BALDERDASH! There's Plenty of Room for iTablet & dedicated Ebook Readers!

My learned colleague John Martellaro got me thinking - as he so often does - with his piece this morning saying that Apple's (as yet unannounced) iTablet will crush the life out of the dedicated Ebook readers from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony, and my primary thought was, "BALDERDASH!" Or maybe, "NONSENSE!"

I kid, or at least I exaggerate, but there's something here that speaks to broader issues, and that's the ongoing transformation of the book, newspaper, and magazine publishing businesses.

For context, let's back up a bit and look at the fundamental issues behind what both John and I are on about:

  1. Apple is rumored (or definitely, as I like to think of it) to be coming out with a tablet-based touch screen device aimed at the same market currently being addressed by the netbook form factor.
  2. Apple is reportedly lining up newspapers and maybe book publishers to have all lined up for the launch of this device. The company's purpose is to make the device the best platform for reading, even though (or perhaps that's because) Steve Jobs quipped last year that no one reads any more.
  3. A New York Times exec let it slip/alluded to rumors of Apple's iTablet just today as extra salt for this rumor stew.
  4. Amazon (Kindle), Barnes & Noble (Nook), and Sony (Reader) all have dedicated Ebook readers.

I, for one, believe that numbers 1 and 2 are true, and that number 3 has already been yelled at by someone who was yelled at by Steve Jobs.

John's thought is that Apple's inherent qualitative and ecosystem advantages will crush these other platforms, and through the added advantage of being able to do more than one thing, put them all out of business.

I agree with John on his assessment of how awesome a platform Apple's iTablet is likely to be for reading. In fact, I've had a thought brewing in my head that will appear in another column later this week. I also agree that being able to do multiple things will be attractive to many people.

In addition, Apple's iTunes Store will be a superior shopping experience, and even though our own Dave Hamilton thinks that E Ink is the best thing since digitally-sliced bread, if done right a color display with multigesture capabilities will offer a better reading experience than these other devices. The multipurpose nature of Apple's device will also win many a customer uninterested in carrying a dedicated device.

Bah, just read John's excellent editorial for his full reasoning - it's his conclusion I want to get to. Where John sees the half-ass competition wilting in the face of Apple's magnificent onslaught, I see Apple merely bringing legitimacy to a nascent industry. Apple will allow its predecessors in this market to ride the Apple Express Coattails to a wider audience.

The iPhone didn't put its smartphone competitors out of business, the iPod didn't take 100% of the digital media device market, iTunes didn't shut down every other online music download service, and the iTablet won't shut down the Kindle/Nook/Reader/future competitors, either.

[Additional Note: When reading over this for me, John pointed out that there is a huge difference between competing with Nokia and squashing hardware newbies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He has a great point, but other, more experience vendors will eventually enter this space. For purposes of this column, think of Kindle/Nook/Reader as a stand-in for any ol' generic dedicated Ebook reader.

One reason as I see it as that the very thing that will win the iTablet Ebook adherents is the same thing that will shut it out from many applications, and that is its multipurpose nature.

Let's take schools, for instance: Educational institutions will, sooner or later, migrate to Ebooks for text books. Some will be via computers/laptops, some will be via multipurpose devices (but still more-narrowly focus devices than a laptop) like the iTablet, and some will be via standalone, dedicated devices like Kindle/Nook/Reader.

The latter's strength in this market will be cost: The price of a dedicated device will likely always be less than the cost of making a multipurpose device like the iTablet. For some most schools, cost will always be King and the argument for an inexpensive, dedicated device that can't surf porn or hack the school's servers will always be an easy one in school board meetings.

It's also important to note that the cost of these devices will eventually fall to a fraction of what an individual printed textbook costs today, and I doubt that's something Apple would ever aspire to with its iTablet.

For sure, many a school would instead opt for the awesomeness of a device that can surf the net, take notes, and track and submit homework like the iTablet (or eTablet, in this case) surely will, but cost will still be king in most districts.

Not to mention the developing world. Kindle will stride where iTablet dare not tread at some point.

Anyway, let's take another market for magazines and newspapers: waiting rooms. This is a market that is primed for an Ebook revolution of up-to-date magazines and newspapers. For this market, a dedicated, non-flashy device is just what the doctor ordered, pun intended. Why tether an expensive iTablet to the table for junior to smear snot on while reading Highlights when a cheaper, dedicated magazine reader would serve just as well?

Coffee house? The same (maybe). Libraries for in-house periodical reading? Ditto.

For these markets and many more, cheap(er) dedicated Ebook readers will make a lot of sense. For other markets, John is right and the iTablet will rule the day. The way I see it, Apple is going to open up the market for Ebooks with the iTablet the same way the iPod exploded the market for digital media devices and iTunes made digital downloads a major component of the music industry.

The company will raise awareness of the concept of e-reading, and help bring focus to the format for an industry under siege by falling sales and profits in its print foundations. That will, in turn, bring more customers to the fold, many of whom will turn to Apple's competitors, the same way that some people (inexplicably) by digital media devices that aren't iPods and others buy music from Amazon, Emusic, or the other services.

If Apple has any effect on Kindle/Nook/Reader, it will be to get the first two to unite behind a single format in order to better compete against Apple. Sony will insist on going it alone and choking, but that's another column.