wonder why they can't borrow books from their friend who has a Nook, or can't get the same stuff that's sold on the Kindle. While I assume most of these new ebook readers support the ePub standard, buyers will easily run into dead ends in the labyrinth of DRM (understandably) required by the publishing business.
Some of these people will give up on buying books altogether, even if they don't stop reading. Yes, a flood of cheap e-ink readers will grow ebook piracy more than ebook sales.
In fact, cheap e-ink readers will essentially be targeted at people with libraries of pirated books, for people who read the fine print of file compatibility, and ignore all the wireless connectivity and insta-bookstore stuff that consumers are currently excited about. Many of you would say that's not a bad thing, and I think piracy is as inevitable as publishers going digital—whether they like it or not.
The worst thing of all is that these ebooks will all struggle to get out the door (like so many ebook players "introduced" last fall), or will die on storeshelves, the stuff nobody wants. Price will move some units, for sure, but most of them will be also-rans, like so many MP3 players released this past decade that weren't iPods.
Maybe this glut of ebook readers isn't offensive to you—most of you don't have to step over them on your way to cover 3D TVs that are also everywhere at this show—but there's no reason for them, and the more we try to keep track of, the more annoyed we get. Your choices: Go Kindle, wait for a cheap-as-hell reader, pray for a slate, or buy a book. A real paper-and-ink book.