For this week’s “State of the eBook” I thought we should look at potential winners and losers in the ebook world. With competition and price wars getting fiercer, there’s a few major battles shaping up that may change the competitive landscape. One is (at this point) a slam dunk, while the others are subject to many variables. Without further ado, here are the matchups!
Borders vs B&N
B&N vs Amazon
Amazon vs B&N and Spring Design
Spring Design vs B&N
Amazon, B&N, Spring Design and Borders vs the iPad
Borders vs B&N
Let’s start with what I think is just going to be an absolute rout, unless we see a drastic change: B&N is going to hand Borders their butts on a platter in the ebook market. I already wrote about why Borders is likely destined for a painful failure, and it seems extra clear that B&N has more than just a first-mover advantage against Borders.
1) B&N’s ebook ecosystem is strongly tied to rewarding readers for entering the stores. Borders hasn’t really grasped how to handle that one yet, and with a dearth of interesting or even wireless readers available, it’s going to be that much tougher to entice people to stop by. Point: B&N
2) B&N owns their ebook strategy from top to bottom, while Borders has tied their fortunes to a 3rd party. It limits Borders flexibility and puts them at a disadvantage, especially since their primary competitors have direct relationships with publishers. Point: B&N
3) Borders has no “flagship” device. The Kobo Reader is a nice device, but it’s simple (and overpriced) in comparison to the nook and Kindle. Borders was supposed to carry the Alex Reader, but with dead silence on that partnership it’s safe to say that’s not happening anytime soon. And a handful of severely overpriced, non-wireless devices isn’t going to cut it against the $149/$199 wifi/3G nook being sold down the road at the competing B&N. Point: B&N
Winner, in an all-out rout: B&N
B&N vs Amazon
This one’s going to be a much tougher match to call. B&N came in later than Amazon to the ebook game, but they’re proving to be serious competitors in the ebook reader world. How do they look faced off?
1) B&N is leveraging their retail presence heavily, not only through bright, staffed kiosks in store, but through free wifi and in-store reading on your nook if you come back into the store. And they have Best Buy showcasing nooks as well. Amazon has struck back with a relationship with Target, but where are you more likely to find serious book fans….in the anemic book section of Target or in a bookstore? B&N earns some points on the retail front. Point: B&N
2) Amazon’s software, however, can hold it’s own quite nicely. Whispersync is a killer feature; if you own a Kindle and any device running Kindle software, with all the wireless radios on your apps all stay in perfect sync. B&N has promised something similar but it’s not here yet. Point: Amazon.
3) Price is a weird one. Yes, Amazon has undercut the nook by a whopping $10, but the nook has the advantage of a more budget-friendly wifi version as well. On the other hand, Amazon has better cash flow than B&N. In the event of another price war, Jeff Bezos and Co can undercut B&N all the way to the bottom, and it won’t hurt them at all. B&N, on the other hand, is struggling with disappointing brick and mortar sales, and they don’t have the same cushion as Amazon. This one is a draw, since it depends; nook wifi is a great value, but Amazon’s Kindle is cheaper on an all-around versatility basis. And it’s tough to award points depending on future price cuts. Points: Neither.
Winner: Tie (for now).
Amazon vs B&N and Spring Design
Apparently, Amazon patented an eInk/LCD screen combination. Thanks to the US Patent Office taking four years to approve it, Amazon only received their patent now, almost nine months after the nook and the Alex reader were revealed. It’s unclear now if this is going to be a major patent fight, but we’ll be covering it if there is! Until then, it’s a draw, with the caveat that B&N and Spring Design’s lawyers are probably dancing with joy…
Spring Design vs B&N
The Alex Reader and the Nook certainly look like nearly identical twins, and Spring Design doesn’t think it’s a coincidence. B&N and Spring Design are still fighting it out in court, but Spring Design might want to think about putting some of that cash towards marketing. Even if they win in court, it won’t help them if no one knows their device, and so far the promised bookstore partnerships haven’t appeared. For now, B&N is the winner by default; it’s hard to have a successful competing product when your product is almost 3x as expensive and not available except direct from the company, without any retail bells and whistles like a commercial eBookstore.
Winner: B&N (pending litigation conclusion and the possible unicorn-like appearance of the Alex Reader at Borders).
Amazon, B&N, Sony, and Borders vs the iPad
This is a pretty big battle. It’s not just the major ebook reading devices vs the iPad, it’s the idea of eInk, dedicated reading devices versus multipurpose LCD based devices. So how do they stack up?
1) Price. Yes, the iPad or similar tablets net you a great deal more functionality, but they also come with a significantly higher pricetag. With ebook readers dropping below $200, they become much more affordable choices if all you want to do is read. Point: eBook Readers
2) On the other hand, if you’ve ever tried browsing the web on a nook or a Kindle, you may have started researching more fulfilling hobbies, like firewalking in alcohol-doused socks. For sheer versatility and range, the iPad and related tablets are hands-down winners against eInk devices with low refresh rates. Point: iPad
3) All superheroes have kryptonite, though, and the overwhelming feedback is that an LCD screen is NOT what you want to be using on the beach or by the pool. Direct sunlight is not your friend in that case. eInk, on the other hand, shines in those circumstances, something I’ve seen Amazon promoting in some of their print magazine ads. Point: eBook Readers
4) Here’s where the iPad (and related tablets) have a major ace in the hole: variety. Buy a Kindle, and you’re locked into Amazon’s ecosystem. Same with a nook and a kobo reader (though there’s some wiggle room here which I’ll address below). If you’re using an iPad, though, you have several major options; the B&N reader, iBooks, Kindle, Kobo, Stanza…you have the flexibility to shop around for the best price/features/books you would like, all on one device. Point: iPad
Winner: Draw…since this one really comes down to personal preference. You could go back and forth all day, but the truth is, this fight really comes down to whether you want eInk or LCD, multipurpose or single purpose. For you, the winner might be the iPad, for someone else eBook readers are the clear winner.
The real winner and loser in all of these is the consumer. We win because there’s a bounty of choices these days. If you want a tablet, you’ve got options. If you’re more of a traditional ebook reader type, there’s plenty, and at many price points. The downside, and the reason why consumers are still losers, is that without a universal DRM system you’re being tied into libraries tied to specific stores/programs/readers. There’s a handful of stores that have the ability to crossover because they use Adobe DRM (like Kobo) and readers like the nook can read Adobe DRM, but it’s still a very clunky process. Until a company is able to strike a deal with the publishers and release current, bestselling titles with no restrictions at all and without a major price hike, we’re all going to be wearing designer handcuffs embossed with our ebook store of choice.
What do you think of the winners and losers? Would you make different calls in these fights? Share your thoughts below!