BY SEAN CLARK
“The iPod of books” is a phrase I’m seeing tossed around more and more lately, either as and indication of what the industry needs, or praise of what the Kindle is. As I’ve already mentioned in my rather wandering and round-about posts, trying to make an ereader fit into the exact same business model as the iPod is not unlike shoving a square peg into a round hole, because the differences between books and music, in terms of portable devices, are many. Not to mention, while I’m tossing about clichés, Apple more or less caught lighting in a bottle with the iPod, and for a company to realistically assume to replicate the staggering numbers Apple has achieved in market share is like Saturn saying they’re going to best a Mercedes. It’s possible, but it takes actual work and R&D, not just advertising and a bunch of crude oil stock backing up a half-assed vehicle that’s still a poopy Saturn on the inside, and just looks like a Mercedes on the exterior.
Now I’m not a market analyst, and I won’t pretend to know how things will work or what companies are thinking as far as business tactics in the publishing space. But I do know that le dame Fortuna’s a rather fickle broad, and she doesn’t tend to help out those who just point at the rich guy next to him and say I want what he’s got. Our writers here have different ideas about the when and where, but we are in a general agreement that the Adoption will happen, and that the ereader producers have a chance to facilitate this quickly and easily or slowly and painfully. We also agree that whoever nabs the educational sector will be in the best position, like nailing down Asia in a game of Risk. Make things convenient for the students and easier than pirating (as they all know how to do, and DRM encourages them to do), and you’re looking at a winner.
There are a lot of approaches that might catalyze the Adoption. The most likely are A.) proliferation of affordable, multifunctional ereader devices or B.) finding a winning–hopefully best–format and some bang up software to go with it. Not wanting to slash prices just yet, Plan B seems to be the one to be struck at first.
Kindle recently released their Whispersync software as an accompaniment to their Kindle devices. This basically allows you to access your Kindle account and books from smartphones, PDAs and iPods, and read your books across platforms. It’s a small step for them, but a significant one and it works quite well for what it is. Unfortunately it’s pretty much useless if you don’t have a Kindle, and the DRM that I imagine Amazon will hold on to for the foreseeable future hobbles the Kindle when it could shine and take an enormous bite of the pie. I’m not sure who said this first (it wasn’t me), but nobody’s iPod contains files exclusively from the iTunes Store, and you can’t rip a book. So while the Whispersync access to the Kindle Store seems like a first step in an iTunes type approach, until it opens up its restrictions and allows customers to actually own the books they purchase, it’s going to remain a niche device.
There have been plenty of rumors lately that Apple has plans to get into the ebook market, possibly even creating a larger screen iPod. Despite Steve Jobs’s rather ignorant comment that “People don’t read anymore,” it would make sense for them to take a stab at ebook distribution, if only to try and keep their iTunes Store (which, by the way, is desperately in need of a complete overhaul) as in the forefront of digital distribution of anything as possible. Hopefully the big screen iPod Touch remains just a rumor, as it seems like an unnecessary device befitting the same fate as the Newton. Something more akin to this Asus prototype would make a lot more sense.
Without Amazon’s catalogue advantages, Apple would find it hard to do battle in the ebook space, and even a larger screen iPod won’t compete with eInk when it comes to serious readers. However, if they manage to sell lots of books to users who might not have otherwise bought them, they could pave the way for an expanded market for digital books on machines that are not dedicated ereaders. With any luck this would include a DRM-free deal with publishers similar to what they’re now doing with music, but I think that’s perhaps dreaming a bit too much.
However, the best thing that would come about from Apple joining the fray would be added competition for winning those customers who aren’t willing to shell out $250-$500 for a dedicated device. If ebooks become one-click available to those users who already have the means to read them, it could be the first step toward the Adoption, when ebooks really hit the mainstream. This is why ebooks need an iTunes (though probably not iTunes itself) more than they need an iPod.
Let’s just hope that those news users take the second step of making an informed decision about the next device that’s best for them, and that the device makers have initiated Plan A by that time.