Steve Jobs’ latest mouthing off about the market for electronic books and dedicated ereader devices like the Amazon Kindle has sparked the usual conflagration of comments, interpretations and predictions. Some are way off-base, others quite savvy. But after seeing a bit on Techcrunch claiming that everyone was misinterpreting Jobs, it seems like some further clarity is needed. Top Apple folks like Jobs sometimes speak less than honestly about the company’s views and intentions. But in this case, Jobs was just stating the obvious and getting in a few digs at Amazon. There’s still not going to be an Apple-branded ebook business and Apple’s still not going to “kill” the Kindle.
So where to start? The story really begins back in January, 2008, when Jobs first commented publicly about the Kindle. But let’s go in reverse chronological order, starting with the goofy Techcrunch post by MC Siegler:
Basically, most people are interpreting what Jobs said about eBook readers to mean that Apple plans to completely stay away from the market. But that’s not actually what Jobs said at all…Translation: We’re making a tablet, and eBooks will be a part of those. Jobs isn’t saying Apple isn’t interested in eBooks, he’s saying that Apple isn’t interested in making a stand-alone eBook reader.
I’m always a little suspect when someone claims to be refuting what “most people” are saying without identifying or linking to any of these supposed people. In fact, for the past three years or so, the question has never much been whether Apple would make a single-purpose, dedicated ereader device (Astute commenter Rex Hammock notes that there was such a debate in mid-2006 over an Apple patent filing but that predates the release of both the Kindle and the Sony Reader). The argument has always been over whether Apple would start selling ebooks on its own out of the iTunes Store, in its own proprietary format, as it does for music and movies. That would require Apple to negotiate directly with book publishers, as it does with the major record labels and Hollywood studios. So here’s what Jobs actually said¹ to Times’ reporter David Pogue the other day:
“I’m sure there will always be dedicated devices, and they may have a few advantages in doing just one thing. But I think the general-purpose devices will win the day because I think people just probably aren’t willing to pay for a dedicated device. You notice Amazon never says how much they sell; usually if they sell a lot of something, you want to tell everybody.
We don’t see that it’s a really big market at this point. And in the future, the more general-purpose devices will tend to win the day. I’m not sure that Amazon, as an example, really cares that much about being in the hardware business. If I were Amazon, I’d love selling stuff where I didn’t have to have a warehouse, didn’t need UPS.”
So does this somehow revive the theory, popular at one time, that Apple is about to start its own line of ebooks, one that will be so successful that Amazon would be forced to drop its entire Kindle effort, stranding Kindle customers with a dead format and useless hardware? Not at all. It’s the status quo all over again². Apple will allow others, including Amazon, to offer ebook readers taking a cut of sales when and where it can. There’s almost nothing newsworthy about what Jobs said!
I used to have to argue against this Apple ebook domination theory all over the place but then in March, 2009, Apple allowed Amazon to post a free Kindle-compatible ereader app in the iTunes app store (several less well known ereader apps had already been approved). That’s when people saw the writing on the wall and conceded. Apple was content to allow others to take all the risks, fight all the fights and see if there was a serious market for ebooks.
Jobs recent comments also sound like he was listening back in June when Jeff Bezos told the Times that Amazon planned to make profits from both Kindle devices and Kindle ebooks — that Kindle was essentially in two different markets:
“The device team has the job of making the most remarkable purpose-built reading device in the world,” Mr. Bezos said. “We are going to give the device team competition. We will make Kindle books, at the same $9.99 price points, available on the iPhone, and other mobile devices and other computing devices.”
Apple’s decision to allow others to sell ebooks for the iPhone/iPod Touch platform isn’t inconsistent with Jobs’ January 2008 comments. Like many others (cough – Forrester – cough, cough), Jobs predicted utter failure for the Kindle, also in an exclusive interview with David Pogue:
Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”
Of course, the Kindle didn’t go nowhere and the whole conception was hardly flawed. And in Jobs more recent comments, he’s apparently upgraded his view of the ebook market from “nowhere” to not “a really big market at this point.” Maybe in another year, he’ll concede it’s “almost colossal” or something.
In Daring Fireball-fashion, I have two addendum/footnotes:
¹ As MC rightly points out, David Pogue’s post inrterviewing Jobs was altered from the original, deleting several comments. But the change is irrelevent to the points made here. Pogue cut the following direct quote: “We don’t see that it’s a really big market at this point. And in the future, the more general-purpose devices will tend to win the day. I’m not sure that Amazon, as an example, really cares that much about being in the hardware business. If I were Amazon, I’d love selling stuff where I didn’t have to have a warehouse, didn’t need UPS.” And he replaced it with this summary: “He said that Apple doesn’t see e-books as a big market at this point.”
² Please don’t bring up that story about the new music comic book in the iTunes store to argue that Apple’s getting into ebooks, either. Please. (Update: Internet smartie Rex Hammock brings it up in the comments. Frak! Now I’ll have to take a closer look but I think it’s more like fancy liner notes and digital “extras” to sell music tracks than the future of the next Stephen King novel)