Where is the E-Reader Revolution Leading Us?

Just days after Barnes & Noble announced that its new e-reader Nook would allow book-sharing across e-readers and personal computers, Amazon announced -- surprise! -- the exact same thing.

Amazon.com is putting out a free application that lets people read Kindle electronic books on their Windows personal computers. Microsoft demonstrated the new Kindle for PC app at the Windows 7 launch in New York City. It's the latest move by Amazon to extend its vast store of electronic books, magazines and newspapers to other devices beyond its Kindle readers.

The company is expected to expand Kindle book access to Macs and BlackBerrys in the next few months. Now I've followed the smoldering e-reader revolution for a while now, but something is only now coming into focus.

Once upon a time, personal electronics were designed to be single-function. Cameras were cameras, only. Phones were phones, only. The computer was a heavy stationary thing. But engineers slowly figured out how to build smaller chips, store greater memory and consolidate 130 swiss army.jpgfunctions. Today a single smart phone can do all of these things: Take pictures, make calls, go online. It's the Swiss Army Knife theory of technology.

Today it seems to me that there are at least three major classes of popular personal technology that have yet to be fully consolidated into a modern Swiss Army Knife: cell phones and computers and I think e-readers will soon fill that trio. The arc of personal tech history dictates that functions don't remain separate for very long. Someday the idea of an e-reader designed merely to read will seem as limiting as the cell phone that doesn't receive emails or the desktop that won't fit in your satchel. It will still have an consumer audience, but it will be seen as behind the wave.

Returning to today's news: B&N and Amazon's offer to access e-books on computers, iPhones, BlackBerry's and future hybrid devices, means that anything with an internet connection is functionally an e-reader. We don't need an e-reader to "e-read." I think that means Amazon and Barnes & Noble are inherently handicapped in the e-reader arms race. They're building e-readers that can go online. That's nice, but the upcoming Apple Tablet is so much more: a ultra-portable netbook/entertainment center that can also read books. The Tablet isn't merely designed for today's e-reader technology. It's designed with the expectation that consumers want their personal technologies integrated. It's not just another awesome corkscrew. It's a Swiss Army Knife.