In Defense of Single Purpose Devices

October 6th, 2009 · 20 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Once upon a time, I believed that nobody wanted a single purpose reading device. Why, I wondered, would anyone want something that did only one thing*, albeit very well? It made no sense to me. We had the technology and all that.

(And this despite my lifelong love affair with the classic single purpose reader.)

I was wrong.

Oh, that’s so harsh. Let me soften the blow to myself: I wasn’t entirely right. Recently, I read an article entitled “Singe Purpose E-Book Readers are Dead“. This was moments after I’d been reading on my Kindle. In the backyard. In the sunshine. With the hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are surprisingly aggressive.

I got to thinking. I live on my laptop. It’s the first thing I see in the morning**, it’s the last thing I check at night. In between, I am constantly reading, writing, responding, and goofing off. This multi-function device, it’s being used right this very second, is like an extension of myself. We vacation together. We enjoy wine together (though I did have one laptop that didn’t take to wine, requiring emergency surgery and embarrassing revelations to computer repair people). My laptop has an entire wardrobe: a backpack, a lovely messenger-style bag, a more formal leather get-up, a snuggly jacket.

That was too much information, wasn’t it?

My iPhone has proven to be a wonderful reading device. And multi-functional device. I like the looks of the Microsoft Courier…words I never expected to type. Probably I will be agitating in an unattractive manner for the Apple Tablet, should an Apple Tablet ever be released. I’m not opposed to small, sleek devices that do lots of stuff.

But sometimes I just want to read. I don’t want potential distractions. I don’t want the possibility of potential distractions. And, trust me, if I have many functions, I will use many functions. Sometimes, I just want to get away from it all. I want that lovely solitude that comes when I am completely immersed in a story.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. I know. But it turns out I prefer ebooks. For reasons great and small. I’m a reader, someone who gets hives when she’s away from text-based information for too long. I will read anything, any words. I read the little cards next to artwork before I look at artwork. Granted, my eye so discerning that my analysis is generally of the “ooh, pretty picture” variety. We all dig what we dig.

I realize that dedicated ereaders are not for everyone. They will likely only appeal to a certain kind of reader. That’s okay, you know? I realize they’re expensive, though I’d argue I’ve paid mine off. It’s achieving the little goals that matter, right? I realize they aren’t great for all types of reading. Fine. I am convinced that as tech gets cheaper and more pervasive, multi-gadget lives will be the rule, not the exception — how those multiple gadgets manifest in our lives is a longer, more nuanced discussion.

Don’t write off the single purpose device. Don’t write off the printed book. Don’t write off any method of connecting books and readers. As we move forward with digital reading, think about the story, the way the book (however you define it) will be used, the way the reader will want or need to interact with it. Think multiple ways — no need to expect a one-to-one relationship.

I believe readers do want single purpose devices. And multi-purpose devices. And many, many other things.

* – Though the Kindle does have web browsing capabilities.
** — Unless you count the cat using me as a launching pad. Or, my husband.

File Under: Square Pegs

20 responses so far ↓

  • Jim // Oct 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I’ve been thinking about the classification of a book as a “single purpose device” ever since I read Kirk’s original tweet.

    And I’m not so sure it is. Doesn’t the simple fact that you can make notes in the margin of a book, or underline words, phrases or paragraphs add an extra dimension to the purpose — and functionality! — of any book?

    You can use a book for pleasure, for study, for the sake of backing up an argument, even as a way of communicating with your friends.

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 6, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Well, that would also lift the Kindle from single to multi-purpose. Heck, even the Sony Reader can be elevated. But of course you know this.

  • Rich Adin // Oct 7, 2009 at 5:37 am

    I, too, just want to read. I spend my workday sitting in front of 3 computer screens editing author manuscript, answering e-mail, and doing all those things that are work. When I grab my Sony 505, I leave all those things behind and am able to easily immerse myself in the pleasure of reading — reading for the sake of reading and enjoyment, not reading for work. I am not interested in a multifunction device that never lets me get away from the work world.

  • Störungsquelle, Germany // Oct 7, 2009 at 6:08 am

    ‘But sometimes I just want to read.’
    Yes, I have the same feeling. I enjoy it. A world without books would be somehow strange.

  • Kirk Biglione // Oct 7, 2009 at 10:39 am

    @jim I don’t think making notes qualifies as an additional function in this case. It’s an extension of the original function. You can make notes on anything provided you have a space pen or a sharpie.

    I’m mystified by the claims that Kindle/Sony Reader/Cooler/etc. won’t survive the arrival of the Apple Tablet/Courier/Fill-in-the-blank.

    A book is only ever a book, and a printed book is only one single book. The human race has been carrying single function books around for hundreds of years and no one every complained that any given book was only good for one thing. No, instead we buy special furniture to hold our collection of single function devices.

  • Stan Scott // Oct 7, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I always seem to be a naysayer here. So many of us are interested in the Apple tablet device, and yes, wondering: if I can read books on it too, why in the world would I buy ANOTHER ebook device?

    One of the things I love about reading on line, including books, is the always-on Internet connection. I can look up a word, check to see whether a historical “fact” in a novel is true, the list goes on. I’d feel trapped in an ebook only device.

    I agree, though, that there will always be a niche market for a dedicated ebook reader — all of you represent that audience, after all. But the ebook “universe” is going to skyrocket in the next few years, and it won’t be in the direction of dedicated readers.

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 7, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    Stan — you’re not so much a naysayer as you are a person who likes what you like. For me, getting away from the connectivity is a luxury, and I since it’s a real challenge for me, I appreciate it. The Kindle gives me that, but I understand why others don’t need or even want a single purpose device.

  • Kirk // Oct 8, 2009 at 12:21 am

    “always-on” is a relative term when the network provider is AT&T.

  • John L // Oct 8, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    The weakness of a multiple-use device is that it can’t focus on doing one thing really well. The iPhone is great for games and apps, but not the most convenient size/shape for web-browsing OR talking on the phone. But we accept it for the sake of convenience. If the Kindle continues to evolve and add more features that enhance and personalize the reading experience, I think it definitely has a chance to compete and even thrive in the Apple world.

  • Colleen Lindsay // Oct 9, 2009 at 7:55 am

    I like single purpose devices for the battery life alone. Reading on my old Palm PDA (which I loved!) meant charging every single day. Reading on my Sony Reader means charging maybe every two weeks? If that.

  • Emily W. // Oct 9, 2009 at 8:33 am

    I just think it turns into a lot of stuff to carry around – say business blackberry + private phone + ereader etc. I would love a multipurpose device that’s also a really good reader, and has advantages that only work in reader mode like turning off the backlight and connectivity and saving enough on power consumption to use the gadget for 10-12 hours (where o where is my PixelQi netbook?).

  • Paula Krapf // Oct 9, 2009 at 11:14 am

    You’ve captured how I feel about my Kindle. I have a BlackBerry and love it, but I love that my Kindle is for focusing on books (and some newspapers and magazines).

    And I appreciate the ability to adjust font sizes; I know I’m near-sighted but the fonts and font sizes in some print books make them practically unreadable.

    My Kindle has also paid for itself many times over and it even resolved an unexpected problem: when clients’ books were shipped to me, sometimes the books disappeared en route. Now I can simply send the PDF to Kindle and I’m set.

  • Theresa M. Moore // Oct 9, 2009 at 11:36 am

    The only reason I started publishing to Kindle in the first place was to widen the marketplace for my books. I also have published in a variety of formats to other ereader devices, but I have yet to realize any notable success from doing so. In the end, the competition between ebooksellers is just as fierce as with the print books, and until there is a greater desire to buy ereaders among serious readers, that will dampen any author’s ability to “keep up” with the Jones’s.

  • Brian O'Leary // Oct 11, 2009 at 9:46 am

    I (re-)read recently that the Latin roots of “decide” translate as “to murder alternatives”. We are sometimes so driven to predict the future (to decide who wins) that we drive out niche and nuance.

    I think Kassia’s right, that single-purpose devices have a role to play in the future. It will depend on the user’s interests and commitment to reader. Not every kitchen has a convection oven, but certain cooking enthusiasts swear by them. And I’m not going to make toast using the top of the stove or the microwave. To borrow a phrase, when it comes to what will survice, follow the reader.

  • Stan Scott // Oct 15, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I learned today that Google is planning to enter the ebook market, with 500,000 titles to start. These ebook files will NOT be DRM protected, and will run on almost anything: desktop, laptop, phone.

    In the writer’s words: “Does Google’s entry into the electronic books market make you think twice about picking up an eReader like the Kindle or Sony Reader? Or are the gains in reduced eye strain, battery life and portability enough to make you interested in a specialized device?”

  • Gareth Cuddy // Oct 19, 2009 at 1:56 am

    This is one of the debates I have been wrestling with for a while. I have a 505, an i-phone and my precious laptop and I read on all 3. Iphone for when I’m stuck in line or a traffic jam, 505 for sheer enjoyment, curled up at home and the laptop for the more technical/non-fiction boooks which require a little more concentration and the correct layout.(this is as much a format issue as a device one.)
    I would agree that some people will continue to buy single purpose devices. These will belong to the more serious readers and there will be a certain amount of prestige attached to them, like there is now for the early adopters.
    You will find that the vast majority of eBooks will continue to be read on multi-purpose devices, both for convenience and cost-effectiveness.

  • karen wester newton // Oct 21, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    I like to consider the case of the dedicated GPS device. I have GPS on my phone. I don’t drive in other cities or distant states very often, so it’s really all I need. My dad, on the other hand, travels a lot, and loves his Garmin. It’s a lot more sophisticated than the app on my phone; it gives him details like elevation and can be expanded with foreign country maps. It also works anywhere in the world. My phone doesn’t. Two sets of needs, two solutions. I think eReaders will be the same way.

  • Gale Calelly // Nov 4, 2009 at 10:52 am

    I have read a lot all my life, have an extensive paperbook and hardback library, and have a fairly new Kindle and an array of e-books for Kindle.
    I love using the Kindle. One disadvantage: I have lessened my book purchase costs by reselling and through book swap clubs. Can’t do that with Kindle books!

  • Pol // Nov 4, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    I have been an avid single-purpose e-reader fan for ages, even owned the original RB1100 and loved it – quite literally – to death.

    I now read on my PDA, but with my iPhone find the PDA items redundant. I now want to have “just” an ereader (ideally with a backlight or built-in LED for low-level light reading). Can’t find one anywhere.

    Maybe we should just design one? Great blog.

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