Will e-book tech stand still for Amazon’? And what about this estimate of 400,000 units sold?

image In Why Amazon Doesn't Need Kindle 2.0, has a Forbes writer unwittingly provided ammo for those of us worried about Amazon's excessive clout in the e-book world?

Perhaps.

Andrew Greenberg writes that E Ink, whose tech Amazon uses, isn't planning major changes for around a year. And he believes that Amazon can get away without huge innovations.

400,000, not a mere 50,000

Greenberg passes on an estimate, from Forrester Research, that 400,000 Kindles have been sold. That's supposedly about 30 percent more than the number for Sony Readers despite a new Sony model, the PRS-700 (my question: has the 700 been in distribution that long?).

I suspect the 400,000 figure is correct. Hard to say. The issue isn't just the demand for Kindles but also the supply, and either could account for the long backorder time for shoppers. Still, propelled in part by the Oprah effect, you can't deny that Amazon has achieved a certain amount of momentum. Forrester's  optimistic figures are quite a change from the past, when an analyst there predicted Kindle sales of perhaps 50,000 in the first year.

The smugness issue

But can Amazon really be as smug as Greenberg says it could? I can see both sides. On one hand, Amazon controls not only the Kindle format but also Mobipocket, and yes, it would appear to be E Ink's major customer. Imagine, furthermore, all the tens of thousands of books in both formats.

On the other hand, Greenberg's piece ignores the existence of competing e-paper technology from Plastic Logic, nor does it bother to address Sony's plans to enable customers to download books wirelessly from a number of independent bookstores. In another post today, I'll point to a video of Plastic Logic's imrpessive gadgetry in action.

What’s more, keep in mind the efforts of Lexcycle (Stanza’s developers) and eReader to make e-book buying Kindle-simple on the iPhone and other devices. They’re not there yet, but they are trying hard.

How publishers could encourage technical innovation

You know who could really make the difference in encouraging e-book tech to move forward rather than just just fall back into a smug, Amazon-dominated approach? Publishers. I’d urge them not just to keep expanding the range of titles for Amazon but also go out of their way to accommodate Sony, Lexcycle, eReader and other competitors

Along the way, publisher should also watch out for Apple’s possible efforts to muscle aside third-party software houses and try to herd publishers into an iTunes-style arrangement—without other attractive retail choices being available. In the long term, Amazon isn’t the only possible monopoly. So beware.

Monopolies are the last thing the e-book world needs. With the clout that publishers can exercise, however, through their control of content, the industry has a chance to avoid the not-so-delightful scenario in the Greenberg article.

7 Comments on Will e-book tech stand still for Amazon’? And what about this estimate of 400,000 units sold?

  1. As you noted (I think), Kindle 2 is said to be delayed while Bezos tinkers with the software a bit more. I suspect that Oprah caused the inventories of Kindle 1 to be cleaned out, and that no more Kindle 1’s will be manufactured.

    So the journalist at Forbes doesn’t seem to understand that what makes the Kindle the hit that it is, and the runaway leader among all the me-too 6″ eInk screen devices, is the software — not the screen.

    In fact, the chief Achilles’ Heel of the Kindle, IMO, lies in sticking with eInk as the sole display tech. This means: no color, and slow screen refreshes (which means no animations).

    If Amazon were to release a Pixel Qi variant of the Kindle, or even release Kindle-editions-reading software for the iPhone, PC, or Mac laptops or desktops, the company would face the prospect of some Kindle editions wanting to provide color and perhaps animations (I can see science textbooks being aided by animations to show how processes work, or even small video clips). These editions would not work on the eInk Kindle, so that fragments the Kindle publishing empire, and could lead to readers being frustrated when they buy a color Kindle-edition and can’t read it properly on their eInk monochrome Kindle 1 or 2.

    This seems to me to force Amazon into a box: they will have to stick with grayscale eInk Kindles, and forego the alternatives, until they make the switch to all color Kindles (Kindle 3, maybe?).

    In the meantime this opens up a market advantage for any ebook device maker who will offer color screens. Most of the ebook devices are sticking with eInk and will lose this edge, but if any of them make the leap to Pixel Qi, they could offer books that Amazon can’t. Similarly, if Apple comes out with a larger iPod Touch, say with a 7″ screen, the App Store could start offering manga and comics in full color.

  2. David,

    I don’t think there’s a publisher in America who doesn’t agree with you. We love Amazon, but fear the idea of any monopoly–whether it’s Barnes and Noble in the physical bookstore world or Amazon in the on-line world.

    Supporting multiple formats does have its costs–especially for small publishers without sophisticated change management software. But I don’t see any alternative than to continue to expand our range of supported formats. Wouldn’t it be great if ePub really were universal on all devices? For the record, I’m now up to seven formats: HTML, Adobe PDF, Palm DOC, Microsoft Reader, ePub, Mobipocket (unencrypted Mobipocket can be read on the Kindle. Mobipocket handles conversion to encrypted Kindle), and Sony. It adds up to a fair amount of work. As far as I can tell, though, it’s necessary.

    Rob Preece
    Publisher, http://www.BooksForABuck.com

  3. Great post, Pond–espeically with the reminder of Pixel Q’s existence. It’s another reason why the e-book world shouldn’t be so E Ink-centric. Nothing against E Ink. But people need to look beyond. Meanwhile you’ve nicely reinforced my point that tech won’t stand still just because Amazon wants it to.

    Thanks,
    David

  4. Well, Rob, your inclusion of ePub has certainly helped the cause. Thanks for your good work in that area–as owner of BooksForABuck.

    As for Amazon alternatives, I’m delighted that Pan Mac and some other houses are making deals with Lexcycle/Stanza. But I’d like to see still more. And not just with Lexcycle!

    By the way, the issue isn’t simply alternative tech but also a genuine willingness to take a stand against Amazon’s monopolistic ambitions, in other respects. At least a few publishers are far, far more tolerant of Amazon’s dominance than you’d think. They’re so worried about piracy that they love the idea of Amazon locking up books in DRM.

    Oh, and I also can recall reading that Amazon is still insisting on DRMing of publishers’ Kindle books (same for Mobi in the case of the Amazon-owned store). Not a good sign. If publishers value their independence, this forced DRM needs to stop. Publishers should speak up. Amazon is using DRM is a way to enforce its format clout—as a tool to try to control the industry.

    Thanks,
    David

  5. Both Pixel Qi and Plastic Logic (and while we’re at it, Readius, Qualcomm’s reflective display, Fujitsu Flepia, Epson’s and Brother’s A4 E-Ink devices etc) are just prototypes at this point, and who knows when they’ll get anything close to commercial production. Anyone remembers Librie and how long it took until current VizPlex screens? Saying “Amazon should use screen X” is all well and good, but not very useful if the said screen is not really available.

  6. Bob Martinengo // December 2, 2008 at 2:52 pm //

    Funny, but this discussion just made me think Amazon may have planted the seeds of their own undoing, at least in the ebook market. Amazon made its way to the top of the heap by mastering physical book inventory and distribution. I mean, I love finding what I need/want/gotta have and, click, its on its way.

    But the ebook market is different, in that there are not the same barriers to entry – huge warehouses and shipping challenges. So, its quite possible a new ebook ‘superstore’ could challenge Amazon’s dominance. I think all this has been touched on in various Teleread posts, so I don’t claim this is a very original viewpoint.

    What does seem new is the clarity with which it appears Amazon is actively maneuvering to close off the avenues a competitor might take, which is a sure sign they see the writing on the wall themselves, and are working to prevent this scenario from happening. Which, if you think about it, means that it probably will happen.

  7. Actually, I think Barnes & Noble could outdo Amazon in a flash if it enabled people to download ebook versions of books both from B&N.com and in its physical stores. I would love to be able to go into my local B&N, browse the shelves for books, select a few, and then proceed to the checkout with my Sony Reader in hand and pay for the books and have them downloaded to my Reader. I would end up buying more books than I currently do. Of course, the ebook versions would have to cost less than the pbook version, but I can see this scenario as a a win-win scenario — a win for me and a win for B&N — and a losing scenario for Amazon.

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