The e-book revolution is about to take off? The launch of the Amazon Kindle has left many wondering whether the newest ebook reading device introduced by Amazon is a major misjudged flop or if it really represents one more convincing piece in the making of the emerging ebook publishing industry puzzle.
Antonio Tombolini, Italy's foremost e-book commercial expert and the first Italian distributor of these devices, looks into the Amazon Kindle launch and openly dissects the state of the ebook marketplace while characterizing the different players involved.
Notwithstanding his personal commercial interests in all of this, the panorama Antonio Tombolini paints allows anyone interested in e-books to get a clear idea of what are the devices today available in the market and their key pros and cons.
Finally, the long-awaited Amazon e-Book platform, the Kindle, is out. After months of rumours and anticipations Jeff Bezos has broken the silence and used all of his PR and marketing fanfare (quite well put together indeed) for the launch of Amazon first official electronic ink-based ebook reading device.
About the device per se there is not really a lot to say: it was well known that the Kindle would have utilized e-ink just like its direct competitors Sony, iLiad and Cybook (these are the only ebook reading devices available today on the market: Kindle and Sony only in the US while iLiad and Cybook are distributed also in Europe). It was well known that the delays that have slowed down its launch were not due to the necessity of fixing the hardware but only to the need of closing a sufficient number of licensing agreements with major book publishers to guarantee a solid inventory of content to offer with the new device.
What was much less clear until now, and which has now been fully clarified by the official public launch of the Kindle, is the choice of business model selected by Amazon.
In this direction, I must confess, I had totally misinterpreted earlier market signals and my expectations were for a much different kind of marketing and sales strategy.
My original idea was that Bezos would have gone for a strategy of subsidizing the ebook hardware devices as to make the offer of buying digitals book even more compelling. In this light, I was expecting "ebook bundles", subscription services and even rechargeable pre-paid cards opening the way for a new way of consuming book content much like we have in the mobile cellular market: I give you the telephone for free or almost for free and in exchange you sign a service contract for "x" years.
But it didn't turn out to be like this.
Amazon is selling its Kindle at $400, 50 dollars more of the Sony Portable Reader (which has the same identical display technology, same display size: in favour of the Kindle there is 3G connectivity to directly download books from Amazon without needing to go through a PC; in favour of the Sony there is the much better and more ergonomic design of the ebook device).
The business model adopted therefore is the one of the Apple iPod: you buy this hardware, with which you will be able to connect to this shop, from which you will be able to read and download books, which, to close the circle, are accessible only by using this device (the Kindle).
What is quite remarkable in all of his, is the fact that to make this strategy work, Amazon has had to create a unique proprietary format for the content of these e-books. In fact, nonetheless Amazon had bought a few years back French company Mobipocket, which had developed one of the key alternative formats to PDF for ebook use, the Kindle now utilizes a modified-version of the Mobipocket format called "Kindle Edition".
The overall panorama of the e-book marketplace is therefore becoming now clearer, both from the viewpoint of the defining technical traits of this new category of devices as well as from viewpoint fo the different business models adopted.
From a strictly technological viewpoint the four ebook readers available on the market today can be divided into groups:
All three utilize the standard e-Ink technology, with a 600x800 6' inch display capable of four shades of gray. All three are ebook readers-only as they can only read the contents downloaded onto their memories. All three have similar prices: $350 for the Sony, $400 for the Amazon Kindle, €350 for the Cybook.
The major difference among these three e-book devices is in fact to be found in their compatibility with different ebook formats:
Relative to the software that comes with each e-book device, it seems that Amazon has released the source code for the Kindle, creating an opportunity for third-party developers to create complementary applications (but what can be developed on that platform? A PDF viewer? I would like to hear some comments on this). Cybook and Sony have not done the same keeping their software fully closed.
On the other hand I have noticed from my own direct experience that the Cybook guys have been much more open to suggestions, advice and new ideas (while Sony has not shown any such interest).
b) In the second group... which is not even a group there is only one e-book device: the iLiad.
The iLiad Rex has chosen a completely different strategy from all of the e-book players in the market. In fact, while the iLiad is based on the same e-Ink display technology of the other competitors, this device goes well beyond being a standard e-book reading-only device.
For example, at 8.1" inches and with a resolution of 768x1024, the iLiad Rex display is considerably larger and more defined than its competitors' offerings.
With the iLiad Rex you can also write and annotate (in PDF files) any document you are viewing. The iLiad can be fully used as a note-taker and as input device for forms or other structured documents. Furthermore the iLiad is equipped with Wi-Fi connectivity capable of working with either a remote or local server via IP.
Finally, what seems to be the least visible and marketable asset of the iLiad: its open-source code around which a growing community of developers has already started to produce interesting tools (viewers, games, planners, browser…).
When a few days ago I have seen my daughter download her Gmail on her iLiad (thanks to a thid-party developed tool called Minimo), iLiad strengths has suddenly become much clearer to me.
Obviously all of this extra has its price: the iLiad list price is now €650 (apx. $965).
Antonio Tombolini -
Disclosure: Antonio Tombolini, the author of this article, originally written in Italian, has the first Italian e-book device distribution company as well as the first publishing company devoted to this specific market. He sells some of the above described devices online, only for the Italian market. His company, Simplicissimus Books, sells both the Cybook and iLiad ebook devices. Simplicissimus books has also been a sponsor of Robin Good TV.