I'm always interested in seeing which technologies have reached commodity status in the stores and online outlets of electronics retailers on Black Friday. For those unfamiliar with Black Friday, it's the day after Thanksgiving in the United States, when retailers offer massive sales and finally get "in the black" (meaning they turn a profit) for the year. Typically, hot electronics hit rock-bottom prices just before the market deems them largely irrelevant. For example, a few years ago, automotive GPS navigation units were a popular item, foreshadowing the current struggle GPS manufacturers face with the onslaught of GPS-enabled smartphones.
This year, the black-and-white e-reader seemed to be the big draw, with Amazon's entry-level Kindle falling to around $80 (USD), and scores of second- and third-string e-readers appearing everywhere from reputable online outlets to a $49 no-name device at my local pharmacy, of all places. When the first e-ink reading devices from Sony and Amazon arrived a few years ago, they were hailed as revolutionary, but now — in the face of high-powered and ever-cheaper tablet devices — one can't help but wonder if the days of the dedicated e-reader are drawing to a close.
Initially, e-readers were largely consumer-oriented devices, but a handful of companies and government entities saw them as a document distribution mechanism. Citing everything from the ease of updating unwieldy paper manuals to being a part of a "green" effort, e-readers were viewed by several companies as one more step in the journey toward the paperless office of the future. Like much of the marketing promise of the "paperless office," the green claims seemed a bit tenuous, and a one-trick device is a tough sell to corporate purchasing departments and employees already lugging laptops, company-issued phones, and the requisite accoutrements and general business tools the modern worker requires.
In all but a limited set of scenarios, a multi-purpose tablet seems the better choice for most organizations than strictly an e-reader device. The only scenario I can envision for the dedicated e-reader is one in which the user requires access to text-based material for several days without access to power. This perhaps negates one of the biggest benefits of these types of devices — access to wireless services — since you're likely going to be totally "off the grid" if there's no power available for several days. With this limited and narrow range of utility, are there any other uses for e-readers?
Perhaps when the price point of these devices falls to around $50, which is essentially disposable territory. At this point, an e-reader might make sense as a textbook/manual replacement device that can be issued once at a training course, then periodically refreshed and updated as needed. While the paper savings and "green" aspects are questionable, the time I've seen spent producing, organizing, and transporting paper training manuals might even be offset with current device prices.
Many companies have reams of training material already in a common format, like PDF, and issue this material on a flash drive. The common complaint is that it's difficult to update and read on the computer, so an e-reader might assuage these woes or even serve as an incentive to attend an otherwise overly burdensome training class.
Personally, I don't see a huge future for e-readers in the enterprise space, and I predict that they'll be overrun by tablets in the consumer space as well. While there may be some limited utility from the devices, most enterprises can happily ignore them unless there's a compelling problem that a lightweight, battery-sipping device that excels at displaying text can solve.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.