Asking the wrong question: Will Tablets Close the Book on e-Readers?

On the “Knowledge @Wharton” website, a recently posted commentary poses this question in the headline: “Will Tablets Close the Book on e-Readers?

That’s the wrong question. (And I’m even overlooking my belief that any headline in the form of a question displays editorial wussiness. Personally, I prefer reading things that provide answers, not that ask questions.)

Whenever it comes to any technology, in the long run, the new will always replace the old. But as John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run, we are all dead.” So it’s always a matter of when and not if. Timing is everything. I believe eBook readers will be around for a long time — if their price drops to the price of, say, a Gillette razor.

For me, the iPad replaced an eBook reader instantly. (In reality, I guess I made that decision two years before such a thing as the iPad existed.) However, as I’ve written about before, Amazon’s Kindle apps for the iPad and iPhone are how I read most books.

For those of us who have followed a couple of decades of predictions of what the future holds for eBooks — and digital media, in general — there is great irony in the notion that eBook readers, which are finally and somewhat remarkably even perceived as being alive, could now be subject to a debate about their demise. (Context: A few weeks before the announcement of the Kindle, a book called Print is Dead devoted an entire chapter to explaining why the eBook revolution “didn’t happen” — one of my all-time favorite examples of bad timing. In other words, even the most passionate digital book advocates had just about given up on eBook readers.)

So, because I don’t ask questions on this blog, but provide answers: here’s the answer:


In the future, there will be all sorts of devices that will replace the way we do things today. You’ll wear some of them like glasses. Some may be handheld or “pico” projection devices that will be controlled by voice or hand gestures. Some day, you may even wear contact lenses with built-in circuits and LEDs — correcting vision and providing an interface to all known media at the same time.

In the future, our choices won’t be between tablet devices and ebook readers.

Geez, what a boring future that would be.

Later: I’ve been asked, “So what is the right answer?” if @Wharton asked the wrong one. I think my point is, there is no question. Things always change. And, alas and clichéish, they stay the same. But perhaps the real question is: Will flying cars do away with non-flying cars?

  • I wouldn't be entirely sure of that future, Rex. Those technologies seem awfully high-end for mass-market adoption.

    I think the ebook reader has a niche in the marketplace, but yes, I expect that tablet computers will replace them. Amazon knows this and has been making Kindle a platform rather than a product.

  • I think we agree. The key phrase in my observation is “iit’s always a matter of when and not if. Timing is everything.” … You know how long I looked forward to the iPad, yet I know new technology is a journey, not a destination. I'm going to be posting more on this topic — as I'm obviously obsessed with it and know that, to be honest, “everyone is right and everyone is wrong” when it comes to something a big as the topic “what is next?”

  • I wouldn't be entirely sure of that future, Rex. Those technologies seem awfully high-end for mass-market adoption.

    I think the ebook reader has a niche in the marketplace, but yes, I expect that tablet computers will replace them. Amazon knows this and has been making Kindle a platform rather than a product.

  • I think we agree. The key phrase in my observation is “iit’s always a matter of when and not if. Timing is everything.” … You know how long I looked forward to the iPad, yet I know new technology is a journey, not a destination. I'm going to be posting more on this topic — as I'm obviously obsessed with it and know that, to be honest, “everyone is right and everyone is wrong” when it comes to something a big as the topic “what is next?”

  • You are dead on Rex. Things always change. I place my money on cheap tablets because the magazine and newspaper industry’s survival depends on this change. The question will be how will we digest information currently in paper form? The answer is any way we can!

  • I kind of liked the Wharton piece which had some smart bits and good stats. But I kept asking myself who cares? Assuming Amazon, Barnes & Noble et al don’t somehow zap out of existence the e-readers that they’ve already sold, why would anyone care?

    No one thinks the e-book stores are going away — they’re just becoming available on more and more different kinds of hardware. I’m quite confident that I’ll be able to buy and read e-books in Kindle format in the future on an increasing number of devices (contact lenses? Cool!). In other words, Amazon may stop making the Kindle e-reader but that doesn’t mean the Kindle e-book ecosystem is “dead.”

  • Sorry, just wanted to add one thought — what’s implicit in over-dramatic articles like Wharton’s is that consumers will be stuck with an outmoded technology, like the poor folks sitting on piles on 8-track tapes. There isn’t likely to be that kind of trap or loss with e-readers.