Kindle or iPad: Which will change reading?
Is the new Kindle the device that will finally make e-books mainstream, converting real book-lovers to reading in a digital format? The jury is still out on this one, but I think Amazon has a better chance of making this happen than Apple. And that's despite a little experiment I've conducted which suggests the opposite.
Last week, I was lent the latest Kindle by Amazon, with an invitation to try it out. It's smaller and cheaper than previous versions but built very much along the same lines - it aims to be just an e-book reader rather than an all-purpose entertainment gadget like the Apple iPad. Amazon's strategy is to appeal to people who simply want to read without any flashy extras, and I think it makes sense.
But I thought I already knew what I felt about the Kindle, having tried it out before, so I convened a small focus group - friends and relatives, from 19 to 50, all very keen readers yet not hostile to digital devices. I asked them each to look at the new device and tell me what they thought. And what was the first thing they all tried to do? You've got it: they touched it.
It seemed that everyone in the group had got used to a touchscreen interface, and assumed that this was how you would control any new gadget. Once I'd explained that you had to navigate via physical buttons, they quickly got the hang of it. But they still seemed very reluctant to consider it as a replacement for a real book. Here are a few typical comments:
"The screen size is too small - I have to keep turning the page every few seconds."
"It's very ugly - doesn't it come in pink?"
"I still prefer the look and feel of a book..."
"What happens if I want to lend a Kindle book to a friend when I've finished?"
"I wouldn't want to use one of these on the beach - what if it got wet or sandy?"
So, a fairly typical range of reactions from e-book sceptics. Yet this was a group happy and accustomed to reading news on a screen, scanning blog posts or watching video screens. What's more, my bibliophile friends seemed more attracted by the idea of a touchscreen device like the iPad, with the possibility it offers of a more interactive and multimedia reading experience.
But I'm going to ignore the findings of my focus group - and stick by my belief that Amazon's device has a better chance of transforming the publishing industry than Apple's.
Why? Because the numbers do not lie. Amazon has established its online store as the predominant electronic book retailer. We know about its recent figures showing that it is now selling more e-books than hardbacks, but I've now been pointed towards another piece of evidence that it's trouncing Apple in this market.
An American thriller writer, Joe Konrath, writes an interesting blog for authors describing his own apparently successful transition to digital publishing. In a recent post he says that Amazon's platform is many times more important to him than Apple's new online book store: "I sell 200 ebooks a day on Kindle. On iPad, I sell 100 a month."
That's just one perspective - but Mr Konrath also makes the point that Kindle offers authors the chance to cut out the middleman and grab a far bigger percentage of their sales revenues than their publishers will offer. That is likely to give Amazon's platform ever more muscle in negotiating with publishers.
What's more, a quick comparison between Amazon's Kindle store and Apple's iBooks store appears to show that Amazon wins hands down on the price and availability of titles. And of course, there's a yawning gap in prices when you compare the hardware - the Kindle starts at £109, the iPad at £429.
So while my focus group was underwhelmed by the Kindle, I'm betting that price will prevail - and the UK's publishing industry needs to focus on Amazon, not Apple, as it contemplates its digital future.
Update, 15:11: As a number of people have pointed out, books purchased from the Kindle store do not have to be read on a Kindle - they can also be read on an iPad, an iPhone or a PC. Which makes it even more likely that Amazon, not Apple, will be the major force in the publishing industry.
I should also have said that Amazon's ambitions for the Kindle are different from Apple's for the iPad. Amazon will hope to make its money from the software - sales from the Kindle store - rather than the device, while Apple is definitely making huge margins on the sale of its hardware, so profits from iBooks will be less important.