Wednesday, June 23, 2010

eBook Wars: Clicks, Bricks and Clouds Build New Fronts for Retailers

In a flurry of activity in the ebook reader marketplace, price drops, new features and sales reports are filling the headlines to paint a rapidly shifting portrait of forces reshaping the book industry. Barnes and Noble kicked off the week with a price drop on its AT&T-equipped  Nook ebook reader to $199, with a wi-fi-only model coming soon at $149. Not to be outdone, Amazon announced within a few hours of the B&N announcement that its AT&T-equipped Kindle was now only $189, with a wi-fi-only option likely in the near future. The move by Barnes & Noble is more a move of opportunity than desperation. Research from DigiTimes reports that Nook units outshipped Kindles in March, though Tim O'Reilly notes that this includes stock shipments to retail outlets. Nevertheless, with iPad becoming a hot ebook reader rapidly, price-cutting to reach a broader audience for ebooks seems to be the order of the day.

The growing presence of iPad seems to be only part of this rapidly changing landscape for ebook sales. You also have to factor in what's happening with the devices themselves and with wireless network access. With Starbucks coffee shops offering two hours of daily free wireless to its patrons starting in July and Google's latest version of its Android mobile device operating system offering wi-fi access to the Internet to nearby devices, there's a diminishing reliance on built-in mobile data network access to get content downloaded into ebook readers. Barnes & Noble also has had success with encouraging the use of wi-fi access in its own stores, many of which are also equipped with Starbucks-like cafes, so there is a continuous presence of the Web forming wherever one finds content and coffee together. Add in home wi-fi access and it's just not that hard to get a hold of ebooks in most places where you'd want them.

The other leg of this story is a set of brand-new features on the Nook that were also launched the day of the price drop announcement. In addtion to some niceties like improved ebook and network connection navigation, version 1.4 of the Nook sports two key additions: games and competent Web access. Both of these new features use the two-centimeter color touchpad at the bottom of the unit to activate their features, leveraging the Nook's Android underpinnings to good advantage. It's a little awkward to use the color display for navigating eInk displays of Web content and games, but you get used to it quickly enough and the eInk is fine for basic text and graphics and great when bright outdoor light would make iPads, mobile phones and computer screens all but unusable.

Thinking of the forthcoming launch of Google Editions and the emerging plans of news publishers to charge for some of its online content, the Nook is coming up with an interesting and affordable way to access a broad array of content in a highly affordable device that can put book content alongside Web content in some interesting ways. If there are community features or other online "extras" that might be a part of an ebook offering, the Nook is now better positioned to integrate them into the ebook experience. Content integration need not be just Web-oriented, either; with Google TV arriving this fall on Logitech's Revue unit and other home theatre devices, the Android side of a Nook can double in time as a TV remote and search tool. You've read the book, now see the HDTV video. All interesting angles that coincide with Barnes & Noble's media selling profile.

Ron Miller points out on Fierce Content Management that there's a race to the bottom of sorts on ebook reader pricing, which you can't deny on one level based on these recent events. But I do think that it's also the beginning of a new race for book retailers to define value-add services in a mobile world in which digital delivery of much of their core inventory is a given and the need to make it valuable alongside pervasive Web content a given also. This latter race need not be a race to the bottom. It can be a very profitable race as retailers and publishers alike become more adept at integrating their brands, their online and physical selling spaces and their ability to integrate communities with content and services across these arenas. Mind you, this opportunity has always been there for book retailers, but as it finally sinks in that they cannot escape the Web via ebook readers, devices like the Kindle and the Nook will become extensions of an increasingly sophisticated cloud of content that spans our mobile devices, our entertainment systems and our desktops.
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