Why are ereaders still stand-alone devices?

iriverstoryhdmain - for some reason we don't have an alt tag here

These days there’s very little that doesn’t slot into something else. Asus in particular is going nuts with making gadgets work together, with the Transformer Pad series, Padfone, and Transformer AiO. HDMI is almost standard on devices these days, several companies use their own wireless image systems, smartwatches are in, Ubuntu wants mobile devices to be Linux work stations, and on the accessory front you can get anything from blood pressure monitors to home, car, boat, and scooter automation systems that will play nice with your mobile device. The only thing that’s still in the dark ages in this regard is ebook readers.

By being in the dark ages, I mean that ebook readers – specifically e-ink based ebook readers – are still very much separate devices. Sure, features like Amazon’s Whispersync are great for syncing your reading experience between  devices, there are tools that let you easily send less traditional content to your ereader, and one of the reasons why I bought an iriver Story HD last year was that its SD card slot let me manage it from my iPad. Compared to what you could potentially do with an e-ink display however, this seems trivial at best.

Reading is the most obvious use. Amazon’s system of transferring files via email, putting restrictions on 3G use, and a whole lot of other peculiar issues could easily be avoided by simply using the ereader for its main feature, the screen, and leaving the internet enabled management job to the more capable device. Bluetooth, adhoc WiFi, NFC – we’re not lacking technologies capable of making the connection between the two devices, allowing you to treat one as an extension of another. Buy books on your phone, transfer them to your ereader – no more trying to shop for books using a device whose ability to do so is borderline theoretical.

You could also use this for things like online articles, files, and other text-related things. Check your RSS feeds, find a long article you want to read later, and send it over. One of the main reasons I bought the Story HD was to use it as a secondary screen at school, to give my iPad a hand at displaying files. The reason I ended up not using it much was that transferring files over was horribly slow! For something like that to be usable, SD cards and email can’t be part of the equation. You need to be able to use the Share/Open In App features of Android/iOS to simply send something to your e-ink screen as easily as you would send it to another app. With e-ink not using power while displaying an image, only when changing the page, it’s perfect for all those situations where you simply need to reference information, even if it’s something as trivial as referencing a long email while replying to it.

Text reading aside, a secondary screen has other uses. Look at the Pebble, then imagine a 5-7-inch version. Obviously it wouldn’t still be a watch, but it would still be able to show notifications, messages, calendar, widgets, clock. Even having notifications while reading has its use, making sure you don’t miss anything. With touch input becoming more common on ereaders, replying to messages while reading would even be possible, albeit clumsy. Add AVRCP to the Bluetooth connection to the device, and you could use hardware buttons on the ereader to control music playback on the connected device.

And what about navigation? Sunlight readability is a massive issue for car navigation, yet no one has made an e-ink GPS unit despite the fact that you can get those screens to update way faster than they’re normally tasked with doing, especially when power is not an issue. The reason is that such a device would have to be a dedicated GPS unit with development costs and an end price that reflects all the extra hardware needed. If it was just an app for an e-ink device connected to a smartphone, you wouldn’t even need a speaker for voice guidance, as the other device could handle all that – all we really need is a way to use that screen wirelessly, and not even in a way that requires true video streaming.

For the final example of what this could be used for, I’m simply going to point to a product that actually does it: The Geode. It’s a credit card replacement system in the shape of an iPhone that has a small e-ink display on the back that allows it to display barcodes readable by any barcode reader, something that isn’t the case for LCD and AMOLED. It’s perfect for keeping all sorts of membership cards digitally on your device without running into issues when the scanner is old and can’t read them. Granted you might not be carrying around a full sized ereader when you’d need something like that, but then again, ereaders were designed to be portable.

Personally, I’d be the most interested in a tiny card sized e-ink device, perhaps even one integrated into the back of a case for my phone, with a battery just big enough to last me through the day. I would use it for things like collecting parcels from the post office by simply sending the barcode over, or using it for geocaching by having my phone do all the GPS work in my pocket and see the image on the e-ink device’s sunlight friendly screen. If it was actually integrated into the back of a case, I would certainly look at it to see what notification just beeped in my pocket when outside rather than unlock and look at the main screen, again due to readability outside. I would send my grocery list to it before going into a store, saving me from having to display it on a battery-draining powered screen that no one bothered to build a hold system that keeps the screen awake into.

It might very well just be me, but the things I mention here are things I’ve actually found myself wishing for while in situations where I could have used them, like when I’ve waited for two minutes while the 60 year old post office clerk tries to read the tracking number off my phone’s screen because the ancient laser-based barcode reader failed the compatibility test with the post office’s own app. I didn’t keep my Story HD for long because I frankly prefer to read on LCD, and that was all it was good for. Seeing as how the situations where sunlight visibility is the biggest pain rarely had to do with book reading (for me at least), I just find it beyond peculiar that the only place I’ve seen e-ink used for anything besides book reading is in the back of a digital wallet iPhone case. Seems to me that this would have been higher up on the list of accessories to invent than an iOS-connected cooking thermometer.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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