Today, Barnes & Noble announced an all new Nook eBook reader, eschewing it’s the previous model’s bells and whistles and instead focusing on the essentials: Great form factor, excellent display and most importantly, great price. With the introduction of this device, it’s safe to say that the eBook market, just hitting it’s stride, is entering a period of healthy competition with device manufacturer’s offering a variety of enticing products and platforms and a publishing industry ready to move into the digital age. It’s an environment we haven’t seen during the digitization of any other form of media.
When music started going digital, there was no precedent for what devices should be and how the content should be distributed. As history shows, the iPod came out of nowhere and stole the market, becoming ubiquitous. With the introduction wildly successful iTunes music Store, Apple almost singlehandedly dictated what shape the market would take with regards to price and distribution. Music labels followed along until they realized they didn’t like the agreement they had signup up for. They raised a stink over DRM, eventually dropping control of that too. There wasn’t anyone for them to turn and flee Apple to. Everyone had been caught off guard with the rise of digital music. Everyone save the folks at Cuppertino.
When video decided to make the leap to digital, everyone was somewhat more prepared. The rise of smartphones and media center boxes ensured there were lots of hardware options beyond just what Apple had to offer. We should see more innovation and competition in this space but standing in the way are the movie and network studios. Having seen what happened to the music industry, they decided everyone would be playing ball on their terms. Even worse, the film & TV industry is being pulled in seperate directions, towards physical media and digital delivery simultaneously. As long the content providers support both, any real innovation is stifled as decisions that are made to aid one type of media hinder the other, and vice versa. It’s worse for digital content, as it’s distribution is fragmented across several devices and platforms and littered with various sorts of DRM. Content providers, unwilling to be cooperative, stonewall negotiations in their favor to make sure they don’t get burned as the music industry did, simply refusing to provide movies and shows if they don’t like the terms. Or threating to go elsewhere. The consumer, in all of this, is left to fend for himself.
Which brings us backs to eBooks. Unlike music and video, the book market actually finds itself in the enviable position of having a competitive hardware environment and a publishing industry that is both ready to move away from print and willing to work in partnership with hardware makers to forge the future of the market. It’s in this enviroment that eBooks are on the fast track to outselling it’s print sibblings.
Where hardware is concerned, consumers are blessed to have three viable platforms to choose from. Apple of course, brings it’s ever popular band of iOS devices and the credit card numbers of millions of iTunes account holders with it to it’s burgeonning iBooks platform. Then there is Amazon, already the biggest online book vendor, using it’s retailing expertise and resources to create the Kindle, probably the best selling eBook reader.4 Kindle is in fact an entire platform, available as an app on several other devices. The third viable option is Barnes & Noble, which hasn’t shied away from bringing innovative devices to the market, first with their dual screened Nook Color and now with the new Nook’s advanced e-ink screen. All three offer excellent products, each differenciated from the other and offering consumers different reading experiences.
An important part in all this is that no one device has cornered the eBook market. Having various options is always a benefit from users and the industry as a whole. Choices equals opportunities. The existance of rivaling devices and platforms, especially between the Nook and Kindle, is helping push eReader innovation forward at a much faster pace than might have been expected. Barnes & Noble’s announcement today is testament to that.
Print publishers are also playing a role in this. They seem genuinely interested in moving beyond print, making themselves widely accesible to most platforms. There’s also the sense they don’t harbor any ill-will towards hardware manufacturers. Part of the reason might be that some of the main players this time are partners they have already maintained relationships with for many years selling print products. There’s a certain level of trust to begin with. There isn’t a fear of having only one company cornering the market and dictating terms to everyone. Sure, publishers are still insisting on DRM and negotiating archaic pricing schemes, but overall, there’s the sense that they want to move the digital print industry forward. If publishers are committed to the platform, we’re bound to see some truly great leaps in how we envision written content, both in terms of design and delivery.
With a plethora of eBook platforms to choose from and the active participation of the publishing industry, consumers are surely going to benefit in ways they couldn’t with digital music and video. The digital print industry is a buyer’s market; in order to compete companies are going to be forced to offer the best services, the devices and perhaps most importantly, prices. Win. Win. Win.
However, a competitive market is also going to have issues of it’s own. Problems of the past can no longer be solved simply by having one company use it’s overwhelming position in the market as a kind of leverage. Some publishers, especially those with subscription models, will try to monetize eBooks in all sorts of ways. Some desirable and some less so. DRM also remains an issue. Apple doesn’t have the sort of leverage in the print industry as it did with music, where it could use it’s position to push for DRM free content. As eBook sales continue to soar, what would happen if one platform were to pull ahead and steal publisher support from the others? Is it better to have a true market leader?
It’s going to be fascinating to watch unfold.