Why an Apple Tablet Won't Challenge Kindle

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the [Kindle] is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”—Apple CEO Steve Jobs to The New York Times, Jan. 15, 2008.

In the week that Amazon introduced the new, larger Kindle DX, there’s been a lot of talk about how a rumored Apple tablet is going to blow Kindle away. Now, I really hope Apple goes ahead and introduces a tablet that is a sort of oversized iPhone or iPod Touch. I can see lots of ways it would be a great device. But it is very unlikely to be a Kindle killer for both technical and business reasons.

One simple reason for Kindle's success is that Amazon understands book buyers. And the reason for Apple's likely failure, should it actually pursue the market, is that the company, as indicated by Jobs's comment, doesn't have a clue. What Amazon knows is that relatively few people buy more than the very occasional book. But the book-buying fraction of the public buys lots and lots of books. Book sales represent a classic case of an extreme Pareto, or power-law, distribution, where a tiny percentage of the public buys a vastly disproportionate share of the books.

Amazon gave out one startling piece of information in its DX presentation. It said that for those titles available in Kindle format, Kindles account for 35% of sales. We don't know the exact number of Kindles out there, but it is certainly well under a million. Their owners have to be buying books like crazy to produce numbers like that.

It took a long time for Apple to get the iTunes Store right, partly because of the recalcitrance of the music industry, partly because Apple had to learn the music business as it went. Amazon has a vast lead in its understanding of the book business, and if Jobs's thinking pervades the company on this subject, as it does on most topics, Apple is saddled with an attitude that is not conducive to selling books.

There are also solid technical reasons why an Apple tablet is unlikely to make a very good e-book reader. The essence of the Kindle is the E Ink display. This electrophoretic display is far from perfect. I'd like to see it a lot closer to black on white than its current dark gray on light gray. And making the technology work for color has so far proved elusive. But it has tremendous advantages for a reader. The fact that it looks like a printed page, not a backlit LCD display, makes it much easier on the eyes--given decent lighting--over long periods of reading. And because the display draws power only when turning pages, the Kindle can go for days, perhaps weeks if you turn the radio off, between battery charges.

To do the other things users will expect of an Apple tablet, especially displaying video and running games, will require an LCD or OLED (if it becomes practical in larger sizes) display. Apple will be doing well if it can get six to eight hours of active use from such a tablet. That's great for a game playing, Web browsing tablet, but terrible for an e-reader.

There's also been a lot of critcism of the Kindle as a single-purpose device, but I think that's really a strength, not a weakness. The advantage of single-purpose devices is they can be optimized to do that one thing really well. And again, this criticism misunderstands the passionate readers who are the heart of the Kindle market. To them, the Kindle is not one more device to carry, but several fewer books to travel with.

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