A year ago — even six months ago — it seemed like Amazon and its Kindle device had an insurmountable advantage in the ebook device and platform competition. Despite our admonition that Amazon’s dominance of ebooks was much more fragile than their dominance in online print bookselling, even we were impressed and sometimes daunted by the enormous percentage of ebook sales that were being made through the Kindle ecosystem.
Then Barnes & Noble introduced the Nook through their 700 stores last December and Apple brought the iPad to market in April. Nearly overnight, it seems, Amazon has gone from the dominant player to the leading player with a share that was often in the 80s for many titles having fallen to the 50s.
Three entirely new ebook platforms are now poised to make their debut. Each of them has an angle, or a USP, that the others don’t and that the vendors, devices, and platforms that preceded them — notably Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, and Sony — don’t. The three new platforms are Google Editions, Blio, and Copia.
Google’s special proposition is ubiquity; Blio’s special proposition is enhanced feature sets; and Copia’s special proposition is building social networking right into the content consumption platform.
The new entrant that is subject to the greatest anticipation, of course, is Google Editions. Whenever they go live (which they say they “hope” will be sometime this summer, which has another 6 weeks or so to run), they are likely to be offering the largest selection of ebooks from any single source. Google has a staggering number — millions — of public domain books but they will also have professional and scientific books not published on most of the prior ebook platforms. Their well-promoted proposition is their cloud model, which will allow their ebooks to be read on any device that can support a browser.
Google is also offering a wholesaling service to enable any bookstore or any web site to sell their ebooks. (What that means, of course, is that their “largest single source” claim could be usurped by their own resellers, who might have added other titles from other places.) Their arrival adds another option for potential ebook sellers who had previously been served by Ingram’s wholesaling operation or their competitor, Content Reserve, which has also reached the book trade through Baker & Taylor.
Google is working the OEM channel as well and not limiting themselves to Android-powered devices in doing so. They’ll have apps available in multiple marketplaces, including Apple. And they are offering to power sales on publishers’ own sites. We’ve seen no announcement of publishers who have accepted this proposition, but it would seem likely that some, particularly smaller ones, will find it attractive.
Baker & Taylor has been developing its own ebook platform, Blio, in concert with futurist Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind. We were first shown Blio last December and were really impressed with its crisp presentation of integrated text-and-pictures pages. They showed us a tool kit that made it pretty easy for publishers to enhance their print books for electronic delivery with sound and video, and even to fiddle with the design in the Blio platform. Because of Blio’s roots as a tool to bring reading to the sight-impaired, the ability to adjust font sizes, a capability which all ebooks offer, had to be integrated into their delivery of complex page layouts.
We have been expecting Blio’s debut in the market for some time, and we’ve been expecting to see many highly-illustrated books, like college texts, that have not previously been in the offerings of Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. Highly illustrated books would work fine on the iPad, of course, but they were not a priority for initial inclusion for iBooks (the dedicated Apple ebookstore) and they were not what publishers would put into the eink-reader platforms that didn’t handle that material well.
Blio has announced that it will power the store Toshiba is creating to support its tablet release. Since that is expected in the next month or so, Toshiba’s offering of Blio titles will probably be their debut in the marketplace.
The tool set for Blio was what really captivated us when we saw it last December. When we saw it at the time, Blio was delivering a Blio-ready ebook from the publishers’ print PDF, and then, within Blio, the publisher could enhance the ebook. At the Untethered conference in June, Blio announced a partnership with Quark by which Blio files could be created directly from Quark. Blio says they expect the Quark release to be in beta later this Fall. Blio plans to integrate its tools into other creation software in the months to follow.
Blio introduces another format into the ebook world: rather than epub or PDF, they are using Microsoft’s XPS platform. Right now, Blio itself is handling the conversion of titles from either PDF or epub into XPS, but the Quark arrangement and the others that will take place will allow publishers to deliver XPS-ready files to Blio, cutting past the conversion queue that now exists.
The open questions have been: when will Blio arrive and what will be the retailing environment for it when it arrives? They say they have 200,000 titles committed to their platform. (They can’t just pick up the ebooks of others; they’re not vanilla epub.) The Toshiba store won’t contain them all because titles are coming in faster than the conversion process can ramp up. Blio, like Google and Copia, expects lots of OEM installation. They project that Blio could be on more than 50 million devices by the end of 2011 and that they will be working with “traditional retail partners” in 2011 as well.
Copia made a splash last week when they announced their line of ereaders, including a larger-than-a-phone-screen color model which will be $99 when it comes out in September. Since Copia is a creation of DMC, and DMC is historically a hardware company, using their own hardware to launch the platform makes great sense. But OEM relationships, and an ability to deliver their platform to any device through client apps as well as through web browsers, are part of the strategy too.
The Copia platform’s unique proposition is that they combine social networking right into the platform in which content purchasing and consumption take place. Amazon’s announcement of an integration with Facebook moves them in a similar direction, but Copia would seem to be going much further than Amazon: enabling the sharing of the content consumption experience itself among friends or a personal network. This could be critical for reading groups, areas of common (vertical) interest, or for educational applications. Inside the Copia network, users can readily share their notes and annotations. And to make it easy for people to get started on their platform, Copia enables the import of existing contacts from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Other ebook platforms have demonstrated the power of syncing the reading experience across platforms; you can pick up your book on one device and it will tell you where you left off on the last device. Copia takes that a step further, syncing the social experience, including the sharing of notes and recommendations as well as the reading itself, across all the devices you want: smartphones, tablets, computers, or ereaders. We saw this demonstrated on their forthcoming iPad app.
What also impressed us about the last Copia demo we saw is that they have apparently licked the problem of allowing an epub file using Adobe DRM to move painlessly into their platform, regardless of from what ebook store it was purchased.
In addition to the hardware plans they revealed last week, Copia has also announced that they will be a launch partner for Windows Phone 7, the mobile operating system Microsoft is putting forth to compete with iPhone and Android. [Maybe we know a bit more about Copia than others do because they are our client, but like all the players in this very competitive market, they’re not tipping their cards before they play their hand any more than their competitors. Even to us.]
All three of these operating systems come from substantial players. Blio is being delivered by one of the two book wholesalers in America with true national and international reach and relationships with every publisher in the country. Copia is being delivered by a company with long hardware development experience and a long history of partnership with consumer electronics retailers and phone companies. And Google Editions, of course, is coming from a tech company that has had deep involvement with virtually every book publisher in the world as it has developed Google Book Search over the last seven years.
Of all the current players, Sony would seem to be the most challenged. They have the weakest device, the weakest store, and the weakest strategic position with the industry and with the public. All of the rest either have something important and unique for the developing ebook marketplace and, in many cases, they also have an outside proposition that will keep them in the ebook game regardless of how well they do in it. Whether Google’s ebooks sell 10% of their projections or 10 times their projections, they won’t be going away. Same with Apple. Same with Amazon. So I think we can expect a multi-player ebook market, with some incompatible formats and a lot of incompatible DRM for some years to come. And the players currently in the game can expect their sales to go up but their market share to go down when the three new entrants join the fray this fall. That much seems certain, but very little else does.