Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Regarding the Kindle and "Did Apple Blow It?"

No. Apple, and even in some headlines, "Steve Jobs", did not "blow it" by failing to enter the hardware eBook space.

The sales fire stoked by the Kindle is a small controlled burn by consumer electronics standards. Sales of 500,000 are excellent, but not for an Apple device. Even 500,000 sales in one weekend would be "disappointing" for "analysts", so Apple probably didn't want to get stung by what would be spun as witheringly weak sales reports no matter how much eBook share they grabbed. Why couldn't Apple sell 1m eBook readers if they did a great job? Sure, they could, eventually. The industry now is too young, younger than the pre-iPod MP3 player market, for sure, and definitely younger than the pre-iPhone smartphone market, to deliver those numbers.

Also, the Kindle comes with 3G service included. Apple's entangling alliances in that field are well known, but I will say it anyway: an Apple eBook content network driven over Sprint's network would not play well with AT&T, on whom Apple relies for its, er, "other" 3G project. Why not bundle 3G with the iPhone or iPod Touch, or even our mythical reader? Even if such a move were obviously rational, Apple hasn't shown any desire to go in that direction, preferring the subsidy/carrier model. They don't seem to want to switch. An iPod Touch or MacBook Air with 3G is the most radical I can see Apple getting. Certainly, a new paradigm of connectivity ("it's included!") is not best rolled out as part of a new paradigm of product, at least, for Apple. Amazon seems OK with offering a doubly unusual package, and seeing how it sells.

The Kindle also does one thing really well - process and display free and not-free text. It does a good job negotiating DRM issues with the latter, via Amazon.com. What the Kindle isn't is a software platform. It doesn't run an OS with anything like the chops of OS X. Who knows what is hacked up to operate it, but it isn't able to go beyond "what it takes to make the Amazon Kindle tick", end of story. Apple has far greater aspirations for its hardware and software. The "Classics" app, which comes with public domain books and allows for dressy reading on the iPhone, encompasses the Kindle's mission and then some, and the device also makes phone calls, plays music, and offers a few hundred thousand other applications or features. Apple's target market is that which is encompassed by a palm-sized OS X machine constrained to signed applications and a branded network. The putative Apple Kindle-sized device with physical keyboard, and iPod shuffle-sized "page" buttons, takes a once-elegant, pocketable iPod/iPhone device, and makes it far less interesting to most of the market. Yes, a small segment of the market may buy the Apple device instead of a Kindle to accompany their smartphone, but Apple's current offering captures most of those customers, and does not sacrifice dozens of other markets.

So, to all of those who wish Apple was out front in eBooks, please turn to the Nomad Jukebox for a good representation of the last pre-iPod stab at mobile music, and then envision the best Kindle 3 you can. Both were or are, respectively, cannon fodder for the palm platform of universals, not vertical niches, that Apple is building. Will we someday see an iPhone with a bigger screen and a narrower market target? Sure. It certainly won't be sold as an eBook reader first, and everything else later, no matter how many Kindles Amazon sells.

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