It’s Time to Free Your E-Reading From Amazon

Matt Stephens on 2020-01-03

Kindle competition is coming soon

Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

The Kindle has hardly changed in almost a decade. Sure, it’s had some incremental improvements — slightly nicer e-ink screen, waterproofing, OS tweaks, removal of all physical buttons — but the basic unit is much the same as it has been for years.

Amazon dominates the e-reader industry, so it can afford to be complacent, or so the company might think. PocketBook and Kobo create some competition, but no other devices are a real threat yet.

Kindle’s rivals compete by exploring new directions (front-lit screens, smaller versions such as the short-lived Mini, “warm light” amber LEDs, and more), while Amazon waits to see which features customers like before deciding whether to adopt the innovations themselves. (I’m not knocking Amazon for this; it’s a solid risk-averse business strategy.)

But despite its dominance and willingness to adopt any feature that proves successful with a competitor, Kindle has a glaring drawback: It’s strictly a walled garden. If you have a Kindle, you’re locked into Amazon’s e-books ecosystem. The Paperwhite does have a web browser, but the software is so clunky that you might as well not.

I know that people love their Kindle devices, and they really are nice for reading. But stagnation in any industry isn’t healthy. Viable competition is usually just around the corner, often with surprise innovations.

There’s a new class of devices emerging that could shake things up — and I’d say it’s about time.

Likebook Muses e-reader from October 2018.

“Hybrid” Android tablets with e-ink screens have been around for a few years, but the latest models are just now becoming good enough to take seriously. They come in various sizes and at various price points, from little-known but well-regarded vendors such as Onyx and the Chinese manufacturer Boyue (creator of the Lifebook series of e-readers).

But the benefit is the same throughout: You have an e-reader just like a Kindle, on which you can install any Android app you like. This includes any book-reading app and, of course, the Kindle app itself.

You certainly wouldn’t want to play Candy Crush or watch videos on one of these things. But I see that as a positive — it keeps the device focused, distraction-free.

The great thing is that you’re not restricted to the Kindle app — you can choose from Moon Reader, Aldiko, eBoox, Kobo apps, or any number of others. And don’t forget, reading apps are not restricted to e-books — install Wattpad or Medium, for example, and your eyes will thank you.

You’ll also discover some surprising new ways to use your e-reader. For example, I’m typing this article on a Bluetooth keyboard, directly into the Boox Note2.

Photo courtesy of the author

(By the way, the keyboard is a Filco Minila Air with Cherry MX Red switches— really fast and satisfying for typing).

Added bonus: While writing, it’s refreshing on the eyes not to be staring into the torchlight of an LED monitor or laptop screen.

Granted, there’s room for improvement.

While you’re typing, the annoying e-ink “ghosting flash” happens a bit too often, but this is from apps designed for LCD that refresh the whole screen for the slightest change. As these new e-reader devices grow more popular, I hope we’ll start to see more apps that are optimized for e-ink (along with improvements in the e-ink technology itself).

Kingrow K1 e-ink phone. Photo: Indiegogo

Another promising development is the e-ink phone. The concept may seem ludicrous at first, but if you view the device as an eye-friendly, pocketable e-reader with additional capabilities, it makes more sense.

Kingrow K1 and Hisense A5 are two early contenders, but good luck getting your hands on either of them. The Kingrow K1 was a crowdfunded project on Indiegogo. It was delivered successfully, but so far hasn’t been made available to anyone except the initial backers. The Hisense A5 is a Chinese phone that was meant to be released in Europe in December, but never appeared.

Personally I would love a device like this with the smaller, phone-size form factor; it would let me read books more comfortably during my crowded morning train commute into London. Here’s hoping a company is soon able to see one of these through to market.

This new breed of e-readers just needs to improve ever so slightly: Iron out the wrinkles, ship with Google Play pre-activated, improve that ghosting flash, make the devices just a tad faster, and encourage app developers to support them. All of these incremental improvements would make a big difference, but the devices are already usable. For people who spend hours each day staring at screens, whether reading or writing, e-ink on Android could be a real game-changer.

And let’s not forget that color e-ink is just around the corner. It seems the stars are lining up for a quiet revolution.