Sorry, but e-readers aren’t dead

A very dramatic report released Monday by market research firm IHS iSuppli says the e-reader market is “on an alarmingly precipitous decline,” with shipments estimated to fall to 10.9 million units in 2013, down from 14.9 million this year and 23.2 million in 2011.

The collapse is “virtually unheard of,” the company says, but it makes sense because “single-task devices like the ebook readers are being replaced without remorse in the lives of consumers by their multifunction equivalents, in this case by media tablets.”

“Replaced without remorse”? Let’s be clear: Buying a tablet instead of an e-reader isn’t immoral. Every time you buy a tablet, an e-reader jumps off a bridge? False.

It’s not surprising that fewer people are buying e-readers as more and lower-priced tablets come on the market. But it doesn’t correlate that e-readers are going extinct.

iSuppli says “uni-tasking” devices like “digital still cameras, GPS systems and MP3 players” and e-readers all “face similar pressures and battle dim prospects ahead,” replaced by multipurpose smartphones. However, while a smartphone can replicate GPS, music and most consumer picture-taking near perfectly, it is not a good substitute for an e-reader. It may be an acceptable substitute for limited reading, but it doesn’t provide a better reading experience.

E-readers also have major benefits over tablets. They weigh a lot less, their battery life is much better and their screens are easier to read on. For avid readers, those are major benefits. Front-lit e-readers — the Kindle Paperwhite, Nook with GlowLight and Kobo Glo — are an evolution and an example of how e-readers can continue to get better without adding tablet-like functions. That said, it’s not essential to replace an e-reader that often, as my colleague Robert Andrews points out:

“I think e-readers experienced very rapid uptake because they were essentially brand new. Once they’ve got an e-reader, I think many owners don’t feel the need to succumb to a fast upgrade cycle; it does the job. So I think sales growth will naturally be slower.”

Market research companies like iSuppli focus on growth metrics. Avid readers who like a certain device and don’t replace it often aren’t glamorous and don’t make for a good press release.

It’s also clear (and obvious) that, for people who don’t read much, a tablet is a better choice than an e-reader. But just as professional photographers aren’t throwing out their SLRs for an iPhone, heavy readers won’t swap their e-reader for a tablet — though they might own both.