The International Business Times seems to be running a special line in anti-Amazon snark. This time it’s the UK edition, covering Waterstones’ withdrawal of Kindle e-readers from sale, under the headline “Waterstones kills Kindle: Why the ereader flopped and paper is making a comeback.” And as with certain other reports on the same story, the UK IBT doesn’t bother to mention that Waterstones only said some stores would be taking Kindles off their shelves. That said, the UK IBT did – inadvertently – raise an interesting point about where the Kindle is going.
The Bookseller ‘s earlier report on the Waterstones story quoted Douglas McCabe, CEO of Enders Analysis, saying: “the e-reader may turn out to be one of the shortest-lived consumer technology categories.” And it takes just one Google to turn up links going back at least three years about the decline of the e-reader device category versus general-purpose tablets. But who created the e-reader category in the first place? Arguably, Amazon. After all, Amazon was the firm who pushed the Kindle to category-defining status. The Sony Reader and other book-oriented hardware came before the Kindle. But the Kindle is the category killer of e-reading devices, just as Amazon itself is instanced as the category killer for online retail. And who just killed that category? Amazon.
I don’t mean that dedicated e-readers will cease to exist. I do mean that they will recede into a very narrow niche, with less and less influence on the e-book market as a whole. (Something like digital photo frames are now, maybe.) Why? Because Amazon, the category killer in e-book sales as well, is now throwing its muscle behind a flagship general-purpose tablet that undercuts its own category-defining e-reader on price. And it’s pushing it through the same channels, under the same brand umbrella, head to head with the Kindle itself.
Yes, I’m talking about the new Amazon Kindle Fire 7″ tablet. And yes, I may have been sniffy about Amazon’s attempts to strong-arm us all into calling it simply the “Fire” or even “fire.” But I’m not remotely sniffy about its advantages, and its prospects.
I mean, imagine you’re A. General Reader, or T. Gadget Buyer, going online to Amazon to buy a Christmas prezzie, or just making an impulse purchase. You’re presented with a choice of the Kindle Fire 7 at $49.99, with color screen, audio, video, expandable memory, games, the Amazon Appstore, etc. etc. Or the basic Kindle at $79.99. Your extra thirty bucks is going to buy you a black and white screen, and no apps, no video, no etc., no etc. Yes, you will have a screen you can read in bright sunlight. Is that really going to make you shell out the extra?
And why would Amazon want you to? If they put the Kindle Fire 7 into your hands at so much less than the basic Kindle – though still at a manufacturing cost they can easily afford – and sell you videos, games, music, and apps, as well as e-books, why wouldn’t they? Oh, and link you in to their broader e-commerce and online shopping offering too, for everything from groceries to $120,000 chandeliers. Yes, the new Kindle Fire 7 will cannibalize Amazon’s sales of e-paper Kindles, but Amazon is going to be one fat, happy cannibal.
It’s very hard now to imagine Amazon launching a new e-paper e-reader in future unless it’s either much cheaper than the Kindle Fire 7, or offers some other breakthrough technology or dazzling services. (Ultrathin ultralight e-paper devices, maybe? Full color e-paper?) The new Kindle Fire 7 will support e-book sales growth well enough, as well as other content areas. Amazon is still seeing its Kindle readership grow across platforms from smartphones to desktops. And as the UK IBT did imply, people who don’t like onscreen reading are simply likely to plump for printed paper. The ones who plump for e-paper instead will be a vanishingly small minority. Amazon will likely just let them scrabble in the no-brand Asian-made gadget bargain bin.
Plus, the UK IBT quotes Amazon as saying: “our devices are now available in over 2,500 retail locations across the UK, including Argos, Tesco, Dixons, John Lewis and recent additions like Sainsbury’s, Boots and Shop Direct. Our UK, US and worldwide Kindle book sales are growing in 2015.” Sounds like Waterstones, not Amazon, are the ones losing out.
Yes, this may signal the terminal retreat of the e-reader as a dedicated device linked to books, and bookstores. And the final migration of tablets suitable for e-reading into the general electronics category. But the demise of the e-book market as a whole? No way. Amazon may have just rung the death knell for a hardware type it pioneered, but it’s by no means written finis to e-readers as a software/app category, or to its own domination of the e-book market. That’s only likely to grow – if need be, from the grave of the old style Kindle.