Amazon’s Kindle: I’ll Wait For Apple
In the midst of this new tech bubble, old Web 1.0 business models are being revived: now we have Amazon’s Kindle: a dedicated hardware “eBook” reading device.
For a few years I worked for Gemstar eBook group, formed from the acquisitions of Silicon Valley startups Softbook Press and Rocket eBook back in the late nineties. The division was shut down around 2002.
The biggest difficulty with a dedicated eBook device is a classic “chicken and egg” problem. Customers aren’t that into buying a new device if it doesn’t have tons of content, while publishers aren’t interested in freeing up their content until there’s an installed base of users. DRM exacerbates the problem. Publishers, afraid of pirated content, want everything for sale, believing that “free reading material” would decimate content sales (it would), while customers become annoyed when they can’t leverage all the “free reading material” they already own or find on the Internet – after all, eBooks are “just” text files.
Gemstar tried to please the publishers first, resulting in a device that seemed “crippled” to the consumer. Amazon’s Kindle strategy looks largely the same.
One way around this “chicken and egg problem” is for eBooks to become just a feature of a device that already has a huge installed base – and that’s where Apple comes in.
Someday, I’m convinced we’ll do the majority of our reading on thin, tablet like devices. “It” is basically a portable touch screen as seen on Star Trek or the constantly refreshing newspaper of Minority Report. It’s a portable computer – a “multimedia device” that holds all our music, videos, and accesses the web – but just happens to be very easy to read on.
Apple is already 90% there with the iPhone and iPod Touch. We may soon see a super-light MacBook with a thin multitouch monitor, or an iPod Touch in a larger form factor (Rex Hammock has a good mockup). Either device would obliterate any need to purchase a dedicated hardware eBook reader.
Also consider how Apple has already developed a digital content distribution system for selling music and video through iTunes. All Apple has to do is flip a switch to sell PDFs or rich text files through the iTunes Store (with DRM if the publishers demand it). Subscriptions to magazines or newspapers could be sold just as podcasts and television shows are currently.
The entire “eBook” business model would be yet another selling point feature of the newest iPod or portable Macs. Publishers would sign up to distribute reading material for sale via Apple, knowing the huge appeal of the iPod and fear of being left behind.
I’m looking forward to playing with a Kindle in the flesh, but am not likely to buy the device. Even the best hardware can be sunk by well-meaning, but flawed business models. While Amazon may not consider Apple’s iPod or MacBook the Kindle’s competition today, all signs indicate that this will be the case from the customer’s point of view, in the near future.