Brace for impact. What I'm about to say is going to make a lot of people angry, including some of the people at Google who are going to rightly point out that when they pre-briefed me on today's Google eBooks announcement, we never once discussed ad-supported reading.
Instead, they told me all about their plan to establish a set of tools that will offer eBooks to people looking for book information through Google's search engine. They explained that this will make it possible for the millions of people who conduct book-related searches every day to have easy access to 3 million books -- some out of copyright, some out of print but under copyright, and a full range of in-print titles including bestsellers. They also described how independent booksellers will be able to use the same set of web-based commerce and reading tools to build their own branded eBook stores to finally extend their brick-and-mortar customer relationships into the digital space.
Since then, I've spoken to half a dozen reporters who were also pre-briefed and they have all had a similar set of questions: can Google compete against Amazon (no, but it can compete against Barnes & Noble), is it too late to make a dent in a mature market (no, less than 10% of online adults in the US read eBooks, there's plenty of room to grow), is Google's cloud-based strategy unique (yes and no, it supports all devices except the Kindle, but the Kindle platform actually supports as many devices as Google will).
Time to get my hands a bit dirty. Last week I posted an eBook forecast with a brief explanation of why the book business may complete its digital revolution more quickly than other media businesses have. Turns out this assertion was more difficult to hear than I anticipated and I got some very insistent (and worth reading) comments. The discussion that ensued both on the blog and outside of it was very complex, this is not a simple matter. However, there are parts of it that are very simple that I have to clarify, even though it means rolling up my sleeves a bit. Allow me to draw into this discussion John Thompson of Cambridge University who gave a very worthwhile interview to the Brooklyn Rail this month to discuss his recently published analysis of the book industry, Merchants of Culture. I will refer to just one of his specific comments:
"There are many people who just love books and they love the ideas that are expressed in books; they love the stories that are told through books and all of it. They’re very attached to it.... They cherish the book. And they believe that this is an artifact that they want in their lives. And some of the technological commentators in this industry just completely miss this point."
Netflix announced its Q3 2010 earnings a few weeks back and the numbers were every bit as positive as people have expected. The company added nearly 2 million subscribers in the quarter, almost four times as many subs as they added the same quarter last year. Yeah, four times as many. While Comcast and Time Warner announced net subscriber losses. At the same time, the cost for Netflix to acquire a customer has fallen 26% in the past year. Funny how when you digitize the customer relationship and the product at the same time, all your costs go down.
The number I always wait for from Netflix is the percent of subscribers that used Netflix Watch Instantly in the quarter. It rose to 66% this quarter, up from 64% last quarter. And remember, this was while adding 2 million new subscribers, which means that new subscribers are adopting Watch Instantly at a rapid rate instead of waiting to get used to Netflix; in fact, they're probably joining Netflix just to watch instantly. This is, of course, why Netflix will likely offer a digital-only plan that subscribers can pay for if they don't even want to pretend to put DVDs in their queue.
Why is this important today? Because it was just now that I finally dug through the summary financial results to find this gem of a quote, something that was briefly reported when Netflix announced it results, but was not fully understood in most of the reports I read. I want to resurface it because this is a big deal:
Consider it an inauguration of sorts, a celebration of the eBook industry becoming a member of the major media club just as digital music and online video have before them. When you influence a billion dollars, people have to take you seriously. In the book business, it means that traditional publishers can no longer live in deny-and-delay mode; meanwhile, digital publishers get invited to better parties and people in other media businesses like TV and magazines look over and wonder if they could cut a slice of this new pie just for them.
To honor the occasion, we have just published our five-year forecast for eBooks in the US for Forrester clients. The punchline is this: 2010 will end with $966 million in eBooks sold to consumers. By 2015, the industry will have nearly tripled to almost $3 billion, a point at which the industry will be forever altered.
Right now, the number to track – and the one that determines how many eBooks will sell – is the percent of a consumer’s books that are bought and consumed digitally. To get at this number, we have to understand how people get books today. Did you know that the two most common ways people get books today is borrowing them from a friend or getting them from the library? Evidently content – at least in the book business – is already quite free, even without the help of digital.
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.
If Hulu were a dramatic figure, it would occupy a classic character role: the ingenue. The fair and unassuming ingenue naively enters a perilous circumstance with the best of intentions and soon finds that ruin awaits at every turn. The story typically plays out in one of two ways: Either the ingenue is sullied and descends to the level of the forces that surround her (think Grease), or a dashing hero enters to redeem the ingenue, removing the burdens her exposure to the world has caused (think just about everything else). These paths are both open to Hulu, and many observers are actively rooting for one or the other outcome.
There's a third, if rare, outcome: The ingenue evolves to become the hero, using guileless sincerity to overcome the evils of the world (think Pollyanna, a Hayley Mills classic). Nobody believes in Pollyannas anymore. Certainly not in the business world. But to succeed in its plans to build a paying customer base, Hulu has no other choice to but play the ingenue all the way to this third end.
I'm in the business of identifying when there's a change in the wind coming that will push us in a new direction. On balance, I've been successful. So much so, that when something I staked my career on becomes commonplace, people are so used to it that they look back and think I was only pointing out the obvious. Like when the most senior faculty member in the advertising department at Syracuse University rejected the "Interactive Advertising" course I proposed to teach in 1996 because online advertising was "just a fad." I took a stand and got to teach the class, over his objections. Fast forward to today and online advertising is so obvious that predicting it is a thankless task.
I say this because I am about to take a stand I want you to remember. Ready? Starting November 4th, Kinect for Xbox 360 will usher us into a new era Forrester has entitled the Era of Experience. This is an era in which we will revolutionize the digital home and everything that goes along with it: TV, internet, interactivity, apps, communication. It will affect just about everything you do in your home. Yes, that, too.
I've just completed a very in-depth report for Forrester that explains in detail why Kinect represents the shape of things to come. I show that Kinect is to multitouch user interfaces what the mouse was to DOS. It is a transformative change in the user experience, the interposition of a new and dramatically natural way to interact -- not just with TV, not just with computers -- but with every machine that we will conceive of in the future. This permits us entry to the Era of Experience, the next phase of human economic development.
Today, Cisco unveiled its home telepresence solution called Umi (prounounced you-me, get it?). For those of us who aren't familiar with Cisco's use of the term telepresence, it's a term it coined to describe the very impressive (and very expensive) enterprise immersive videoconferencing experience it provides to businesses around the world. In the home, it basically means TV-based videoconferencing.
The home offering is similar to the enterprise version in two key ways -- it is also impressive and expensive. Starting November 14, affluent consumers who really want to connect with family across great distances (and who are either unaware of or uninterested in Skype) can put down $599 and sign up for a $24.99 monthly Umi service fee and become HD videoconferencers. I tried the system in a real home and I'll admit the quality is eye-opening. As is the price. Read more of the details here in this post from CNET, but some of the less obvious points include: video voicemail, video voicegreetings, and the ability to record video messages when not connected to someone else. The camera rests above your TV screen and makes for one of the most believable videoconference setups I've seen (the person you speak to actually appears to be looking at you, imagine that). The whole experience rides on top of the existing video input so that while you watch TV you can see a message indicating a call is coming in. Choose not to take it and it will go to video voicemail. There are nice touches like a privacy-minded sliding shutter over the camera (complete with "shooshing" noise when the shutter closes) that helps you know via the senses of sight and sound that your camera is not on. So go ahead and give the missus a kiss while on the couch, no one is looking.
I'm a big fan of the digital home, even if the phrase itself has slipped from popular use lately. I cannot wait for it to happen to me -- I'll have connected displays (does the word TV even apply anymore?) throughout the house, including the ones in my pocket, in my lap, or otherwise within reach at all times. Those displays will all speak IP, the language of the Internet, and they'll all speak to each other as well, allowing me to control one display -- say, my TV -- with another one -- my Droid X, for example. There's so much product innovation yet to come in the digital home that I love my job.
I'm not the only one who sees it, of course. If you follow the excited announcements from TV makers and electronics retailers like Best Buy, the next TV we all buy will be a connected TV (defined as a TV set with its own Internet connection whether wired or wireless and some kind of software platform), a critical first step toward that future digital home nirvana.
Connected TVs are going to be a big deal; to understand why, read my latest report which includes US survey results about connected TVs along with a forecast for connected TV penetration through the middle of the decade. It just went live to Forrester clients last week. In the report, we show that thanks to the enthusiasm on the supply side, connected TVs are going to sell like proverbial hotcakes. By 2015, we forecast that more than 43 million US homes will have at least one. That's a remarkable number, especially considering that we entered 2010 with fewer than 2 million connected TV homes in the US.
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.