Google E-Books To Plastic Logic, Would-Be Kindle-Killers Rise Up Everywhere5:12 PM EST Mon. Jun. 01, 2009
Following its release in February, Amazon's Kindle 2 -- the updated version of its original Kindle -- took the e-reading and e-book spaces by storm, thrusting the burgeoning market into the national spotlight. A larger version of the Kindle, the Kindle DX, was unveiled in May (and will reportedly start shipping earlier than expected). And Amazon continues to expand Kindle's reach, recently updating its Kindle app for Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch and launching a service for bloggers to sell subscriptions through the device.
If anything, though, Amazon is vulnerable. It's trying to make itself synonymous with e-books, but the competition already has come out in force, from new devices made by obscure e-reading companies to, now, a threat from Google itself.
"Competitors will attack Amazon's market position by launching new features, expanding content beyond books, dominating markets outside the U.S., reducing costs and improving relationships with publishers," wrote Sarah Rotman, a Forrester media and technology analyst, in a research note. "With retailers, mobile operators and device manufacturers all vying for a piece of the e-reader action, publishers should proactively shape their own e-reader opportunity -- or miss their last, best chance to control their own destiny."
Here's a look at what Amazon and Kindle are up against. There are a number of other e-readers, e-reading apps and e-reading concerns out there, but these 10 are the ones to watch most closely as Amazon marshals for a fight.
Google this week confirmed plans to launch an e-book business later this year in which it will partner with authors and publishers to sell e-books and e-reading media through Google services.
Kindle Threat: High. Google's behemoth status is one thing, and its experience with e-books already is another: The company knows digital reading already through its ongoing project to digitize public domain books. Google also has said it will allow publishers to set the price for their content. This already is a key differentiator against Amazon, which, through its low margins for publishers and authors through Kindle, is being painted as a bit of a tightwad when it comes to support of e-reading content providers.
Sony's Reader has been around longer than Kindle and just never seemed to get going the way Kindle has. But Sony's not going down without a fight. It launched a new marketing campaign for the Reader and also announced March 19 that it had partnered with Google to put Google's 500,000 public domain e-books on the Reader for free.
Kindle Threat: Low. Sony's Reader is going to need more sizzle and more steak -- a flashier device with better functions, that is -- if it's going to compete with Kindle as a dedicated e-reading device. What else does Sony have to offer the market? Name recognition might be one thing, said Forrester's Rotman Epps -- Sony is very well known throughout the world, especially in far-flung markets where Kindle may not have penetrated.
The biggest immediate threat to Kindle's long-term viability as a dedicated e-reader is just that -- it's a dedicated e-reader. But why would someone want a device that can only, well, e-read, especially when e-reading applications can turn any old smartphone into an e-book? Sure, the Kindle offers a more comfortable experience -- its screen, compared to the LCDs of most smartphones, is certainly more agreeable. But as smartphone displays become more sophisticated, the Kindle's visual "wow" factor will decline.
Among the most popular e-reading applications is Stanza, the iPhone e-reader developed by Texas company Lexcycle, which claimed 1.3 million Stanza users worldwide as of the beginning of 2009. Stanza also is versatile. It supports a wide range of e-book formats, including Kindle, Mobipocket, Adobe, Microsoft LIT, Palm doc, HTML, PDF, Microsoft Word, Rich Text and EPUB, the open eBook standard that Kindle does not yet support.
Kindle Threat: Nonexistent. Amazon apparently likes Stanza, too, and it bought Lexcycle in April.
E-reading applications for Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch would seem to challenge the Kindle as an e-book handheld device of choice. With Apple, however, Amazon has taken the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality, rolling out and then improving a Kindle application for iPhone. Amazon continues to optimize the platform, too, having recently upgraded to version 1.1, which includes different background colors and the ability to switch views on the iPhone. The Kindle app for iPhone gives Amazon exposure on one of the more popular smartphones out there and preserves the Kindle name, even if, as rumored, Apple rolls out a multipurpose tablet that can e-read, among other things.
Kindle Threat: Depends. An iPhone Kindle application might eventually make the Kindle device itself seem obsolete. But if e-book readers are using their iPhones and accessing Kindle content through the Kindle app, how much, exactly, is Amazon losing?
Prime View International, a Taiwanese display provider, is part owner of Netronix, which has six e-reading devices available and, despite its relative obscurity among the Kindle-centric, has been a force in e-reading for a lot longer than Amazon. Oh, and not only that, but PVI itself manufactures both the Kindle and Sony's Reader.
It may not be Netronix, however, that makes PVI a bigwig in the land of e-books. The company this week bought E-Ink, the Cambridge, Mass.-based electronic paper display (EPD) manufacturer that provides technology to most e-readers out there, including Kindle.
Kindle Threat: Depends. As Kindle and the e-book market grow, so does E-Ink and, well, whoever owns E-Ink's 100 or so electrophoretic patents, so at this point, PVI would seem to be more of a friend to Amazon than a foe. But when Netronix gets cracking on its next e-reader, PVI has the go-to company for e-book displays in its trickbag as well, which gives it a big advantage.
The U.K.-based startup Interead.com this week launched Cool-ER, an e-reading device with a six-inch screen, E-Ink display and measurements of 7.2 x 4.6 x 0.4 inches. While the device generated a lot of interest among tech bloggers during its announcement last week, most saw it as less a direct threat than another sign Kindle competition is coming from all sides.
Kindle Threat: Low. There's not much to make Cool-ER a "Kindle killer," save for its price tag: $249, which makes it $100 cheaper than Amazon's Kindle and $249 cheaper than Kindle DX.
Plastic Logic demoed its yet-to-be-named e-reader at the D7: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad, Calif., last week, playing up how it has no buttons like Amazon's Kindle, but rather, a touch screen for all tasks. The Plastic Logic reader also supports Wi-Fi and has 3G connectivity, and is sized like a piece of paper, about 8.5 x 11 inches.
Kindle Threat: Medium. Several publications, including the Gannett-owned USA Today and Pearson-owned Financial Times, are said to be on board with the device, which might challenge Kindle DX as the preferred e-reader for periodicals. No pricing information has yet been announced so Plastic Logic might be too late to make a big splash, but CEO Richard Archuleta says a color version is in the works, too.
The online-document-sharing startup Scribd last month launched Scribd Store, which essentially allows anyone to become their own e-reading publisher by enabling users to upload documents and charge for them, keeping 80 percent of whatever they can get. O'Reilly Media, Lonely Planet and Berrett-Koehler all have said they will use Scribd to sell content, and Scribd also has an iPhone application in the works. Scribd documents also can be published as unprotected PDFs, meaning they can be read on the Kindle, Sony Reader and other e-reading devices.
Kindle Threat: Medium. Scribd's content charging service is itself not going to topple Amazon, but it's indicative of a growing trend: an alternative for authors and publishers who don't want their digital content to go through Amazon or other e-reading publisher leaves them without much return. Being able to set the price of e-book content -- as Google is also said to be doing -- is a key differentiator from the Kindle model.
Fujitsu in March launched Flepia, a color e-reader that can display 260,000 colors for various documents such as books, newspapers, magazines and Web browsers. The device is thus far available only in Japan.
Kindle Threat: Low. Despite breaking the color barrier for e-readers -- Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said last week that a color Kindle is "years away" -- the Flepia is not only a beast (three times the size of a Kindle), but also, at $1,000, a wallet-buster. The device does have wireless LAN and Bluetooth compatibility, however, and does provide a good, early standard by which future color e-reading devices may be judged.
FirstPaper, a startup that was first announced in 2008, has the backing of newspaper and magazine giant Hearst to design a software platform and devices geared specifically toward periodicals. Amazon has tacitly indicated that a periodical-specific device is indeed something it's interested in, too -- the Kindle DX's large size makes it Amazon's go-to e-reader for periodical and textbook reading.
Kindle Threat: Medium. It's taking quite a while for FirstPaper's devices to see the light of day, and the most recent reports suggested they'll be out in 2010 at the earliest. But Hearst already has said that FirstPaper will enable advertising on its software platform -- which has to make it attractive to publishers. Whether the ailing publishing industry will do in Hearst and other publishing giants before FirstPaper or other periodical e-readers get their day in the sun is another matter.