Did Apple Change the eBook Market?

Did Apple Change the eBook Market?
(photo courtesy Engadget)

Weeks of rumors and fevered speculation are finally over, and the iPad has been released. You can check out Gear Diary’s liveblog, and listen in as Judie, Dan, Larry and I discuss the iPad in our podcast. Of course, there was one area of the iPad announcement that, while rumored, is still a bit shocking: Apple will be opening an iBookstore on the iPad. But what does this mean for ebooks? Should Amazon be sweating bullets? Has the whole ebook market changed with the sweep of a keynote slide? Read on to find out!

So not only will they be selling books, Apple has renamed ebooks to iBooks, and they are muscling in on Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s territory. This has been rumored for a few weeks now, though beyond confirming they’re going to sell books we don’t have a lot of details (not that lack of information has ever stopped speculation and rumors, of course).

The animations and page-turning make it clear the experience of reading has been Apple-ized with lots of eye candy. Compare that to the turning experience on an e-ink device, where there’s just the “flash” between pages. So for pure aesthetics, the iPad certainly has an edge. But what about the rest of the reading experience?

Did Apple Change the eBook Market?
(photo courtesy Engadget)

It’s obviously hard to say until the iPad is released, but from Apple’s specs, we know they are using a regular backlit screen. If you’re a fan of e-ink, you’re unlikely to be swayed 100% to reading on a bright, LCD screen, no matter how nice the interface is, as Joel and Jessica discussed last night. On the other hand, Apple clearly thought that through, as the iBook interface appears to be a softer color scheme than just black and white, which should help to reduce eyestrain issues. I also think the biggest impact of the iPad is going to be hastening the advancement of e-ink style color screens. Technology like Qualcomm’s or Pixel Qi’s displays offers a color experience without the backlighting that causes eyestrain from LCD. In many ways, they are color e-ink, or at least the spiritual successors to e-ink. And thanks to the iPad, it seems likely we’ll be seeing a lot of them in the coming year as ebook device makers scramble to compete.

On the format side, Apple says they are using ePUB, though Adobe’s blog this morning implied that it isn’t “off the shelf” Adobe DRM, but a proprietary version. That’s very disappointing, though not surprising, and there’s no information on whether books bought from other ePUB sources will open within the iBooks application. Apple clearly is taking a page from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, in that even if you can read outside books on the device, they’re going to make it easier, cleaner, and faster to just buy books directly from iTunes. That’s the strategy that worked so well for the iPod, and it’s been a huge success for the Kindle as well. This is really fodder for a whole other post, but I’ll start by saying this: We have no one to blame but ourselves for this kind of locked-in, proprietary approach. Companies are using it because it’s a highly successful model. It’s easier to push a button and lock your music/movie/book libraries into one device and one company than it is to hunt for the content. I don’t necessarily consider it to be a good thing or a bad thing, it is what it is, but that’s why I don’t see the need to vilify Apple in particular. They’re just using the same business model that has worked for them as well as for their competitors.

Did Apple Change the eBook Market?
(photo courtesy Engadget)

Beyond that, we know Apple is working with just about every major publisher, so content isn’t a problem. Steve Jobs artfully avoided pricing and availability in his presentation, though from the shots we saw of the iBooks app it looked like paperbacks were as low as $4.99 while some hardcovers were close to $14.99. The paperback price is a nice surprise, and the hardcover pricing, while disappointing, is in line with rumors. No word on whether any of these books will be offering any “enhancements”.

The other big elephant in the room, at least if you’re Amazon and B&N, was the existing iPhone ebook applications. Apple typically boots any competitors to their own products, which has to have left the creators of every ebook program for the iPhone a little bit wary. Luckily, Teleread says that might not be the case, as Amazon is already out saying they’ll have an iPad-compatible version of the Kindle software available. I hope that’s true, since I have a fair number of books in my Kindle Library that I’d love to carry over to the iPad.

But what about the future? Even if Apple throws open the floodgates, will Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and the other eBookstores really stand a chance against Apple? I hate to say it, but probably not. They’ll still have a following on the iPad, but who will really be using them? Only those of us who are already tied in from existing ebook readers. Look at the iBooks app side by side with Kindle for the iPhone. Unless Amazon, B&N and the others all do a major UI revamp, Apple has thrown down the gauntlet for eye candy on an ebook reader. And while people who love e-ink may not get sucked in, it’s a fair guess that a lot of consumers will; it just looks that good.

Apple may not totally dominate ebooks the way they dominate music, but they will be a major player. They’re just too big not to be, and the iPad is too important to Apple not to succeed. And when you consider the whole package; media player, newspaper reader, ebook reader, you have to wonder, “Who’s going to buy a Kindle DX/Plastic Logic Que/Sony Daily Edition instead of this?” eBook readers below $300 are safe (for now) in my opinion, but when you’re already considering paying $400+ for an ebook reader, why not just buy an iPad instead? And if you buy an iPad, you’re going to buy iBooks, and read your newspaper from the New York Times application, and the next thing you know, half your books are tied to Apple and you didn’t even think about it. The other real casualties in this are going to be the devices that don’t offer a store tie-in. It’s a tough sell already to buy a device without easy content access (unless you are a true ebook fan and willing to hunt for your books amongst several options). Will the endless lines of generic e-ink devices really gain any ground against the iPad on one side and the Kindle/nook/Sony Readers on the other side?

Will Apple change the book world forever? Probably not, but they are certainly trying to leave their own distinct mark, and it is hard to see how they won’t be a major player within a year (assuming the iPad is a success). What are your thoughts? Will this sway you to read more ebooks? Are you horrified at yet another ebook format? Sound off below!

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

2 Comments on "Did Apple Change the eBook Market?"

  1. Jessica Fritsche | January 28, 2010 at 12:37 pm |

    Even with the softer look, backlighting is still backlighting. The contrast also isn’t as good as eInk.

    I have Stanza on my iPhone set to white text on black background, with the cool Stanza dimmer feature set as low as it can possibly go. My iPhone backlight is also as low as it can go. I can read longer that way, but I still get wicked eye strain headaches. However, I wonder if the size of the iPad will help with that. I can’t WAIT to find out. LOL

  2. I *like* the backlighting. Indeed, the fact that the Kindle *doesn’t* have backlighting is a big disadvantage for me; I like to read in bed *a lot*, and I don’t want to *have* to have a book light, or have the overhead light on, or worry about ambient light at all.

    I tend to set the backlighting on my iPhone way down when I’m reading, too, although when the sun is bright I crank it up. Both B&N and eReader have a “parchment” setting that I like and use, which gives you a yellowish/beige page with dark (but not black) letters.

    One big question I have is: Will there be an upgrade path for existing libraries? While this isn’t a big deal so long as Apple supports existing iPhone eBook readers, if they boot out the others as Carly (and I!) is fearing, the I would be maximally bummed to lose iPad access to my existing library.

    Other questions from watching the demo:

    o) Can the page turn gesture be changed? When operating the book one-handed, it would be nice to change pages with a tap instead of a swipe for one-handed navigation.
    o) The Engadget guys had some trouble pulling up a “tools” menu for the book–*is* there one? If not–if you can’t do searches or set bookmarks or look at TOCs or whatnot–that’s kind of a bad thing, yo.

    Finally, a lot of people are saying, “Who is the audience for this device?” I think that the potential market for textbooks is absolutely huge. If you can buy a device for $499, and then your son or daughter in college can download all their textbooks and carry it around on the iPad, as well as using it for email, web browsing, movie watching and so on, that’s a very winning market. It seems to me.

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