It 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