Survival of the fittest

It’s become apparent to me that I need to keep a close eye on individual eReader manufacturers these days. Earlier this year Interread, the manufacturer of the Cool-er eReader went into liquidation.  I began drafting this post in September and at that time the Cool-er website was still functioning without any mention of the company collapse, and although the eReaders themselves were marked ‘awaiting stock’, accessories could still be purchased.

The significance of this? eBooks are a new industry, and there are always casualties when a raft of new businesses come into play. However, if I bought a television from Scumbag Industries shortly before the plug is pulled and the senior staff abscond with the petty cash and all the copper wire they can carry, I am at least guaranteed a working television for the lifespan of the hardware. Likewise, an oven from Shoestring Plc will still be cooking my dinner long after the bailiffs are called in to head office.

However, shortly after Cool-er was frozen (sorry) requests for help began to circulate on the internet. eReaders like any modern computer hardware require firmware updates. In the case of Cool-er readers, these updates fixed crucial errors, such as devices that froze (in the “it’s stopped working, guv” sense) and devices that could not read the most up-to-date eBook formats. In the 1980s I could guarantee that my Scumbag Industries VHS VCR would continue to read every movie I bought until DVDs came along or until my pirate copy of The Exorcist unravelled and clogged up the works, but electronic media formats change far more quickly – hence the reason that you keep on having to update browser plugins such as Flash, or Adobe Reader. Now that Cool-er updates were not available, the devices could not read the latest books and became little more than £180 novelty props for tables with one short leg after less than a year.

This situation favours the companies with the staying power to offer long term support. The collapse of Interread also has more significance when related to the rise of tablet PCs as eBook readers. I’ll post an eReader vs Tablet article in short order but for now it is becoming apparent that devices such as the Cool-er will be in competition against the biggest names in the mobile phone, communications and PC industries – companies that can swallow the costs of manufacturing hardware and providing free software updates over a mobile or wireless network.

The current heavyweights in the eReader market have explicit ties with content distribution, Apple’s proprietory iBooks and app store, Sony’s Reader with Waterstones, and the Amazon Kindle. Without this level of cross-market support any newcomer will be at a disadvantage. This disadvantage is becoming more apparent as digital distribution creates a symbiotic relationship between the bookstore and the eReader.