What is it about Apple announcements that causes otherwise sensible people to say or write really silly things? Most of the experienced observers present at Wednesday’s iPad announcement reserved judgment for the perfectly sound reason that what we saw was a very attractive piece of hardware whose software and , perhaps more important, back-end services are too incomplete to assess.
The fact that Steve Jobs gave only the sketchiest outline of the iPad’s ebook capabilities and told us even less about the iBook store did not prevent a fierce debate from breaking out over whether the iPad will or will not kill Amazon’s Kindle. Now this argument would be fundamentally misguided even if we knew a lot more about the iPad. It is a peculiar conceit of the tech industry that any new product has the be evaluated as the potential killer of some existing category leader, completely ignoring the very real prospect that both the incumbent and the challenger might prosper. For example, I think it is entirely possible the Kindle and other e Ink-based readers continue to be the choice of voracious readers of fiction and mostly text non-fiction, while the iPad wins the market for textbooks and multimedia newspapers and magazines.
But I digress. What really puzzles me is the tendency of analysts to come to firm conclusions based of the flimsiest of evidence—or perhaps none at all. Consider Ben Elowitz’s Tech Crunch guest post “Top 10 Reasons The Apple iPad Will Put Amazon’s Kindle Out of Business” especially, reason #4:
“Apple has captured the magic of shopping. Once again, whereas Amazon does great with the functional needs of buying a book, Apple goes beyond to create an experience.”
Now for all I know, shopping at the iBook store will turn out to be a positively orgasmic experience. But neither Elowitz nor I have any idea of what it be like because the iBook store does not yet exist. All we have seen is a static demo the user interface—and one that it is hard to imagine what it will look like when hundreds of thousands of thousands of titles are offered. I can accept the idea that some readers will prefer iPad’s glitzy finger-swiping user interface and animated page turning to Kindle’s prosaic but practical button-pushing. And some will favor the backlit LCD display over Kindle’s e Ink. But it’s much more of a stretch to believe that Apple will turn out to be vastly better than Amazon at selling books.
One thing that Apple and Amazon have both done superbly is the integration of their online content offerings—music, video, and apps for iPhone, books for Kindle—with the devices. But no one comes close to Amazon;s ability to market books. Only Amazon has been smart enough to send me an email when an author whose work I have bought in the past has a new publication. No one else’s recommendation engine (except maybe Netflix’s) come close to Amazon’s.
Another huge question left unanswered by the Apple presentation is the fate of the Kindle reader on the iPad. Now that Apple is entering the book business, will it allow Amazon (or Barnes & Noble) to compete, especially given the rumblings from the publishing industry that the iBook store may charge more for the same titles than Amazon.
One interesting dimension of the competition is that Apple and Amazon come to the book business from complete different perspectives. For Apple, content is the lure that gets customers to buy hardware. For Amazon, the devices are vehicles to sell content, which is why it doesn’t much care whether you read your Amazon ebook on a Kindle or an iPhone or a computer.
It’s way too early to declare a winner in this competition, or even to come to the conclusion that there will be a winner. My guess is that both Apple and Amazon can prosper in a rapidly growing market. But I’ll be the first to admit that it is nothing but a guess.