The answer, as glimpsed at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is "too many": the number of new tools for electronic reading may soon reach a killion: a quantity invented by mathematician-writer Ian Frazier for a number so high it can kill you. While physical books are unlikely to go the way of the dodo just yet, they are going to get stiff competition this year from the multitude of expensive gadgets displayed by retailers and manufacturers, including those shown here, and eReaders will be powered by new proprietary apps like those listed here. Looking to distinguish their wares from the pack, manufacturers have expanded the capabilities of other new gadgets to ancillary functions that may give them an edge.
The first item I encountered at CES was from Williams Sonoma, in partnership with Barnes & Noble. Together they're developing a dedicated hybrid Nook that runs video-enhanced eBooks from Vook: called The Cook, it displays exclusively cookbooks. Consumers who might otherwise balk at the $399 retail price will be glad to learn it comes with a (paper) chef's hat and a plastic spatula. The rollout will emulate B&N's retail strategy for The Nook: The Cook can be ordered at any Williams Sonoma retail store or on-line, and a delivery date will be sent to you, which is then followed by a notification of delay, and then another one--which then prompts The Look, the one where you wonder if you've been Took.
Maxim is also partnering with B&N on a dedicated Nook, theirs featuring only erotica in electronic formats. Called Nookie, it's manufactured by Nokia and comes bundled with The Joy of Sex, The Kama Sutra, and a tube of lubricant for loosening sticky keys.
To accompany, rather than compete with, established eReaders, Panasonic has developed The cOUCH POTato, an electronic device that will sit on your favorite seat and watch TV for you while you exercise, use the bathroom, pay the pizza delivery guy, or play with your Nookie. There is no on/off switch--indeed, there is no switch at all--and it is unclear what benefit is derived from its use. When I asked a Panasonic executive what the consumer is actually receiving in exchange for his or her $329, I was told, "The peace of mind that comes with knowing your favorite shows are not going unwatched in your own home."
Even while concern is rising about texting while driving, Garmin is offering an e-reader that comes in the shape of a GPS navigator for windshield mounting. The higher priced model (called "ItLL B OK" and priced at $599) comes equipped with voice recognition software for hands-free reading, so the pages turn automatically every time the driver says "turn"--but conveniently will not turn when a passenger screams "TURN!" The scaled-down version (called "WatchIt" and retailing at $299) requires manual page-turning, but release may be delayed in 46 states, pending further research. I asked the CEO of Garmin about the ethics of releasing WatchIt to a public whose driving habits are frequently perilous, but before he could answer Jeff Bezos stepped in to say, "The Kindle is the top-selling product across all Amazon stores."
Moving on, I found another collaborative offering, this one from Pearson and Motorola: an eReader the approximate size of a Nook. "We believe that with the confusingly diverse range of both hardware and content on offer, the consumer is increasingly hungry for reliable recommendations and dedicated platforms," said Brad Hearst, the Marketing Director of Motorola. "Our research shows that readers today want their reading selections to be curated for them, selections that have demonstrated lasting appeal and popularity." The result of their research is The Gilbert: an eReader that only offers books by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love and its recently released sequel, Committed. I asked Mr. Hearst why a consumer might spend $239 for its product when either book can be purchased in its printed format for a tenth of the price. "Such consumers cannot hope to replicate the experience of reading her work on our dedicated eReaders because their container is bulky, primitive, and features no power source whatsoever, and ours is, well, technologically sophisticated, rechargeable, and comes with such accessories as a leather case and a screen cleaning cloth. What's more, it's fully expandable should Ms. Gilbert leave her new husband and write another book."