CES is Not a Book Fair (and Steve Jobs is No Joe Gutenberg)

In Digital by Edward Nawotka

Editorial by Edward Nawotka


LAS VEGAS: Today is the opening of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where more than two dozen dedicated e-reading devices are expected to be introduced. There are devices coming from the known brands, such as  iRex, Cool-ER, and Plastic Logic, and numerous newcomers. Also on the docket to be presented are several new iterations of the tablet PC computer — fully functional computers with no physical keyboard and in a slate format. The most famous of these is, of course, the much rumored Apple tablet PC, which won’t actually be introduced at CES and is expected to be announced at the end of the month at Apple’s own event. Likewise, Amazon will not be introducing a new Kindle device, though yesterday it did release an international version of its large-format Kindle DX device. Both Apple’s promised and Amazon’s existing products are likely to overshadow anything unveiled at CES.

The cacophony of anticipation surrounding this year’s CES has reached a fever pitch.  Screen sizes, memory capacity, wireless functionality — any new feature really — is being touted as an innovation.  There is the unstated hope that somehow the new tablet PCs and more sophisticated devices will electrify (literally and figuratively) the publishing industry, that, the right e-reader, be it a tablet or stand-alone device, will make people want to buy more books and read more voraciously. To some, this year’s CES (and the forthcoming Apple announcement) is seen, at least in the short term, as a referendum of sorts on the future of publishing.

Certainly, there are numerous (and largely anecdotal) reports to support the assertion that those who own dedicated e-readers tend to purchase more books than they did before they bought the e-reader. But as the publishing industry waits to see what the computer industry will present, I would argue that, at least for the time being, the devices that we already have are good enough for books in their present form. No, the e-ink screens on the Sony, Kindle and others are not great — the one on my iPod Touch is far better for reading — and the designs are merely “adequate”. Yet to most people they suffice, something that’s been proven by the number of people who have bought Kindles (and Nooks and Sony e-readers), not to mention the countless people, millions perhaps, who already use e-reader software.

The fact is: My septuagenarian mother is delighted with her first-generation Kindle and my sixty-something-year-old mother-in-law is delighted with her Kindle 2 and my 14-year-old nephew is delighted with his iPod touch.

What’s more, my suspicion is that many of the people who are interested in e-books have already made their first purchase of an e-reading device. I was in a Barnes & Noble bookstore yesterday morning where a trio of middle-aged women gathered around a Nook e-reader that had been put on display. It was clear that all three women there were in a book club together and already owned Kindles. After playing with the device, they all agreed that the Nook’s screen looked better than the Kindle, but not one was ready to hand over a credit card to make an upgrade.

If I were to guess, out of all the aforementioned people who already own devices, the only one likely to spend money on an upgraded device anytime soon will be my teenage nephew. That’s not a very large percentage of current owners willing to re-invest in this newest generation of devices, the ones we’ll be hearing about over the next week.

Of course, there are things that upgraded e-readers might be better at doing than the current generation of devices.  Color screens, which would make graphic novels and children’s e-books more viable, will be most welcome…when they exist.  It’s important to remember that a great many of the products on display at CES are either variations of existing devices (the iRiver Story, discussed in the video below and debuting in the US at CES, bears an undeniably close resemblance to the Kindle) or prototypes that are being shown to gauge interest from potential distributors. Many will remain “vaporware,” that is, a product that is promised but never delivered.


Even those that do make it into production are likely to take a long time to make it to market — think of the much ballyhooed e-reader from Plastic Logic, which drew a lot of attention when it was first introduced last March at O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York.  It’s nearly a year later and the device has yet to go on sale in the US. (Their new device, the QUE proReader is being revealed at CES and is promised to go on sale at Barnes & Noble soon.)  As for color e-readers, The Economist recently reported on a number of new screens in development, but “in the history of ingenious display technologies, only a handful have ever made it into mass production.”

This leaves us with the new tablet PCs, which are not actually new: they have been around since 2002. When they were introduced, the products were aimed at educators, journalists and folks who worked with a lot of text. Novelist Amy Tan was hired as a spokesperson for the new device and expounded to me in an interview about the virtues of the devices for writing and editing in bed.

I’ve owned such a device — a Fujitsu Stylistic — since March 2003 and I still use it to read, in bed of course.  It has a ten-inch color screen, a 900 megahertz processor, 750 megabytes of RAM, 40 gigs of memory, and weighs a little more than three pounds. It is in many ways just what everyone is waiting for at CES; one of the only differences between this and similar devices debuting at CES, aside from upgraded components, is that this one operates with an electronic stylus and not a finger.

As it is, my Fujitsu is a very nice device for Web browsing, emailing and reading; and if I’d wanted to spend the money, I could have bought an updated model, with current generation processors and memory, anytime over the past eight years.

Despite its presence on the market for so long, the tablet PC has had little or no impact on the book business.  Few took notice of them (mine continues to elicit a “wow,” especially when I send a handwritten email) and sales of the devices were so poor, that the format was nearly dead a little as two years ago.

The point of all this is simple: until books somehow morph into something other than “books,” the e-readers we have are already good enough to satisfy the needs of the vast majority of readers.

What’s important to remember as CES gets underway is that it actually has about as much to do with books and publishing, as does the AVN-Adult Entertainment Expo which is taking place elsewhere in Vegas the same time. CES is all about convincing retailers to stock the latest computers and gadgets, and for early-adopting technophiles (me included) to gawk over the cool new gear, write about it, and generate buzz.

Perhaps, you’re thinking, just wait until the end of January when Apple reveals it’s new Tablet…

Yes, betting against Apple is foolhardy: the company has a track record of producing magnificent devices. And I am just as eager as so many other Apple fans to get my hands on a new Apple table. But, I can say with some degree of certainty, Steve Jobs (or Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates…name your tech guru here) is no Joe Gutenberg. I know in my heart that whatever Apple unveils can only be evolution in computing and not a revolution in reading, no matter how amazing it may be.

SEE: A full list of e-book related companies exhibiting at CES.

DISCUSS: Are Existing E-readers Good Enough for Most People?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

Edward Nawotka is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. A widely published critic and essayist, he serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries.