Today, amid the kind of rumor and speculation that is more typical of a Silicon Valley announcement, Barnes & Noble unveiled its NOOKcolor, a second NOOK to complement the barely one-year-old original. The NOOKcolor brings a 7" color LCD touch tablet device to the reading market, filling a gap between today's grayscale eReaders that use eInk technology and tablet PCs like the iPad.
This move puts B&N ahead of both Amazon and Sony -- the longtime holders of the number 1 and number 2 slots in the eReader business. Not ahead in terms of device sales, because this new NOOK, priced at $249, will be likely to drive a few hundred thousand units before year-end. But ahead in terms of vision. Because one day, all eReaders will be tablets, just as all tablets are already eReaders.
There are three good reasons why tablet readers are the right thing for the industry to move toward:
Multitouch interfaces have become the new standard. Once consumers experience multitouch, they don't really ever go back to thinking a mouse or button interface makes much sense. Doesn't mean they never touch another button, it just means they prefer to interact in a more natural and intuitive way. That's why Sony recently upgraded its reader line to include touch on even its cheapest model, the Pocket Edition.
This is a phenomenal week to be covering the publishing industry. Tuesday, Apple released its quarterly earnings. Big surprise, another record-breaking quarter for the folks in Cupertino. A few billion here, a few billion there, blah, blah. How amazing is it that we're not really surprised by such overperformance in an otherwise still-troubling economic environment? Of great interest to me, the eReader guy, was the final iPad tally for the quarter ending June 26th: 3.27 million units worldwide. Still no good guidance on what the US split is, but no matter how you slice it, iPads are hot. (And, no, I still have not bought one, still holding out for iPad 2.0).
And if you follow the implications of that success, as many in the media have, Amazon should just concede the eReader business, pack up its cream-colored Kindle and go home, right?
Wrong. And to prove it, Amazon made a point of announcing some news of its own, the day before Apple's results were public. Amazon flaunted its own success in selling both Kindle devices and eBooks. That's right, despite that iPad upstart, the Kindle is still flying off the shelves, selling more units each month than the month before it all through Q2, when the iPad challenger was supposedly pummeling it. And it's dominating the eBook business as well, selling as much as eight in ten of the eBooks of major bestsellers, seeing its eBook sales rate triple over last year. Oh, and Amazon indicated it sells 1.8 eBooks for every hardback book it sells. That's right, even though it discounts hardbacks to paperback prices for many bestsellers.
As someone who has been covering cloud computing since the dawn of Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) I’m constantly in education mode about what is and isn’t cloud computing. To borrow an analogy from my Forrester colleague Ted Schadler’s keynote at last year’s IT Forum, the challenge is a lot like helping blind men discern an elephant through just the parts of the animal they can reach. One feels the trunk and declares it a cylindrical, yet hairy and warm snake. The other calls it a strong, tough and deeply rooted tree upon feeling its hind leg. Each examiner brings their own experience and context to the challenge as well as their own judgments, then leaps to the conclusion that best fits their desires.
George Colony nailed it when he wrote “the iPad signals the future of software”. So where do smart-device app’s go from here? Basically, any application that focuses on saving people time is likely to be a winner but the biggest game changer will come when consumers start to benefit from customized services that save time and money while increasing brand loyalty. For example, here’s a glimpse into how we might see applications for our phones and tablets evolve to make food shopping and preparing meals at home easier…
Let’s imagine the future of a typical suburban home. In our future world we’ll follow Mr. and Mrs. Smith, working parents with little time to spare.
Throughout, as various members of the press have mused about the death of Amazon's Kindle, I feel compelled to point out that, contrary to popular belief, Amazon is in a better position now than it was before the iPad. That's right, if Amazon comes out swinging, Round 2 will go to Amazon. Here’s why:
It was a surprising weekend for those of us who had naively imagined that after crossing the River iPad, we might actually get some Elysian rest. But, alas, the fates conspired against us and handed us the curious case of Amazon vs. Macmillan. Or Macmillan vs. Amazon?
For those who actually took the weekend off, let me summarize what happened. John Sargeant, the CEO of Macmillan Books, gave Amazon a wee-bit of an ultimatum: switch from a wholesale sell-through model, where Amazon buys digital books at a fixed wholesale rate and then can choose to sell those books at whatever price it deems appropriate (even at a loss, as it does with $9.99 bestsellers), to an agency model, where Amazon agrees to sell at a price set by the publisher in exchange for a 30% agency fee. Sargeant explained to Amazon that if it did not agree to the switch, Macmillan Books would make its eBooks subject to significant "windowing" wherein new books are held back from the digital store for some period, say six months, while hardback books are sold in stores and possibly, digital copies are sold through the iPad at $14.99.
This is more detail than we usually know about a negotiation like this because of what happened next. Sargeant got off of a plane on Friday only to discover that Amazon had responded by pulling all Macmillan books from the Kindle store as well as from Amazon.com. He then decided to make it clear to the industry (and his authors) that this drastic action was Amazon's fault, in a paid advertisement in a special Sunday edition of Publishers Lunch.
I have a weakness. I like to think big. And when we heard so many juicy rumors about the Apple tablet device, now named the iPad, I knew that with Steve Jobs at the helm, I could afford to think big. So big did I think, that I suggested the iPad should take media consumption to the next level and create an entirely new category of device.
At first, Jobs appeared ready to confirm my suspicions. He said seductive things like, "Everybody uses a laptop and or a smartphone. The question has arisen lately. Is there room for a third category in the middle?" I was sitting on the edge of my seat, ready to hear Jobs demonstrate that new category of device. But he didn't.
Instead, what Apple debuted today was a very nice upgrade to the iPod Touch.
Don't get me wrong. I love the iPod Touch and I was this close to getting one for myself. Now that the iPad has arrived, I can finally get one, the new, big one. But it's not a new category of device. It doesn't really revolutionize the 5-6 hours of media we consume the way it could have. It doesn't even send Amazon's Kindle running to the hills for cover. In fact, the competitor likely to take the biggest hit from the arrival of the iPad is Apple, in the form of fewer iPod Touches sold and fewer MacBook Airs sold.
Frankly I am surprised that it took this long. But today, we read in the Wall Street Journal that two major publishers have decided to pull a music industry mistake. Simon and Schuster and Hachette Book Group have announced that they will not release most eBook editions until the hardbacks have been on shelves for four months.
And I quote David Young, CEO of Hachette Book Group, whom the article cites as saying: "We're doing this to preserve our industry, I can't sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices. It's about the future of the business."
Correction: This move is about the past of your business.
I'm just being a historian here when I point out that language like "We're doing this to preserve our industry" is a classic symptom of what we at Forrester loving call The Media Meltdown. I wrote a whole report on this ailment and its many symptoms, chief among them is that media businesses attempt to preserve analog business models in the digital economy, even when analog economics no longer apply. This is exactly that scenario.
I have two very important messages to offer the book industry (most all of them clients, so I'm trying to be delicate here, the way a group of friends running an intervention for an alcoholic have to act even if it involves summoning tough love). The first message is the hardest to hear and it will make me some enemies. But the second message offers some hope and I encourage you book types to give it a fair hearing, because I have history and economics on my side.
The official announcements about the Nook went out yesterday and much has been said about the device, such as whether it trounces the Kindle (it does not) and whether the delay in shipping (units you buy today, for example, are expected to ship January 15) will permanently keep the Nook out of the running (it will not).
Because so much has already been said, we paid attention to what hasn't yet been said -- as far as we can tell, by anyone. It's this: the Nook is the first eReader to hit the market that has any kind of social connectivity built in to it. I'm referring to the "loan a book" feature the Nook offers. Read reviews like the one at CNET and you'd think that the book loaning feature is a flop because: a) it only applies to select books (at the publishers' whim) and b) it only lasts for 14 days.
I'm gonna tell you a secret: it doesn't matter how limited today's loan a book feature is, it's a huge step in an increasingly important direction for eReaders.
People share books. They share them, and then they talk about them. A lot. This fact is so critical to the way people read books that it is amazing that none of the eReaders yet offered to the market have any meaningful book sharing built into them. So even though the Nook is shipping late (folks, this is the eReader market, demand has been outstripping supply for the past two years now, stop acting surprised that Barnes and Noble and Sony are experiencing delays), we applaud its arrival because it opens Pandora's social box in this space. Once it's open, this box will set free all kinds of goodies that we are excited to have, including: