US Outlook: The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas always tempts one into flights of fantasy about our technological future.
The annual geekfest is too claustrophobic an environment in which to be making reliable predictions, really, but here goes anyway. This year's exhibitors unveiled a slew of e-readers, promising competition to the Amazon Kindle and the Sony e-reader, but I think they are all doomed. Even the Kindle may be a historical footnote, steamrollered by the other great movement on show in Vegas: the launch of the slate, or tablet, computer.
I offer this less as crystal-ball gazing, more because I think consumers ought to choose a tablet computer over an e-reader that locks them into a single book retailer. Whether it is Amazon as sole retailer of titles for the Kindle, or Barnes & Noble's online store for the new Nook, consumers are being drawn into closed marketplaces like the one Apple set up with iTunes and the iPod.
The one-stop-shop approach is mighty convenient, but it is the antithesis of competition. When a customer can hop from bookshop to bookshop along the high street to compare prices, it keeps each retailer honest. Record labels fulminated for years about Apple's one-size-fits-all price for songs on iTunes, knowing that some tracks are worth more – and some less – than a figure decreed by Steve Jobs. European Union regulators had to prise open the system that meant iTunes purchases could be played only on Apple devices. Nipping the adoption of e-reader hardware in the bud will avoid handing book retailers an opportunity for price-gouging consumers and for exploiting publishers and authors.
What's an e-reader anyway, apart from a tablet computer with limited functionality? After Amazon and Sony blazed a trail, and with Steve Jobs expected to sprinkle his marketing fairy dust over the sector with the launch of Apple's own tablet device at the end of this month, PC makers have been galvanised. After years of failed launches, they believe that consumers might now be ready to carry round a book-size computer. Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Lenovo were among those launching tablet or slate devices which will retail for not much more than an e-reader.
Ultimately, consumers will choose the winners based on the price of the devices and on what they offer over and above the functionality of their (increasingly smart) phones. Newspapers and magazine publishers are already chomping at the bit to create subscription applications so that readers can download their content to tablet PCs in a format that resembles the rich layouts of their print publications. A choice of e-readers, too, would be available as software for these new devices (as the Kindle software is for iPhone users who want to download an e-book from Amazon).