In Tablet Battle, Amazon and Apple Could Slight Readers

January 21, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 13 4 min read

coverApple’s tablet will be unveiled to the planet via a special event on January 27. Industry watchers and gadget hounds have been tracking news of an Apple tablet for years now and will likely incite a frenzy of analysis as they attempt to parse the meaning of the new device.

In the wildest scenarios, the Apple tablet, some hybrid of the iPhone and the MacBook, is, through Apple’s formidable interface design expertise, a revolutionary device that utterly transforms how people compute and connect. The pessimistic view is that the device fails to generate widespread interest from consumers already happy enough with their iPhones and MacBooks and ends up having limited niche appeal. Given Apple’s track record in recent years, I’d wager the outcome will be closer to the former case.

The tablet certainly has the potential to further revolutionize how people consume music, TV, and movies on the go, but the implications for the book, newspaper, and magazine industries are potentially much greater.

coverFor all the Kindle’s success, it remains in many ways a niche product, aimed at consumers who fit a certain narrow profile, namely avid readers. In 2007, the Associated Press reported that a quarter of Americans hadn’t read a single book in the prior year. And among those who did read that year, the average number of books read was seven. Even considering that you can get some non-book content on the Kindle, these numbers alone suggest that the market for the Kindle is limited.

Meanwhile, the Kindle is siphoning off some of the book industry’s best customers into this new format controlled by Amazon and with profit margins that seem to be constrained at best. The Kindle may get avid readers to read more (and maybe that increased volume will make up for the low profit margins), but the Kindle, with its high price tag (relative to not using an e-reader at all) and limited functionality, is not likely on the wish list of non-readers. However, while the Kindle isn’t turning those non-readers into readers, Apple’s tablet might.

In the technology world, “unitaskers” don’t last long. In the last few years alone, we’ve seen cellphones acquire ever more features and functions. There’s now no reason to carry with you a separate PDA, camera, address book, or music player. Standalone GPS devices are on their way out too and laptops could one day be largely cannibalized by handheld devices.

The Kindle, on the other hand, performs a single function and does it well, but no matter how good it is at being an e-reader, in the mass market, it’s always going to lose out to a device that can do more things. Owning a device that can do more things is cheaper than owning a bunch of separate devices and a single device takes up less space in a backpack or pocket. Beyond that, a device that can do more things is going to appeal to a much wider group of people.

Therein lies the potential promise of an Apple tablet with a robust e-reader built in. If Apple does the tablet right, it will be purchased by an order of magnitude more people than have purchased the Kindle, even with its likely $1000 price tag. Since launching the device, Amazon has likely sold somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million Kindles. Analysts are predicting that Apple sold more than 11 million iPhones in the fourth quarter of 2009 alone and will sell over 37 million in 2010. Looking farther out, analysts believe Apple could sell 50 million iPhones in 2011 and 80 million in 2012.

The bottom line is that an Apple tablet with e-reader capabilities, if it sells at even a fraction of the volume that the iPhone has, will quickly dwarf the reach of the Kindle. More importantly, it will be owned by thousands of people who are not a part of the Kindle demographic, and will therefore put an e-reader in the hands of millions of people who would not have otherwise bought one and will put e-books at the fingertips of those who might otherwise read less.

The big question mark here is just how good an e-reader the Apple tablet will be. We can already assume based on reports of talks between Apple and publishers that Apple plans on making a big move into the e-reader space, but the tablet is unlikely to have some characteristics that have made the Kindle a hit among serious readers. The Kindle’s non-backlit screen is easy on the eyes, a long battery life allows for uninterrupted reading sessions, and a dead simple interface keeps the focus on the book.

Apple’s tablet, meanwhile, may not have a non-backlit reading setting, is likely to have a far shorter battery life than the Kindle, and will likely be packed with so many enticing distractions that it’s hard to imagine getting much reading done. And, though consumers will likely buy the Apple tablet by the millions, the expected price tag of around $1,000 may turn off those who are primarily interested in the tablet for its e-reader capabilities, such as they are.

Interestingly, in the face of impending competition from Apple, Amazon is pushing the Kindle to become more of multitasker rather than focusing on the e-reader aspect of the device. This week the company announced that it will allow developers to create apps for the device, meaning that Kindle owners may sometime soon be able to access “a wide range of programs, including utilities like calculators, stock tickers and casual video games.” So much for finishing Proust.

If you’ve used a Kindle, you’re likely wondering why anyone would bother with a video game on that low-tech screen, and how the Kindle, in its current form, could possibly be good for anything beyond reading. Amazon is likely thinking the same thing, and as time goes on – and prodded by competition from Apple – the Kindle will be able to do more and more, the screen will get more high-tech, buttons will proliferate.

And so one wonders if, in the desire to create a mass market device, e-readers and tablets will be laden with ever more bells and whistles, to the detriment of their capabilities as e-readers. If that’s the case, a niche market for an e-reader that is focused on providing a good reading experience – and that alone – may thrive.

In the best case scenario multitasker tablets of all kinds thrive, don’t lose sight of providing a good reading experience, and integrate reading books, magazines, and newspapers back into our lives. If that happens, wherever we go, we are reading.

Previously: eBook Evolution: Amazon and Google on Different Paths, eBook Paths Converge

[Image credit: Mike McCaffrey]

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. I would love to buy a Kindle, but I’m not paying $250 for one. Perhaps if Amazon lowered their prices, they would sell more product.

  2. “Perhaps if Amazon lowered their prices, they would sell more product.”

    The laws of supply and demand would suggest that is a certainty. Of course, the laws of supply and demand are probably also what have Amazon setting the price where it is right now.

  3. Avid reader here who doesn’t want anything to do with e-readers of any sort!

    “However, while the Kindle isn’t turning those non-readers into readers, Apple’s tablet might.”

    Pulease! At most you might get some people buying a book or two to read electronically but when the newness wears off they will realize that a shiny electronic gadget is not going to magically make them love to read!

  4. Since you can now read books on a netbook, laptop, and smartphone (Kindle for PC, and others), I don’t see the Apple tablet doing anything more than what is already available for reading books. The tablet looks like it will be merely a flat netbook with a virtual keyboard. For me, reading a book on those devices strains the eyes and uses up the battery. An e-book reader for me is an addition to my netbook and smartphone. What I would prefer is an 8″ size e-reader.

  5. E-readers don’t turn non-readers into avid readers. It’s as simple as that. Maybe I’m cynical but I seriously doubt that an e-book functionality will cause people to suddenly love to read.

    So what if Apple outsells the Kindle, or the Nook for that matter? The markets are not at all the same. People who are willing to spend $250 to $400 on a dedicated e-reader that includes all the things that makes the Kindle experience so much like reading a book, aren’t going to be impressed with a computer-style reading functionality on the tablet. Reading e-books off a computer screen has been available for years—but it’s terrible for the eyes and inconvenient.

    It would be unrealistic to expect that Amazon would sell product the way that Apple does and I don’t think it’s a fair comparison: a dedicated e-reader to a multi-functioning computer with the capability to read a book. Not remotely the same. Now, if Apple came out with an e-Ink style reader, even as a Kindle owner, that would get my attention.

  6. Laza, good points – The danger that I was hoping to explore in my meandering way was that dedicated e-readers like the Kindle become so fixated on offering all the bells and whistles (apps, color screens, video capability, etc) that the features that make them good for reading are sidelined. You are right though that the Kindle and the Apple tablet will likely not be competing at the outset.

  7. Silence around the margin is something that you get free with a physical book. For me ereaders have got to have a ‘peace mode’ that replicates that for immersive reading. Then – depending on your discipline/concentration – you can read in depth and move out from there to do all the other tablet stuff.

    What will really make the tablet work for book readers is a combination of good looks and functionality with a screen that is both interactive and as comfortable to read as paper (or as near as). Following this is the issue of whether an ebook purchase is buying an entity that’s ‘yours’ to use as you will – like a book – or just a license with a whole host of restrictions. Book folk are habituated to the former obviously.

    Tablet and Kindle-style readers look like taking a hold in the ‘developed’ world but a major inflection point could be when phones with reading functionality start to reach the developing economies. The same countries without a landline infrastructure that have been rapidly telecom enabled by cheap cell phones are places where books are rare and expensive. A lot of the world’s poorest could eventually gain access to a mass of knowledge and culture that was formerly beyond their reach. Call me an optimist.

  8. Silence around the margin is something that you get free with a physical book. For me ereaders have got to have a ‘peace mode’ that replicates that for immersive reading. Then – depending on your discipline/concentration – you can read in depth and move out from there to do all the other tablet stuff.

    Well said, David. I think this is actually a frontier in computing, with programs like OmmWriter attempting to create at least the illusion of seclusion so that one might get some creative work done without drifting off to…wherever.

  9. Max, point definitely taken. And I agree with you on that and my point was sort of an extension of that. I couldn’t help but focus on some of the other comments too. Part of what makes the Kindle so great is that you completely forget you’re not reading a book. For me, at least, even the clicking doesn’t take me out of the zone. I just can’t see that happening on the iPad where the focus will be more on making it look flashy and sexy rather than just being able to read the text comfortably. If the iPad changes dedicated e-readers to the point that the focus is no longer on the text, I’ll definitely be disappointed. Amazon needs to find a way to integrate better technology (some kind of touch pad/screen for better navigation and better home screen organization) but keep the focus on the needs of the serious reader.

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