An Apple e-writer?

We perform better when we single-task, Apple is all about simplicity and quality, and competitors are scarce

An Apple e-writer?

The world is full of e-readers, including Kindles, Nooks, and Kobos.

E-writers? Not so much. Search Amazon for "e-writer" and you mostly get a handful of hits for a device called a "Boogie Board," which appears to be the electronic equivalent of a chalkboard slate.

The e-writers' absence must be partly explained by their lack of an obvious business model. As a dedicated device, there is nothing to sell except for the e-writing device itself, with the possible exception of limited, complementary services like cloud storage.

In contrast, sell e-readers and you can sell books and other written content to those same customers over and over again, for as long as they keep their devices. Amazon sells millions of e-books each year, and the Nook has probably saved Barnes and Noble from Borders Books-style bankruptcy, at least so far. E-book sales exceeded $350 million in the first quarter of 2018, and downloaded audio sales surpassed $130 million.

The lack of e-writers may also be explained by the availability of substitutes. Someone who already owns a tablet or laptop may not want to buy a dedicated electronic writing device. For that matter, a lot of us are satisfied with plain old notebooks and pens.

But it might be time to reopen the book on e-writers, and Apple is well-positioned to do it. Here is why.

Delighting users

First, there is a use case for it. Writing is a common activity because almost everybody writes sometimes, everything from brainstormed thoughts to grocery lists to full-length books. And writing is best done with focus because almost all of us tend to do our best thinking in distraction-free environments.

Science has shown that we are single-taskers. Studies at least as far back as the 1990's through at least 2009 have shown that multitasking can be harmful to human cognitive performance. Tablets, phones, laptops, and other e-writer substitutes that are full of distractions. An e-writer would free its users from the mental battle of choosing to write, surf Instagram, play Angry Birds, or whatever else because the e-writer would offer only one activity: writing.

Anecdotally, two public figures with the means to do so have purposefully restricted their use of electronic devices, presumably to avoid multitasking. In her 2017 book What Happened (p. 293) 2016 U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wrote that former president Bill Clinton leaves it to his staff to take care of his email correspondence. Separately, once I remember learning the same thing about the famous attorney David Boies.

While quitting a device altogether is unrealistic for 99% of us, that does not mean that we cannot try to single-task just a bit more often. An e-writer could help.

E-writers could also be excellent tools for families. Parents know that children need toys and art to learn, develop, and become more interested about the world around them. An e-writer could accomplish all of that without the risk of a child, say, navigating to a dangerous YouTube video, filling the room with unwanted and/or unexpected sounds, or ignoring what is happening in the classroom. E-writers might serve families' and schools' needs better than tablets, with less risk and collateral harm.

Finally, with advances in machine learning a writer's notes on an e-writer could be stored in a smart cloud; filed and classified over time, seamlessly; and retrieved on demand. Not only could we do more of our best thinking, but we could remember it later.

Matching Apple's brand and identity

An e-writer, as a simple and purely creative device, would match Apple's brand and identity. Over the years, Apple has been about delivering great hardware and experiences to its users, simply, with a special focus on writers, artists, and other creators.

Macs, iPads, and iPhones delivered on that promise. They were simple, revolutionary market-pioneering devices. Anybody can use iOS because anybody can click a square icon and follow cues.

An e-writer would be a natural fit to such a user-friendly product line: just turn it on, and start writing. In fact, given the e-writer's lack of built-in distractions, it would be even simpler to use and could do even more to enhance personal creativity. Incidentally, it would also directly complement the already-available Apple Pencil.

An e-writer may even help Apple win back some of its panache as a device pioneer. Today's top e-writer producer appears to be Boogie Board, which most people have not heard of. Apple could easily be the first to make millions or billions of new people aware of the e-writer as a standalone device. For a company that is synonymous with innovation but has (arguably) not pioneered a brand-new type of product since 2015's marginally-popular Apple Watch, the buzz could be important.

Is now the time?

Would consumers ignore an Apple e-writer (like the Microsoft Zune in 2006), love it (like the Apple iPhone in 2007), or something in between? Is now the time for the e-writer's grand entrance?

Based on the business case, probably not. E-writer unit profits would likely be small because there is nothing or little to sell other than the device, and since the device only has one function its price would probably be low, also violating Apple's customary strategy to shoot for a high quality and price. To generate profits that are meaningful to a gigantic company like Apple, sales volume would have to be high, which would probably be a challenge given the existence of tablets, laptops, paper, and other e-writer substitutes that people can already choose to configure and use however they want. Apple might also be concerned that a cheaper e-writer could cannibalize more lucrative tablet products. Etc. Basically - any business person could identify a thousand reasons why e-writers would fail.

But then there is the user. Human minds work how human minds work. We are single-taskers, and that is unlikely to change. Writers will probably write better in a quiet library than they will in a video game arcade or a rock concert. Presumably, they will also write better on an e-writer than they will on an iPad or laptop with Facebook, Netflix, Snapchat, and 50 other apps.

It would also feel refreshing for a company to take this leap. Besides e-readers, when is the last time a major technology company released a product to help us recapture our focus and attention? Billions of us own smartphones and tablets (including Apple iPhones and iPads) that push us to multi-task constantly. Use Instagram or Facebook for an hour a day per month on a device, and you are spending almost 2 weeks per year on their platforms, not including mental switching costs and willpower battles. All of that consumes some of our precious, finite time, and the competition for our attention is only accelerating.

We may never know what full potential we have until we reclaim some of our fractured attention and focus it on using our precious time for creation, not just distraction and consumption. E-writers by themselves cannot accomplish all that alone, but they are a step towards greater focus.

The direct financial results of manufacturing and commercializing a high-quality e-writer would probably be unimpressive, but the creative output and accompanying consumer goodwill could be magnificent.

Header Photo by Marten Bjork / Unsplash