There are many, many unanswered questions about Apple’s forthcoming tablet computing device, or the “God tablet” perhaps I should call it. For those of us particularly concerned about the future of electronic books, I have one pointed question for Apple. Will the company, which at times acts against its own customer interests, allow competing ebook vendors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony onto its new tablet? Or will it boot the competition in favor of its own iTunes ebook store? You know, one ereader to rule them all and in the darkness bind them…
There’s little question among the Mac-erati that the tablet will follow the software model of the iPhone/iPod Touch and not the Mac itself. That is, customers will not be allowed to load any software they want. Customers will be limited to software offered at Apple’s iTunes app store. Apple has been much and rightly criticized for its slow and ham-handed management of the app store approval process.
But at least for right now, Apple is letting all of its potential ebook competitors offer ebook reading apps. The Kindle iPhone app is usually the top-ranked download in the book section and B&N’s app is usually second or third. If Apple sticks with this policy and just adds its own ebook store, likely with its own proprietary digital rights management lockdowned formatting, I don’t think Apple is going to have much impact on the ebook market.
Why no impact? After cozying up to the music labels and granting them an unprecedented 30% price hike last year, Apple now appears to be sucking up to book publishers. Apple will reportedly let publishers set prices and conditions for sales of all ebooks on its new platform. That’s a recipe for disaster with consumers. Publishers want to keep prices high and further reduce the value of ebooks by limiting the ability to share or resell them, prohibit computerized audio reading and generally delay the inevitable as long as possible.
To see just how little traction this kind of strategy is likely to garner, recall Apple’s former darling ebook app vendor, Scrollmotion, and its hideously overpriced Iceberg reader app. Given prime stage time at last June’s World Wide Developer Conference, Scrollmotion charges full print retail prices for ebooks that can only be read on the iPhone. I’ve rarely seen any of their editions on the top 100 best-selling apps in the books category and you don’t even hear them mentioned by Apple or publishers anymore.
But – here’s the big but – what if Apple yanks ebook competitors out of the app store. There’s some slight precedent for that after the Google Voice debacle, when Apple not only declined to approve Google’s app but went back and yanked a few minor apps that also worked with GV. On the other hand, federal regulators are looking into the GV debacle, so there may be too much pressure on Apple to pull another fast one.
If Apple does pull competitors off the entire iPhone platform, then you’d have to give their publisher-loving, consumer-hating ebook strategy more of a chance. I think it would have more of a chance of holding back the whole market than taking over the whole market but who knows.
Publishers could also “help” if they follow what I call the “slow boil a frog” strategy. That was the Barnes & Noble strategy in the 1990s when it was opening new superstores all over the country. Start with big discounts on everything for a few years to wipe out lesser competitors. Once most of the independent books stores are gone, eliminate most of the discounts.
One final aside: as I’ve said before, book publishers are clearly following the music industry’s template for getting leverage against an entrenched, market leading digital retailer. Amazon won’t do what they want to they’re going to try and help some smaller players with the ultimate aim of getting Mister Number One to cave in to their demands. Ironically, in the case of music, Apple was the leader under attack and the industry made a sweet heart deal with Amazon.
So who wins when Apple gets involved in ebooks? Overall, the consumer with no library tie-ins is probably going to be very happy. Assuming the pricing is reasonable, Apple will no doubt pull a rabbit out of their hats and ebooks for some time now, it’s probably going to be a mixed bag. As great as it is to see a tech giant like Apple involved in ebooks, it means big changes are no doubt in store, and it is going to be a very bumpy ride along the way.