There’s an interesting (and honestly, inevitable) trend in the book world lately: no one’s talking hardware anymore. Yes, there’s new devices, and sales are touted when they’re impressive. But the big announcements that come up again and again are “ebook sales are increasing by these triple digits/these authors are making this much money through ebooks/we have this many free ebooks, etc”. Plus, all those lovely ebooks are available on tablets, computers, smartphones and dedicated ebook readers…so does it pay for a company to offer the hardware without the ebooks anymore?
In my view, the answer is no, and I think 2012 is the year we see many of the unaffiliated hardware drop by the wayside. Sony, Ectaco, Aluratek, Cybook, and iRiver all come to mind as companies pumping out ebook readers without a store tie-in, and you have to wonder whether there is a point where it becomes untenable to continue with these devices. While Amazon is always coy about sales, they were surprisingly mum about any accomplishments from the Kindle Touch and other eInk devices, and B&N outright said in their press release that eInk-based NOOK Simple Touch devices were slower than expected. At the same time, as I said above, everyone is falling all over themselves to talk about book sales. So why bother with just the hardware?
To best explain my point, I want to use an everyday household item: Razor blades. Specifically, the high-end kind like Gillette Fusion, Schick Intuition, etc., where you buy the razor body and replaceable blades. Seth Godin compared the Kindle to razors in a post back in 2010, and it’s an even more apt comparison now. Follow who benefits when you buy a razor system (ebook ecosystem):
You go to the store and buy a razor (ebook reader). That costs you a set amount of money, and when you’re done with the razor (ebook), you replace it with a new one, and the money once again goes to Gillette/Schick (B&N/Amazon/Kobo). No one makes generic razor bodies that fit Gillette razors; presumably Gillette’s patents prevent this, but even if they didn’t, why sell the one-time item and leave the ongoing sales to someone else? In fact, taking the razor analogy further, the business model of disposable razors fits traditional paper books. Use it/read it, then replace it. It comes down to the fact that at the heart of ebook readers are ebooks. Just like with razors, an end-to-end integrated system ties together the needed hardware with the actual desired product.
Now, there’s some outliers in ebooks that could support a niche player. For one, areas where the store ecosystem model is not available yet. International book rights are extremely complex, and Amazon, B&N and Kobo aren’t hawking ebook readers if they aren’t also offering companion stores. So that’s a given. Second, there’s a few areas where hardware makers have pushed unusual features, such as Sony’s attempts to add drawing and underlining through a stylus. If you need to draw or make notes (say for a textbook) then that’s a reason to seek out hardware features over the whole package.
However, if you’re looking to mainly download some free ebook titles and library books, you’re STILL better off buying a B&N NOOK, Amazon Kindle, or Kobo Reader rather than grabbing a Sony Reader, Cybook, etc. You have the option of buying from a store if you wish, you have a great deal more variety in accessories, and you have multiple retailer options for purchase and support. From a consumer standpoint, it’s like buying the Gillette razor and having the option to buy blades, but still having a usable razor without it. (Yes, I know, I’m stretching the razor analogy to the limits and beyond).
Getting back to my main point, again, where is the benefit for a standalone reader? There’s the hardware niche, and there’s some room in the international market, but both Amazon and Kobo are aggressively expanding and B&N has plans to join them. Only so many players can afford to support the slice of buyers not interested in an ecosystem, and frankly, I can’t see Sony, Cybook, iRiver and others all remaining to fight over a dwindling piece. There is good news for all those companies left without blades to sell, though…there’s always Android tablets!