For all you out there looking to “completely change the game,” take heed. Sometimes it’s easier to win the game you’re in.
I have a hunch that has yet to be borne out completely in the real world of results, but hear me out anyway. I think that the explosion of e-readers has changed the book industry completely and for the better. I also think that it has flattened the playing field.
And this might just be bad news for Amazon, the guy with 90% share in the room.
Amazon wowed us with recommendations from others like us, turning us on to titles and authors we’d never heard of but that others who had bought this exact book had. As a result, we bought more books of a varied nature and enjoyed them. Amazon began to learn us. Their recommendations just got better and better. Soon, Amazon was the only name in books (and other things, but let’s stick to books for now).
Then, they launch the nuclear game-ender. The Kindle. They can now put a book in your hands in seconds, the only Achilles’ Heel that an etailer has to contend with versus brick and mortar.
As Ray Kroc is attributed to have said, “When your competitor is drowning, stick a hose in his mouth.” So they did.
And Amazon’s primary competitor, Barnes and Noble, was drowning. B&N’s Nook came late to the party and was little more than an expensive Kindle on the other bookseller’s platform.
Then, something interesting happened. Two things, really. First, the Nook was hacked to make it a moderately functioning tablet computer. More importantly, B&N embraced this change and soon launched an OS that not only allowed this hack to continue but pushed hard into this space. Second, it launched a better product: a touch-screen color Nook.
Have you played with a Nook next to a Kindle? The Nook is just better.
It’s got a touch screen. Do you own a mobile phone today? If you do, it’s probably a touch screen device. Our frame of reference has shifted to touch screens on handheld devices, hasn’t it? It’s color, like most of our handheld devices are. It makes more sense. The Kindle, which cheaper by $100, is still a very attractive product that, because of the comparison with the Nook, is something we can live with – but it’s not the one we want. The first time I picked a Kindle up, I kept poking the screen expecting it to do something.
But apart from the speeds and feeds of one versus the other, what really happened? Amazon, which won us over with its recommendations and reviews and its superior user experience on the web, turned the game into an e-reader contest.
The books all look the same once you’ve bought them. Same words on either device. Same price, too.
So if you like the B&N device better, why wouldn’t you just buy the device you want and then start buying all your books from the new commoditized “content farm”? You still get your books instantly either way.
Amazon, in short, changed the game and instead of killing off its competitor, it allowed it to be reborn and to compete on equal – or superior – footing.
It’s no longer about the recommendations and the feeling that Amazon knows me anymore. It’s about a device. An e-reader. Hardware. The playing field is now flat, where once it was decidedly stacked in Amazon’s favor.
Does this mean Amazon’s in trouble? I don’t know. Plenty of things can still fell B&N. Amazon is rumored to be launching a color tablet aiming at the iPad and is already taking active steps to do to publishers what it did to brick and mortar bookstores. It’s a pretty tough competitor to have to face, in other words, and it’s not making a lot of mistakes. My money is still on Amazon to do just fine.
But it does give us a cautionary tale worth considering.
When a market leader decides to change the game into “game over” mode, they’d better make sure the new game gives them more of an advantage than the old one did.
“Have you played with a Nook next to a Kindle? The Nook is just better.”
Actually, I have. And you have to define “better.” The nook color has more functionality as the hacked/rooted/just-voided-your-warranty Android tablet, certainly, but I don’t want a tablet. I want an e-reader on which I read novels. Which means I want an e-ink display (which mimics paper, and so is better than an LCD for long-form reading). I want a better, wider, larger selection of books that are better formatted, which means I want Amazon’s library/store.
I haven’t played with the nook Simple Touch yet, but I’ve watched the videos and read the reviews and am not wowed.
And don’t forget the upcoming Amazon tablet that will run Android, so you don’t have to void your warranty for the added functionality, and which might well be a dual-screened device, with LCD on one side for Angry Birds and e-ink on the other for books.
Will, thanks for your note – I realize this is the height of subjectivity. As a Kindle guy, did you have to re-train yourself not to swipe at the screen? I’m curious because that felt like a problem to me, personally.
However, the real issue for me – and the purpose of the post – isn’t the “let’s compare the devices” aspect but the “it used to be about user experience, where Amazon killed everyone, and now it’s all about which e-reader I like better” element where this subjectivity begins anew. Someone was going to do this, I guess, so it makes sense for Amazon to have been the one. But still – it’s given B&N a new battlefield to fight on, and one on which it’s in a better position to compete. (Or so my theory, at present, goes…)
Enjoyed your post, Stephen, and your insight on the e-reader playing field. I agree Amazon has waited a little too long to make improvements to Kindle, chiefly the touch-screen features, but have to agree with Will on how you define “better.” I prefer reading books on my Kindle rather than my iPad because (in my opinion) no one has come close to matching Kindle’s anti-glare screen. It’s already easy on the eyes and wallet. Now if they could just make it easier on the fingers.
I totally agree with you, Stephen,
I went straight to the Nook Color because my Internet readings are an important part of my daily reads, and I was not satisfied with the Internet experience on the ereaders. I like the Nook a lot, but when I use the B&N store I just think why it is not a little more like Amazon.
I think with all the buzz around the Amazon’s tablet we will see another shake on this matter, but right now I own the Nook missing Amazon’s portal.
I’m chuckling to myself picturing you tapping the screen of a Kindle waiting for something to happen. 🙂
I must admit, I’m a purist. I love traditional printed books. It’s the designer in me, I suppose. That said, If I were reading books on an eReader, I’d want the functionality and interface of the iPad or my Samsung Android-based phone. I do too much additional reading online to purchase a device that doesn’t offer that option/connectivity.
The Kindle seems like a one trick pony, which is fine, I suppose, if all somebody wants to do is read a book. Why pay for additional functionality if you don’t have to? Realistically, though, when such a device has the potential to be so much more, and at lower and lower cost, I think you’re right in that it will have to evolve to remain relevant.
Todd, many thanks for your note – agreed on the definition of “better,” too, but that to me is the crux of the issue. No one was going to debate the relative merits of Amazon versus B&N on user experience on their websites. It was Amazon’s game and they won it resoundingly. With the advent of e-readers, the debate is on – and it has wide-ranging consequences that overshadow all of Amazon’s earlier gains.
To put completely made-up numbers to this discussion (a quantitative analysis on purely subjective fluff – always a good use of our time): if Amazon had 90% preference on user experience but 50% on Kindle vs Nook, what began as a “slam dunk” has just turned into a “jump ball.” Pardon the metaphor, but I think it works here. If my buying an e-reader then guarantees that I’ll be buying from that vendor – if Nook then B&N – this becomes a hardware war in my hand, where once there was a user experience war on my laptop/home computer.
I don’t think Amazon made a mistake by introducing the Kindle – their bigger strategy of disenfranchising publishers is the big win for them – but it certainly brings up a unique and thought provoking competitive dynamic that’s worth thinking through for those in similar situations. Thanks!
Luis – thanks for your comment! By owning a Nook, you’re now a B&N book customer, right? I think that’s the big issue here. You prefer Amazon’s portal. But you bought the Nook. So now… the e-reader dictates the site from which you’re buying. What was once a portal choice is now a hardware choice. Amazon won the portal war but is all of a sudden having to re-fight it on the hardware front. Different skill sets, dynamics, etc. Thanks!
Ken – you think I’m kidding? Seriously. I’m tapping away asking the Best Buy guy if this is just a dummy unit. Apparently, the dummy unit was the guy tapping on the screen not noticing the tiny little buttons on the side. I’m trained to swipe now, what can I say.
Yes, I’m a physical book guy at heart, too. I read your post on that and agreed right down the line. Thanks!
Stephen, exactly! I am missing the Amazon portal while I’m buying in B&N’s site because I own a Nook. I totally agree with your analysis. Thanks for this article.