images.jpgIt should be clear by now that the only time Amazon likes to announce a feature is when a competitor–usually Barnes & Noble–has something to announce. The Kindle 2 price cut this summer happened a few hours after B&N’s price cut. The long-requested (and long-denied) feature of gifting Kindle books was announced the same day B&N started shipping the Nook Color.

Amazon teased that it would soon allow ebook lending a few days before Barnes & Noble held its heavily promoted Nook Color press event; I imagine the preemptive strike was intended to give pundits an extra talking point when they compared the new Nook to the Kindle.

And now, apparently caught up short by the U.S. launch of Google Books, Amazon will today preview its own web-based ebook reader to the press. Google’s web interface for ebooks is one of its biggest selling points over the Kindle ecosystem, so it makes sense for Amazon to finally lift the lid on this long-missing feature.

Here’s my only partly tongue-in-cheek idea of how things work with Amazon, based on this pattern of announcements:

* The company has a spreadsheet of possible features and product changes, but won’t roll out anything new unless it identifies a specific threat from a narrow list of enemies. The current enemies list is just B&N and Google.
* These potential announcements range from huge game-changers–aka a steep price drop or new model announcement–to what are essentially PR blitzes designed to steal focus from competitors or counter negative PR.
* What doesn’t trigger a response: anything tablet related. This is yet more evidence (if any is needed) that dedicated ereaders and multi-purpose tablets aren’t in the same product category, at least according to Amazon’s business strategy, no matter how many times the media tries to force this connection.
* With the exception of gifting–which really was just a customized gift card feature and probably required almost no added expense to turn on–most of the new features are works in progress and not fully baked when announced. Kindle ebook lending, extended periodical subscription access, and today’s forthcoming web interface all have yet to be seen in reality, even though they’re getting press coverage.

It seems clear that if you really want to see what Amazon has up its sleeve, your best strategy as a competitor is to engineer a massive prank on Amazon, by creating a fake super-ereader and announcing it to the press during an expensive media event. If you get crazy enough with your fake device, you could probably trigger Amazon’s team to dump its entire secret feature matrix on the press!

…Okay, that’s probably not very plausible. But based on Amazon’s behavior to increased competition in 2010–the fact that its current strategy is mostly defensive, and mostly relegated to very minor works-in-progress features–I’m making the following guesses about what’s going on. (Sure, I’m no smartypants analyst, but I accurately predicted the Kindle 3 lineup and pricing back in June.)

On the touch screen issue, the fact that Amazon didn’t already do this to compete with Sony means one or both of the following: that the technology is too expensive for Amazon’s current profit model, and that it doesn’t see Sony as a real competitor right now. Considering how everyone who uses one of Sony’s new touchscreen readers (the ones with the cool infrared sensors) raves about them, and considering how natural a fit touch technology is with this product category, I imagine Amazon is going to have to do something about this very soon. I expect a higher-priced touchscreen Kindle next year–something priced in the Sony Daily Reader/Nook Color range, and probably with a slightly larger Pearl screen to further differentiate it from the Kindle 6″ and the DX, but sans stylus. I’ve possibly missed some acquisition but it seems like one path Amazon is looking into is IFSR sensor technology from Touchco, which it acquired earlier this year. Unfortunately, that solution requires messing with the actual display, so it may never be practical for E-Ink.

On the color screen issue, I think the reason Amazon hasn’t gone this route yet is due entirely to its limited options for an operating system. The only solution I can think of that would be both affordable and consumer-friendly would be a customized version of Android, and that would cede too much control so it’s probably off the table. If Mirasol can actually deliver a quality full color electronic ink screen like it’s been promising, and it can be produced affordably, then this might still be considered as a last minute tease. But it doesn’t make sense to try to get into Apple’s space unless you can at minimum compete with the Nook Color, which is an excellent device for its price. I don’t expect to see this in a Kindle product any time soon, then.

Finally, on the question of the EPUB format, I think it could happen any day now, but probably won’t as long as Amazon remains on top. I’d bet money that this feature is on Amazon’s threat-response matrix as an option of last resort. It’s likely very easy to implement but will come at a huge cost, which is that it will gives Kindle owners tacit permission to buy ebooks elsewhere or check them out from the library. (I don’t think most would, considering the prices and customer service Amazon offers isn’t replicated elsewhere at the moment, but I’m sure Amazon would prefer not to take the risk.) I think if Amazon starts to feel too threatened by B&N or Google, this is the biggest add-on it can toss out to the public that doesn’t require the expense of new hardware or OSes. But that also means that as long as Amazon maintains a healthy lead in the market, we won’t see EPUB support.

Via Chris Walters’ Booksprung blog

12 COMMENTS

  1. At the risk of beating a dead horse, Amazon already supports ePub – you can download the free, small, Kindlegen program from Amazon, which will convert any standards-compliant ePub book into something readable on the Kindle in seconds (or use calibre to convert all the *non*-standard-compliant ePubs that get published these days).

    Amazon paying to license Adobe’s (or Apple’s, but really…who cares?) closed, proprietary Denial of Rights Malware? Probably less likely than Sony, B&N, Apple, Kobo, or Google paying to license Amazon’s DRM. Don’t mistake the file format for the DRM.

  2. At the risk of protecting that dead horse from being beaten, that is not the issue. Mobipocket doesn’t support many features which are common in epub; even using Kindlegen produces a substandard version of an ebook. If you’re dealing with simple text books, then maybe I could live with a crappy mobi-to-epub conversion. But come on. Don’t we already live in an age where people expect floating sidebars and images and colored borders and backgrounds?

    This mobipocket format is really hurting Amazon when they try to spread to different devices. What is minimally acceptable in an e-ink reader looks like crap in the Kindle for ipad (and vice versa).

    I rant about this issue in a longer way here .

  3. There are actually two sides to the ePub business: one is ePub support on the Kindle, which I suppose you are talking about. This would indeed give up the bonding of Kindle owners to the Amazon ebook shop. The other side is selling ebooks in ePub format. This would give them a whole new multitude of new customers, especially outside of the USA.
    One problem with ePub is that part of the chain is outside of Amazon’s control (the Adobe DRM) and it seems that they want to control the whole chain. This is not surprising as it makes it possible for them to give a much better customer service. All the problems with Adobe DRM that give customers (and ebook sellers) head aches are almost absent in the Kindle world.

  4. Hey, nook fan Peter here. The Kindle fan Peter already commented.

    Normally I don’t want Kindle to do anything but die, so take this with a grain of salt, but I don’t think epub support would make any sense for them any at this point.

    The way I see it Amazon knows they have already lost the format war, and their market share has peaked, and now they need to figure out how to make a sustainable profit while maintaining best-in-class status somewhere.

    Can they profit from the hardware? Not even close. Getting the Kindle hardware to the point where it will sell profitably would require not just adding epub, but also a touchscreen, color (both e-ink and lcd), and probably apps (they would also have to back off on their own apps and customer service). That’s too uphill. Leave tablet and smartphone manufacturing to Apple and dedicated reader manufacturing to Borders/Kobo and Barnes and Noble (Frankenborders).

    How about a profiting from the e-bookstore? They can make a little here, but e-bookstores are a commodity now. Maximizing profits here would require either repairing strained relationships with publisher’s, convincing them to drop the agency model; or out-distributing Google with a non-standard format. That’s uphill as well. Leave e-distribution of mass market books to Google.

    So that leaves profiting from e-publishing. This is where Kindle can shine. Push DTP over smashwords and pubit. Sell the books through apps everywhere, and add browser distribution to get sales on nook and other e-readers. Granted, this means customers are no longer locked into buying new Kindle hardware, but they don’t want to sell that anymore anyways. The proprietary format isn’t really a liability for DTP books since Apple and Google and BKS won’t be selling their own versions to compete with the browser. Maybe someday Amazon will even participate in Google’s affiliate program.

  5. True believers who seek Amazon to cave in to the oh-so-miraculous ePub “standard” should beware. They just might get it; in the worst possible way. ‘Cause Amazon can easily graft *their* DRM on a fully standards-compliant reader app and further balkanize the already fragmented ePub market. The resulting frakas would easily buy them a year or two of consumer-level confusion and they could easily end up the single largest ePub retailer by the time the dust settles. Let sleeping dogs lie; the consumer cost of ideological purity is *not* worth it. And, so far, there is zero indication that the marketplace (unlike enthusiasts and pundits) finds mobi-format inadequate.

    Amazon’s competitive profile is, as pointed out, mostly defensive and aimed at the media and punditry for the simple reason that, where it really matters, in the consumer space, it already has a dominant mindshare. Even those who end up buying something else will cross-shop the Kindle. They are already selling all the Kindles they can make and further moves to totally crush competitors risks unwanted bureaucratic attention without significantly improving sales.

    Amazon already sells half the ebook readers on the planet.
    They sell on the order of 70% of the ebooks in the single largest active market and footholds in several others. They see no reason to go after niches like LCD color and touchscreen fans.
    They are the clear market leaders with their existing, coherent strategy and see no reason for major changes; they’ve placed their bet on Kindle 3 and their proprietary format to success and are now letting it ride as far as it goes.
    Anything else is just throwing bones to keep the media and punditry fed and quiet.

  6. “…yet more evidence (if any is needed) that dedicated ereaders and multi-purpose tablets aren’t in the same product category, at least according to Amazon’s business strategy, no matter how many times the media tries to force this connection.”

    Exactly what many consumers have been saying for months. No slam on either device…they’re just different categories.

    +++++

    Re: ePub — Yes, I expect Amazon will incorporate this…someday; but not while Amazon continues to hold their large market share advantage. As of today, even with all the devices out there using ePub, (though with each company adding its own DRM), there is no advantage for Amazon to jump on the ePub bandwagon. Right now, Amazon’s tight control of device and content makes for a seamless experience of the highest quality. No need to fix what ain’t really broke.

    It’s also important to remember that it is possible to download books for a Kindle from many other sites. The chronic “you’re stuck with only buying from Amazon” complaint is false and has been false since the first K came out in 2007.

    +++++

    re: touch and color — I know that this is just me wondering, but with the touch and color acquisitions that Amazon has made in the past year, it makes me think that they’re developing their own tablet type device to be marketed under the Amazon brand. To my thinking, a multi-purpose tablet with a totally separate from the K marketing strategy is the smartest way for Amazon to appeal to the touch-and-color-or-bust brigade while leaving their very happy, and huge, black and white e-ink consumer base in tact. If Amazon brands their own tablet, look for them to contract with a wireless provider to offer their own service plans at prices that undercut the competition.

  7. @Robert Nagle: “Don’t we already live in an age where people expect floating sidebars and images and colored borders and backgrounds?”

    No? In fact, in most cases, I expect – even demand – my books to be free of such.

    Being based around a more recent version of the HTML spec gives ePub some clear technical advantages, sure; the question is whether or not the inclusion of, say, drop-caps is worth the hassle of a Sonyesque mid-stream format switch.

    Also it’s worth keeping in mind that in the event Amazon *did* pick up ePub, they’d probably join Apple in demonstrating their u/t/t/e/r c/o/n/t/e/m/p/t support for open standards by wrapping the files in their own proprietary DRM, and in the process wade into customer-service quicksand. One of the Kindle’s selling points is you don’t have to be a hardcore techie – or even a own a computer – to use it. Now try explaining to that audience that just because Sony sells ePubs and Barnes and Noble sells ePubs and Apples sells ePubs you can’t read your B&N book with your Sony software or open your Apple book on your e-reader at all, and your KindelePub won’t open *any* of these.

  8. The secret to Amazon’s success is the storefront experience, DTP, and the tools, free readers, and simulators they provide (three for the PC alone). You can compile a MOBI before uploading and know exactly how it will look on the Kindle. The DTP interface is easy to navigate and pretty idiot-proof.

    As for this talk of “format wars,” keep in mind that the XML for MOBI, ePUB, and LIT is almost identical under the hood. Ebook readers are really just glorified browsers. I would be more surprised if Amazon didn’t have an ePUB-ready build of the Kindle OS ready to roll out when the market demands it.

  9. Lenne,
    You’re likely right on just about everything here. Computerworld’s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols already reported ( http://bit.ly/kwktab2 ) that Amazon sources said to him that Amazon IS working on a mass-market Android tablet. And, like you, I do expect it to be a supplementary device for color (magazines, travel and photography books, children’s books, etc.) .

  10. @Lenne & @Andrys: If Amazon does release an Android tablet that’s pitched beyond the Kindle category, I wonder if Amazon will integrate its video on demand and MP3 stores into it and not just use it to create a new “app store” market. After all, Amazon has a music store that rivals iTunes (I’m not so sure about its TV/Movie offerings), but no dedicated hardware to direct consumer focus. The TV/Movie angle in particular would set it apart from the Nook Color and elevate it to an all-purpose entertainment device.

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