This week Amazon released a Kindle app for PC, extending their ebook market to the 220 million PCs in use in the US, that’s 30 times the number of Kindle and iPhone screens currently accessible to Kindle’s proprietary ebook format. In a similar move last month, Barnes & Noble launched the Nook, a dedicated device complementing the BN ebook store launched last summer, allowing Nook users to lend BN ebooks to friends with a PC, iPhone or other smartphone, a Nook, just not a Kindle.
It’s a format war all over again, like HD DVD versus Blu-ray, which always comes into play with device specific media.
Format-wise, ebook reader manufacturers and publishers have formed two groups: Amazon against everyone else. The Kindle format, AZW, cannot be read on any other reader, while the others — including the BN Nook, Sony ereaders and Interead’s COOL-ERs — use EPUB, an open standard in which ebooks can be read across all EPUB-compatible ereaders.
A shared format may appeal to consumers, especially those who believe books of any kind should be accessible to all who want them, but most consumers are unaware of formats, focusing on the device and available titles. Say ebooks or ereader to the man on the street and you’ll likely get Amazon Kindle in response. On a recent flight, the attendant advised all passengers to turn off their electronic devices, including their Kindles. Yes, Kindle is a household word, and it will be difficult for competitors to catch up in the device department.
Nook’s lending feature is a market differentiator today, but Amazon could easily counter Barnes & Noble with a lending policy of their own. That’s simply a firmware update for Kindles and an extra line of code in the Kindle apps.
This ebook format war may be over within six months with neither Amazon nor the others victorious. As Amazon and BN inch their way toward opening ebooks beyond their own proprietary devices, Google is set to jump in and offer ebooks to every man, woman and child on the planet with an Internet connection. And Amazon and BN lined up to participate.
On Oct. 15 Google announced plans to open an electronic book store. Unlike Amazon’s strategy with the Kindle-only format, Google plans to deliver eBooks to any device with a web browser. Google has not announced a format, but it is likely Google book downloads will only require a browser plug-in to read books on any device with a screen.
Eschewing hardware may be wise, especially in the short term. According to a Forrester Research study of 4,706 US consumers, the price points for how most consumers value ereaders is shockingly low−for most segments, between $50 and $99. Freed from hardware profit and loss statements, Google’s only concern will be selling as many ebooks as possible.
Consumers could buy Google books right off Google, the most trafficked site on the Internet, or from other online retailers including Amazon and BN. Without device specific format concerns, consumers would not have to worry about which screen was in their hands at any given moment. Start a book on the commute train home on a BlackBerry and pick up where you left off at home on a laptop.
The big players in this game are already entwined. Google Books will make half a million free non-copyrighted books available to Nook users and in exchange will host all BN titles. The Nook runs Google’s Android operating system. Google supplies Sony ereaders with half a million free ebooks. And, Google ebooks will be sold on Amazon and most likely run on the Kindle.
If Google is successful, hardware will be moot, any screen will do, and the largest collection of reading material in the world will be available to anyone and any institution with a screen.TopTenREVIEWS.