Tablets, touch screens and e-readers, oh my!

The death of the e-reader—a small, handheld device dedicated to reading electronic books—has been predicted ever since it was introduced by Amazon.com five years ago.

“Who will want to read books on a tiny computer that costs hundreds of dollars, when they can read them for free from the library?” the doubters asked. Then it was, “Who will want a tablet that only lets you read e-books when the iPad and other tablets do so much more, for not much more money?”

Sometimes, there’s just no explaining human behavior. It turns out, people really like e-readers. They like having a reasonably small (paperback-sized) device that holds literally thousands of books and displays them—and doesn’t do much else. Most don’t have web browsers or color screens or let you tweet or anything else. They’re a reading tablet for readers, not a Star Trek-like “tricorder” for techies who want to do it all, and do it all at once.

Proof of the continued success of e-readers comes from the market leaders, Amazon and Barnes and Noble, who have both recently introduced new e-readers. B&N introduced the NOOK color last year, which was basically a color LCD Android tablet geared toward book, newspaper and magazine readers, and introduced the NOOK Simple Touch Reader this spring, priced at $139 and featuring a touch-screen.

Amazon followed this fall with several new models announced this week: a non-touch screen Kindle without a keyboard, a touchscreen Kindle, and the Kindle Fire, an Android tablet designed to compete with the iPad (and ostensibly the NOOK Color). These models vary in price from $79 for the basic, non-touch Kindle with ads that display on the menu screens and the screensaver, all the way to the Fire, which lists at $199 and will surely siphon some customers from Apple. Unlike the NOOK or Apple offerings, the Kindles get a price break if you let Amazon show you ads, and the Kindles don’t have a wall charger included, meaning you have to plug into a nearby PC to charge the battery, or buy a wall charger.

Just a few days before Amazon’s release of its new products, Barnes and Noble announced it would release a few new NOOKS of its own: the Encore, rumored to be priced at $249, and the Acclaim, at $349, both in time for the holidays. The Acclaim is also rumored to be a gaming platform developed in conjunction with Disney and videogame renter GameStop.

Whew.

Dead? Hardly. Stay tuned.

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