E-Reader evolution story updated with new Kindle, iriver Story HD information.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Despite recent data from In-Stat that predicts the domination of tablet devices like Apple's iPad over electronic book readers -- shipments of tablets are expected to outpace those of e-readers next year -- the e-reader isn't dead yet. Ownership of gadgets like Barnes & Noble Nook and Amazon's Kindle doubled in the U.S. from 6% in November to 12% in May, according to Pew Research Center.
But as tablet masters like Apple and Samsung continue to evolve their wares, e-reader stalwarts are taking the hint. Barnes & Noble's new color Nook, powered by Google's Android 2.2, looks more like a modern tablet contender than the gray-ink e-reader models of yesterday. And now Amazon is expected to launch its super Kindle, an Android-powered tablet, sometime before the holiday buying season.
Though e-reader manufacturers face an uphill battle -- Steve Mather, principal analyst at research firm iSuppli, said that they aren't likely to realistically challenge the hardware and app development ecosystems created by tablet giants like Apple -- e-readers aren't going to disappear anytime soon.
"E-readers have a niche and they will continue to do what they are good at, which is reading," said Mather. "Whereas tablets are more media players and lifestyle devices."
The roots of e-reader technology go back a long way, with firms like NuvoMedia and SoftBook Press debuting early models in the late 1990s. Earlier still, in 1971, the Project Gutenberg initiative to digitize key cultural works and popularize e-books kicked off, underscoring a desire to create a new literary medium.
From early-era e-readers to next-generation offerings, TheStreet highlights seven key technologies in the evolution of e-readers. Rocket eBook
Lauded as one of the first e-readers, the Rocket eBook was launched in 1998 by Mountain View, Calif.-based NuvoMedia. With color devices still some way off, the 22-ounce Rocket Book offered a 4.5 x 3-inch black-and-white touchscreen and could be hooked up to a computer for downloading eBooks.
The Digital Reader blog describes the Rocket Books as the oldest, "best e-reader;" the device was sold by Barnes & Noble.
NuvoMedia was acquired by Gemstar International Group in 2000 and rolled into technology used to build RCA's REB1100. RCA's Web site, however, makes no reference to the REB1100. Nate Hoffelder, editor of The Digital Reader, says that the devices are no longer available.
"There were visionaries way ahead of their time," added iSuppli's Mather. "But sometimes, you are too far ahead."
Another of the early e-readers, the SoftBook Reader debuted in 1998 by SoftBook Press. Described as a "magazine-sized" electronic device, the SoftBook Reader had an 8 x 6-inch touchscreen and weighed in at 2.9 pounds. (Compare that to the color Nook, which weighs about a pound; the Kindle 3G comes in at just 8.7 ounces.)
The SoftBook also offered a built-in modem, which meant that books could be downloaded right to the device.
Like its e-book rival NuvoMedia, SoftBook Press was bought by Gemstar International Group in 2000. The SoftBook Reader was eventually reborn as RCA's color REB 1200, although, again, there is no reference to the device on RCA's.
"The only place you can find them now is eBay and in the hands of a few collectors," said Hoffelder.