E-books: Amazon bites back
Remember the Kindle, the device that was going to cause an earthquake in the publishing industry, while saving the travelling bibliophile from backache and excess baggage charges? Well, according to some technophiles, Amazon's e-reader is already sooooo last year, made redundant by the arrival of a shinier, smarter tablet device from a rival technology firm.
Not so fast. Today Amazon is unveiling a new version of the Kindle, and making clear the scale of its ambitions in the UK. For the first time UK users will be able to order the e-reader from its UK store rather than have it shipped across the Atlantic, and then buy books from a UK Kindle store. Having had a quick look at the new device, I think I understand why Amazon believes it can still be the game-changer in the book trade, however much attention Apple's iPad and iBooks store may be getting.
Steve Kessel, the Amazon executive who was in London to spread the word, was keen to dispel any idea that the Kindle had been affected by the arrival of the iPad. In fact, he said, sales had accelerated, particularly since the price was cut a month ago. And last week Amazon grabbed headlines with the news that it was now selling more digital books than hardbacks.
What's interesting about the latest Kindle is how defiantly different it is from the iPad or other tablets. Amazon has refused to bend to pressure to make it touchscreen or to introduce colour. The company believes that would detract from the experience, which it seeks to make almost impossible to differentiate from that of reading a book.
"You're not buying a gadget," says Mr Kessel, "The design goal was to make sure readers still get lost in the author's words."
Priced at around a third of the cost of an iPad, weighing just 250g and with a battery that can last a month if the wireless is switched off, the new Kindle will certainly prove attractive to those who just want an e-reader, rather than something that can surf the web, play videos or do a dozen other things.
Amazon believes there is a big and big growing audience for that kind of device. We shall see, but even if the hardware fails to prove an enduring hit, the online retailer can still win the software battle. Its Kindle store can already deliver e-books to a range of devices, from phones to tablets, and it has a much wider range at lower prices than Apple's iBook store and, it claims, than any other e-bookstore.
In the end, it is the publishing industry, not Apple, that needs to sit up and take notice of Amazon's ambitions. Its prices will be forced lower by the advent of the Kindle store.
"Customers believe prices for digital books should be lower than those for the real thing. We believe that too," says Steve Kessel.
The Seattle firm now has the power to do to book retailing what Apple has done to the music industry. Now there's a thought which might well put some veteran British publishers right off their lunch.