The eBook Wars

And how Apple is losing big-time

Ebook Wars

Last week, Amazon and Barnes & Noble released updates to their iOS-based apps. In both cases, the nature of the update was identical: removal of a button from the app that leads to an associated book-purchasing web site. App vendors for Apple’s mobile devices must either provide Apple with a cut of in-app purchases, or make the apps fully ignorant of a customer’s ability to purchase content.

As a book buyer, as a programmer, and as a future well-read man, I think it stinks. It’s not that Apple doesn’t have a right to do what it is doing; it does. But when it hinders third parties from providing new revenue activities through their apps on the iOS platform, it does so at its own long-term peril.

I’m reminded of the “browser wars” that took place back in the late 1990s between Netscape and Microsoft. Netscape sold a popular web browser for a reasonable price, a few dozen dollars if I recall correctly. Microsoft offered a similar product on the Windows platform, and at no cost. It did so, in part, to further the technological abilities of Windows, but also (and many observers caustically insisted that) it sought to control the platform to achieve dominance in the web space by hindering other vendors, vendors that enhanced the overall Windows experience.

Microsoft’s actions worked in the short term, at least in terms of knocking out Netscape’s market share. But in the long term, Microsoft’s comfort in its dominant position brought with it a lack of innovation, and a lack of insight into where the browser needed to be in the twenty-first century. Internet Explorer, while still one of the major web browsers available to consumers, lacks many of the technological advances found in its main competitor’s products. It also is the target of much scorn, including within the community of Windows software developers. To quote a cliché, Microsoft won the battle, but is losing the war.

As part of The Well-Read Man Project, I investigated many different eBook reading devices and applications. I tried dedicated devices, such as the Kindle, the Sony Reader, and the Nook, both in its color and monochrome formats. I also tried out a handful of different readers on several general purpose tablet devices. I narrowed down my choices to the Nook Color reading device and a combination of the iBooks and Kindle reading apps on the Apple iPad device. I ultimately chose the iPad, primarily because I found the highlighting features in Apple’s own iBooks app to be so user-friendly. In short, it won me over because it was designed well. If the Nook Color had been slightly faster and included better note-taking features, I might have selected that device instead.

So for me, it was all about quality and the experience. By preventing other apps from including a link to their own bookstores, Apple is insisting that convenience is the key factor. But it’s not. Internet Explorer comes installed automatically in Windows; that’s convenient. But millions of people still click over to the Firefox and Opera web sites to download a replacement for something they already have. They aren’t looking for convenience. They are looking for quality. Quality is what matters in a software choice, and in so many other choices. If Apple really wants to dominate in the eBook space, it needs to focus on quality. It needs to stop obsessing about whether Amazon’s app includes a “Shop in Kindle Store” button, and instead figure out why iBooks features slow down at the end of long chapters.

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