So Amazon launched the Kindle 2 on February 9th as expected, but didn’t say anything more about its plans to make Kindle books available on other devices. Then today it launched a Kindle app for the iPhone, and I’ve been playing with it. (I can do this because my iTunes account is tied to an American bank account, even though I live in Britain.) It’s pretty impressive: it lets you read Kindle books on your iPhone, and if you have a Kindle it remembers which page you got to on each device and can synchronise them accordingly. The selection is good and the books are cheaper than on Stanza. Amazon is pushing this as a way to use the iPhone as a fall-back reader when you don’t have your Kindle with you, and as a way to introduce people to e-books in the hope that they will then buy a Kindle.
Here’s the interesting thing: you can’t actually buy Kindle books using the iPhone app. You have to go to Amazon.com and buy a Kindle book there; it can then be called up on the iPhone. Obviously you can go to Amazon.com using the iPhone’s browser, but it would have been much neater if you could do it inside the app. So why can’t you? Perhaps Amazon will add it later. Perhaps Apple wouldn’t allow it (there is some rule about requiring approval for apps that sell you things). Or perhaps Amazon doesn’t want to make it too easy to buy Kindle books on iPhones, because it wants the iPhone to be a supplementary reading device, and doesn’t want to cannibalise sales of the Kindle hardware. If so, this is nuts: surely the potential revenue from selling Kindle books on the iPhone is far greater than the revenue from selling hardware?
Anyway, the ball is now firmly in Apple’s court. Being able to buy e-books (even Kindle books) via iTunes would be much neater. Also, the Kindle app doesn’t support periodicals, so there’s an obvious gap for Apple to fill there, if Amazon doesn’t do it first. It will be interesting to see how Apple responds.
One final thought on e-books, iTunes and so forth. I wrote a leader in The Economist about all this in which I referred to a possible “iTunes moment” for e-books and speculated about the potential for e-book readers to provide a viable new model for newspapers and magazines, by allowing them to charge for content and thus reduce (or eliminate) their dependence on advertising. There has been a lot of discussion about this, much of it prompted by Walter Isaacson’s piece in Time, which suggested that newspapers ought to adopt a micropayment model, charging readers small sums to read each article instead of giving everything away on the web:
Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day’s full edition or $2 for a month’s worth of Web access. Some surfers would balk, but I suspect most would merrily click through if it were cheap and easy enough.
This proposal has been generally savaged, most thoroughly by Clay Shirky, who noted that “users don’t like being nickel-and-dimed… small payment systems don’t survive contact with online markets, because we express our hatred of small payments by switching to alternatives, whether supported by subscription or subsidy.” The case against micropayments has also been made by the excellent Andrew Odlyzo, who can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, Isaacson seemed to equate the iTunes model with micropayments, even though most people would not regard $0.99 as a micropayment. When you buy an album or an app on iTunes, you make the “buy” decision and you click. Nobody wants to have to make that decision for every article they might want to read. When I wrote about an iTunes moment, I was referring specifically to the way in which the iTunes Store kick-started a market by creating an easy-to-use standard with critical mass. I think Apple could do the same for e-books and e-periodicals. But it wouldn’t involve micropayments; I think it would involve a subscription model, of the sort Amazon uses to sell periodicals on the Kindle. Just my $0.02, as it were.