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Reading in Color, Why is this such a big deal?

Reading a New York Times article this weekend, titled “Reading E-Books in All the Colors of the Rainbow,” [available here] got us thinking about why there’s such a seeming rush to make e-reader displays colorful.

When I go to my bookshelf [that’s me, Monique, one of the editors], 99% of the books on it are black & white, no color whatsoever inside. Ok, the truth is, I’m ignoring all of my husband’s graphic novels when I estimate that 99% figure, oh, and the children’s book collection too… but, otherwise, really, they are all black & white.

Thinking about this, three things seem to explain the apparent rush to color. We should also note that Amazon has been quite content, at least publicly, with the black & white display on it’s various iterations of the Kindle. So while they too are talking about a color display in the future, they do not seem overly anxious to rush to color.

So, why the push for color displays on e-readers? Here are the three ideas we have.

First, because we’re all quite accustomed to seeing color displays when working with our electronic devices, computers for the most part. This makes it seem normal to have color display even though on paper we are still quite comfortable with black & white.

Second, because newspapers have made the transition to color and are now shying away from printing as much as they can choosing instead to push their readers towards consuming their product electronically. In going with color, newspapers have also begun to use color graphics which are designed differently than are black & white graphics and converting from color to black & white is not entirely a straightforward affair for graphics. This same issue is becoming more and more relevant in textbooks as well. Most textbooks are now produced in color and as they are converted into eBook formats the need to convert to a black & white display is an added cost. Thus, the educational arena is part of the push towards color displays for e-readers.

Third, because hybrid electronic display devices, like Apple’s iPad—designed to serve as an e-reader as well as a multi functional communications device—have color displays. These multi-functional devices are competing with more traditional e-readers [sounds almost funny to say traditional when referring to such new devices] and using their color displays as one way of distinguishing themselves from black & white e-readers.

But the real question is, do we need color displays when we’re curling up to read a novel?

We’d love to hear what you think.

The statistics on e-reader shipments quoted in the above mentioned New York Times article gave us an idea of what we’ll tackle next in terms of tracking this business through statistics. In 2009, according to iSuppli, 5 million e-readers were shipped worldwide. In 2010 the market research firm forecasts e-reader shipments will reach 11 million units. We wonder how many eBooks per e-reader are being sold annually. We’ll try and track that down next.

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4 Responses

  1. Well, the red, green and purple fonts you used made my eyes water, so I’m thankful that for the time being, eReaders are just in plain black.

    • While this wasn’t a serious attempt at using color well, or artfully, I guess it did convey one of our rather snarky thoughts on the matter.

  2. Now that I think about it, quite a few of my graphic novels are in black and white. Of course, the best ones in that format we’re designed to be printed that way.

    The the biggest issues are probably design and options. With so many printed materials now designed and printed in color these days, a reader that only shows black-and-white risks making itself a less readable option than either the printed page or a color competitor. Making a color reader solves those problems.

    There’s another question to be answered, of course, on the opportunity cost. If the extra cost of a color reader is the equivalent of 50 novels, is that an acceptable cost to a user? Maybe, maybe not. But as the cost comes closer, the equivalent of 10 novels might be acceptable. In that way the adoption curve for color readers might be similar to the move televisions made from black-and-white to color a few decades ago, though it’s likely to happen much more quickly.

  3. Good point about opportunity costs.

    Another aspect of the opportunity cost issue has to do with the difference between the energy requirements of a black & white display versus a color display. Right now—I preface this comment because a great deal is being expended on R&D into improving both quality and energy requirements for e-reader displays—color displays on e-readers eat up electicity at a faster pace than do the black & white displays.

    But the real question is, I guess, will people want multiple devices or a single multifunctional device? We shall see but I suspect that the versitility of color, once its drawbacks are dealt with (high energy requirement and issues of backlighting that make such displays hard to read in natural sunlight) will become the norm.

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