Stopped in at Borders this week, drawn by some big signs promoting the new Velocity Cruz Reader, a device I had heard about but so faintly and distantly that I assumed it must be no big deal. And though the device itself needs work (and what ereader doesn’t?), I think that anyone who isn’t paying attention to a full color ereading tablet with a color touch screen bigger than the Kindle’s and Nook’s that runs on an operating system that is taking over the smart phone market may be missing a glimpse into the future.
In fact, the little six foot display table set up at Borders to display its ereader lineup, a country cousin to the gleaming Nook Huts with their Kate Spade accessories sections that are popping up at the stores of arch-competitor Barnes and Noble, offers more food for thought to the ereader aficionado than just about anything I can think of.
At one end of the table is the Cruz, and at the other is the Aluratek Libre eBook Reader Pro. That little distance encompasses about a decade or more of ereader device history. The Libre is almost a curiousity in 2010, a device with a monochrome LCD screen like the early PDAs (think Palm Pilot), a cable connection for managing content, and a plastic housing with a lot on buttons that are not particularly intuitive in their operation. Readers of this blog know that I am a fan of smaller ereaders and would still be writing about the Sony Pocket Edition if Sony didn’t keep changing their lineup. So there is allure to the Aluratek, but it is the allure of the past. I have to credit them with making that LCD screen even look like an e-ink screen; I found that kind of amazing (and savvy–buyer beware, that is not an e-ink screen). What else makes the Aluratek a thing of the past? The price. It feels like the folks at Aluratek said to themselves, gosh, nobody in the marketplace has a sub-$100 reader, so why shouldn’t we keep our margins as high as possible? But anyone who recognizes the name Len Edgerly knows that the most expensive component in e-ink readers like the Kindle or Nook is the e-ink screen. And this device doesn’t have one! Aluratek could potentially make a nice little business for itself selling these very limited devices for $79. I can make the case that schools can get everything they need from an ereader by selecting the Libre, specifically because its retro technology would increase the benefit to cost ratio for schools. But that can only happen if Aluratek prices its retro reader aggressively for the limited features it offers. There’s a competitor sitting six feet away on the table at Borders which, for a mere $80 more, offers up-to-date technology, color, wireless, bigger screen, touch screen, um, and much better value. Technology of the past can still work, but not at prices of the present.
Sitting in the middle of the Borders lineup is the Kobo Reader. Now the Kobo is a nice little reader, though it doesn’t do the same things that a first generation Kindle could do in 2008, and it is priced higher than the third generation Kindle that you can order from Amazon today, or pick up at the local Target store. [Update: Kobo announced this week a device with wifi that is priced the same as Kindle 3.] What the Kobo has going for it is its simplicity (the Aluratek device looks like a television remote in comparison) and an apparently terrific corporate parent committed to open platforms and systems. I mean, these guys have an eReader Bill of Rights, including stuff like “the right to freedom of movement.” (With Amazon, you have the right to buy from Amazon.) It is great to see someone mapping out a niche that might be able to co-exist with the corporate might of Amazon, and even challenge it in some instances. Getting its device on par with the Kindle in value is a great first step. This device represents the “present” of ereaders on display at Borders.
So what about the future? How about devices that are not much more bulky than the ultra-lightweight Kindle or Kobo (sorry, the iPad is not in this class for weight), that are running the open Android software, that offer enhanced web browsing (sorry, Webkit or no, the Kindle is never going to be an workable alternative for web access), and that are incredibly competitive on price. Enter the Cruz Reader. $199? Are you kidding me? I bought two Kindle 1s in the last 24 months at a total investment of over $700. Oh, and an iPad for almost that much (and I only got one of them for the money). Can I find $199 for a seven-inch touch tablet running a great OS, an app store, and a really nice reading interface? This, boys and girls, is the future of ereading, on display at Borders today.
That’s the real conundrum in the mix–Borders. Borders has for sale more credible ereader options than anyone else: a retro tech reader that could define the “real” low end of the market, a state-of-the-art ereader with a genuine corporate presence and a bookstore partner, and a glimpse-of-the-future small tablet with features that we all expect to have on the smartphone in our pockets, including capable ereader software. Can Borders really become the retailer that offers folks like me genuine options in ereading? Based on what they have sitting on their six-foot conference table, Borders offers the best and maybe the only place where options can be found today. I like that.
Finally, let me make a prediction. Currently, I own 2 Kindle 1s, 1 Kindle 2, 1 Kindle DX, 1 Kindle 3, 1 Nook, one Sony Pocket Edition, assorted other brand ereaders from 2009 whose names escape me at the moment (Cybook? Astak?), 1 iPhone, 1 Droid phone, 1 iPad–and I read on every single one of them. What do I predict is going to be my next purchase of an ereader?
That’s right, an Android tablet device like the Cruz Reader or the upcoming Tablet from Velocity Micro.