The newest version of the Kindle e-reader is out. And guess what? "Due to strong customer demand," says the Amazon website, "Kindle is temporarily sold out. Order now to reserve your place in the queue... orders placed today are expected to dispatch on or before 17 September."
This is interesting, is it not? It's not all that long ago, in the fevered run-up to the launch of the Apple iPad, that conventional wisdom held that the Kindle was a dead duck – roadkill for the iTunes/iBooks steamroller on the highway to the future. I mean to say, the Kindle was sooo clunky: you had to press buttons just to turn the page and how 1980s is that? With the iPad, you just swooshed your finger and – hey presto! – the page turned. Cool.
Then there was the impact of the iPad on publishers, who saw the Apple iBook store as a way of breaking Amazon's stranglehold on sales – and, more important, the pricing – of ebooks. And so it came to pass that the Kindle was consigned to the role of brave but outdated pioneer. Amazon might have triggered the ebook revolution, but it would be Apple that would wind up running the show.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is based on an elementary schoolboy mistake, namely the assumption that, in a networked world, it is the hardware that matters most. According to this view, because the iPad, viewed purely as a device, was seen as incomparably superior to the Kindle, it followed that Apple would triumph in the ebooks market.
Let's deal with the hardware issue first. The iPad is indeed a much more powerful and versatile device than even the latest Kindle. But as an e-reader, it has some major deficiencies. First, at 730g, it's pretty heavy, so any extended reading session requires support from a lap or table. Second, its reflective screen makes it difficult to read in bright light. And it's damned expensive.
On these three factors, the new Kindle wins hands down. At 247g, it's much lighter; the screen is readable even in bright sunlight; and it's much, much cheaper — £149 for the model which comes with Wi-Fi and free 3G connectivity. You can begin to see why Amazon might have trouble meeting consumer demand for its new baby.
In the end, however, it's not hardware that matters, but the effectiveness of the overall system in which the device is embedded. That was the great lesson of the Apple iPod: although the hardware was lovely from the outset, it would never have had the impact it had without the link to iTunes software on the PC/Mac and thence to the iTunes store. Other companies had made nice MP3 players, but none had put together a seamless system for getting music from CDs or online retailers on to them. Apple did and the rest is history.
The evolution of the ebook business reveals the same kind of pattern. First up, in 2006, was Sony, with a beautifully crafted device that had one crippling drawback: the difficulty of getting stuff on to it. A year later, Amazon launched the first-generation Kindle, a device inferior to the Sony product in every respect save one: it had wireless connectivity to the Amazon online store, which meant that purchasing and downloading books on to the device was a breeze. After that, it was game over for Sony and, indeed, for all the other companies that had piled into the e-reader market.
Amazon didn't just have a device, it had a system into which it fitted. It also had a strategy based on understanding that, ultimately, the device is not what matters. The first manifestation of this came when Amazon released a free iPhone/iPodTouch app which enabled users to access the Kindle store from their phones or iPods. To some observers at the time, this seemed like madness: why give away such an advantage to the company that was set on becoming your deadliest rival?
In fact, it may have been an inspired move, a contemporary implementation of the old Gillette ploy of giving away razors while making money from selling blades. And, so far, it seems to have worked: Amazon has somewhere between 60% and 80% of the US ebooks market, though there are disputes about the precise figures.
This share will probably decline somewhat as the market matures, but it's hard to see Amazon losing its dominance.
Oh – I almost forgot to mention that the new Kindle has an "experimental" web browser. Stay tuned.
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