Apple’s iTablet will Erase the Dedicated Book Readers

| Editorial

Several companies, recognizing the potential interest in electronic books, are attempting to get out ahead of the long-awaited Apple iTablet. Examples are the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader, and the Barnes & Noble Nook. However, soon after Apple ships its own competing product, these early efforts will become just a memory.

The thinking by Amazon, Sony and B&N is that if they can get out ahead, self-finance growth, establish a customer base, carve out the book market before Apple can crush them, then they'll survive, indeed flourish. But that plan, by itself, is insufficient and will fail.

Recall that Apple wasn't the first company to come out with a pocket MP3 music player, but the company certainly came to understand the inadequacies of the products offered in 2000-1. Waiting just a little bit was wise. Similarly, with mainframe computers, IBM held back advanced technology for decades, realizing that sometimes it's wise to cautiously size up the market rather than jump in with an innovative product that becomes a market failure.

Apple has things going for it that other companies don't.

  • Apple has an enormous amount of cash and prestige. They can pour development resources into a product that Barnes & Noble cannot and then capture the public's imagination. Maybe Sony can, but Sony has a poor track record when it comes to product design and user interface.
  • Apple recognizes that a few people will pay several hundred dollars for a dedicated book reader, but that many more will buy an all-purpose device that lets the customer also watch movies, listen to music, make phone calls, read e-mail an so on. We always return to that question: how many devices do we want to cary around? Which of the competing book readers should one invest in?
  • Apple has a way of generating astounding unit sales that leverage off its other products -- a visible reality in its retail stores. As a result, even if the current book readers have agreements for content, when the iTablet ships, and competitors look at the sales numbers, they'll gasp in disbelief. Then they'll grudgingly ask themselves the key question: "Are we in the hardware business or the content selling business."
  • Apple has the financial resources to buy flash memory and other commodity computer parts at the most favorable rates and get to the front of the line. As a result, any dedicated book reader with relatively low volume sales is going to look like a poor investment compared to what one gets with an Apple iTablet.
  • Apple has the data center expertise, thanks to iTunes, to provide a better buying experience than most competitors. Apple's competitors will go into this effort half-hearted, hoping that an early lead will relieve them of having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure. They'll hope that an early sales lead will finance growth rather than be forced into an initial, big, risky capital investment.

In subtle ways, without being able to enumerate the list above, customer awareness of the various book readers will naturally focus on limitations, price, conflicting standards, interoperability with existing devices and practicality.

I fully expect that a year from now, Sony and Barnes & Noble will throw in the towel and jump on the iTablet bandwagon, hoping to make money selling content rather than dabbling in hardware. The Kindle will linger on a bit longer, thanks to corporate hubris, but it too will fade into the sunset as Apple does for the personal slate reader what it did for the pocket MP3 player and the smartphone.

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23 Comments Leave Your Own

Lee Dronick

Do each of the existing readers use different file formats for the books?

Tiger

SHF,
There are multiple file formats. Some share, some do not. If only there had a been a real standard developed, oh, you know, like PDF? But alas…

And to throw in a brief aside: anybody who thinks an iTablet device is going to be cheap needs to really reexamine that idea carefully. Apple’s not about “cheap”. It’s about quality. Now you’re talking a device that only has HALF the physical form factor of a standard laptop. Just the lower half designed as an all in one. This makes squeezing in more things even more difficult. And that’s what ain’t cheap. Is fabrication/manufacturing “there” yet? To some extent, but it’s still not cheap.

So, a sub-$900 tablet is probably NOT going to happen IMHO. And yes, it’s just mine. But after watching Apple for 25 years, it’s at least a well-educated guess.

Lee Dronick

Thanks Tiger, I figured that there would be different book formats.  Yeah PDF would have been nice, but the different vendors probably want to control the whole widget.

As to the size of the Apple Tablet/Slate/Pad or whatever it will be called. If it doesn’t have an optical drive I would think that it could be made to the thinness of a MacBook Air. Fold the cover onto the back so that lays flat against the back or as a rest at a variable viewing angle via a brace.

Ion_Quest

I guess if it’s called iSlate, that may imply “is late”.

Will publishers ruthlessly compete with free content so that only Apple profits?

Tiger

Ion,

That’s like the sign on the copier, “Do not use. Pen is stuck in copier.”

It’s all about where you put the space.

dhp

The only reason I would consider using an ebook reader is the electronic ink feature. It would be unfortunate if Apple blows the competitors out of the water with uber-functionality if it means having to read ebooks on LED screens.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I don’t think Apple will clean up, but it will set the hardware trend, much as it did with the iPhone. Fairly predictably, Apple will let developers make web apps optimized for the devices initially. They’ll also run iPhone apps in a “zoomed” mode. At WWDC, they’ll announce an SDK and an expansion of the app store. Meanwhile, there will be a plethora of Windows 7 devices with similar form factors and capabilities and lower price points.

The big question is whether this tablet is a Mac. That will tell you a lot about the future of Apple. If it is a controlled ecosystem like the iPhone, it means Apple has given up on personal computing, which would be a shame. If it’s a Mac and users are free to install apps just like on a Mac, it’ll be a very nice evolution of what a PC is. But my money is on them going the iPhone route.

bluevoter

Sir Harry (and others):

Yes, there are several formats, but eInk has been widely adopted, and is likely to be supported on future devices, including anything from Apple.  Apple and Adobe seem to have an on/off relationship, so it’s hard to predict if PDF will be supported by Apple on an Apple device.  But the competitive matchup against the B&N Nook would make that likely.

I’m also quite sure that there will be a whole slew of new eReaders shown at the January Consumer Electronics Show. Those may help drive down the price of such devices for those who want a dedicated reader. 

To me, the continued existence of dedicated readers depends on both the weight and the price of the iTablet, as well as on the comparative price for content.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

And one more thing… The “i” naming is worn. Tablets are about flat surfaces that want to be horizontal. If I were Steve, I would call this thing a tMac, and the differentiating UI technologies would scale upward to compete with Microsoft’s Surface.

dhp

Yes, there are several formats, but eInk has been widely adopted, and is likely to be supported on future devices, including anything from Apple

E Ink is a display technology that doesn’t use backlighting, not a file format. (Or am I misunderstanding your point?)

Lee Dronick

If it turns out to be based on a fully fledged MacBook Pro then cost will become a major issue.

Not necessarily.

I have been thinking about my speculation and the way the cover could fold. If it was a full MacBook with a touch screen then it could be a tablet and book reader as well depending on the devices orientation. It would use a virtual keyboard. Of course that would not appeal to touch typists, but they could buy different model MacBook.

geoduck

The ?i? naming is worn.

That’s so true. At this point it’s about as fresh as multi coloured computers. A product this different should have a new form to the name. I like the tMac or tBook idea but we could go further. Just call it the Apple Slate.

ibuck

Several thoughts about these devices…
  1. How can you compare these 6” screen e-book readers with the 10” screen on Apple’s device ? These devices are $300 or less, while Apple’s likely will be above $500.
  2. Frip Friddle’s right that Apple could bring added functionality to e-readers if we can add content to them easily—in several formats.
  3. Software manuals would be a good use of these readers, to use concurrently with your computer. So it has to be easy for S/W developers to publish manuals for these devices.
  4. If a standard format is agreed upon, I hope it is NOT the unmitigated mess that is PDF. At least not Adobe’s version.
  5. I’m still hoping that Apple produces a 6 or 7 inch screen version (in addition to the rumored 10”)—a Super iPod Touch, as Chaffin has called it. I think that a smaller and less expensive version would compete with the existing readers in weight (10 - 11 ounces) and price.

SiriusA

I don’t know if I accept the comparison with how the iPod changed the MP3 market for two reasons. The first is that the iPod followed many years of experimentation and failed approaches in the marketplace—arguably, some of that experimentation was even in the Walkman and Discman eras. Secondly, the market for music players is both orders of magnitude larger than the e-reader market and the price-point is significantly lower. While early iPods were still higher-end on the price scale relative to comparison, a $1k tablet compared to a $3c e-reader? They better bring a lot more to the table…

Also, I agree with Bosco that it will be sad day if the Mac OS is ‘hobbled’ on this device such that normal Mac apps don’t work and only iPhone and iPhone+ apps do.

iJack

So long as it has a “proper” version of the Mac OS, I’m there in a flash.

daemon

Apple won’t compete against e-readers. The tablet you describe is a completely different category called “Mobile Internet Device (MID)” which has been around for quite some time.

pats

Yes, there are several formats, but eInk has been widely adopted, and is likely to be supported on future devices, including anything from Apple.? Apple and Adobe seem to have an on/off relationship, so it?s hard to predict if PDF will be supported by Apple on an Apple device.? But the competitive matchup against the B&N Nook would make that likely.

EInk is a screen technology   Eink .  Because of how the technology works it has a slow refresh rate compared to LCD and OLED so if Apple wants to use the screen for multiple purposes it probably won’t be Eink.  I would expect Apple to innovate in the screen area with LG.  They gave 500M upfront to LG for product and the only thing I’ve seen so far is the new 27” iMac screen which contains some of Apple’s patented technology LED Display Patent

As far as PDF.  I would be in shock if Apple did not support it.  Apple already build a pdf editor into OS X via the Preview application and Iphone OS support reading of PDF.

chano

PDF is effectively a public domain reader. It is free. It is a standard. Despite adverse comments here PDF allows the highest levels of page-presentation quality on a screen. Most publishers have expertise on Postscript and PDF. With PDF, there is zero hassle in re-purposing any publishing content for the iPhone, MacBook, iTablet or any other PDF compatible device. This single format is supported by most modern computing/telephony devices. If Amazon’s Kindle and other mass-market reader wannabes do not also support PDF, they are dead in the water with no residual usefulness after Apple ships.
As for the price-competitiveness of an iTablet as a reader, have you seen the price of Kindles, given that they are limited, one-trick ponies? Do you really want to view high-res colour content in books and mags only in black and white? Do you enjoy carrying multiple devices around with all their chargers and paraphernalia? Sounds masochistic to me. Today’s public are pretty savvy about mobility issues. Less (to carry) is definitely more. Greater functionality always wins over single-task-centric devices.
If you are into computing on the move, do you want to carry a single-purpose reader or an iTablet that will have, initially or by the 3rd revision, a computer, a phone, camera/video, reader, web surfer, games machine, possibly a projector and anything other functionality that will become available as a low-cost app and make tea and bake biscuits for you?
Get real boo boos.
You just KNOW what you would like to see on the market and that you would buy. Anything less and you are just a sucker for buyer’s remorse.

dhp

Do you really want to view high-res colour content in books and mags only in black and white?

I’d rather do that than read a 500-page novel on a backlit LED/LCD screen. Sometimes a “one-trick pony” is the best tool for the job. High quality products are usually pretty specialized; it’s the low-end, craptastic, as-seen-on-tv stuff that tries to do everything under the sun.

Lee Dronick

chano said: Do you really want to view high-res colour content in books and mags only in black and white?
I?d rather do that than read a 500-page novel on a backlit LED/LCD screen. Sometimes a ?one-trick pony? is the best tool for the job. High quality products are usually pretty specialized; it?s the low-end, craptastic, as-seen-on-tv stuff that tries to do everything under the sun.

B/W is fine for a novel, but for something that has color photos then I would want a good color monitor.

I second what chano says about PDF, it has some real nice features.

Lee Dronick

DHP, I wasn’t snarking on your remark. I agree that ofttimes a tool or device specific to the task is best, software for that matter.

dhp

I didn’t take offense, Sir Flashman.

It just seems to me that there is a good reason the Kindle and other e-readers have recently emerged despite high-res, color laptops being available for years now. People don’t like reading long, text-heavy books on a standard monitor.

It’s not that I think a possible Apple tablet wouldn’t be awesome. (The iPod touch is probably my favorite consumer electronics product I’ve owned.) I just don’t think it can or should eliminate products designed for long-term reading.

People have been reading newspaper and magazine content on computers for years, but my prediction: if electronic ink display devices stop being made because of competition from an iTablet, book readers will just go back to books.

James

@dhp

You make a good point-I myself don’t care for reading anything lengthy on my computer, however, I am reading more than I ever expected to on my iPhone; it really is a pleasant experience on a less cumbersome device than a laptop (I like Instapaper, GoodreaderUSB, and Stanza, those are my triumvirate of apps). So long as the tablet isn’t a ginormous monstrosity, I would welcome a larger, hi-res full color screen. If it could do more than the iPhone does, I’d do a little dance.

Having said that though, I doubt books will go away until our devices no longer run on electricity or require network connectivity.

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