It takes a lot to spoil my breakfast. But I choked on my cornflakes this morning when I read that Apple seems to be turning against non-App Store purchases of books. Apparently Sony had their iOS reader application turned down because it would have allowed users to purchase books directly from the Sony store. In common with most industry commentators, I see little difference between what Sony was trying to do and what Amazon already do very successfully. The Kindle eco-system is well on the way to cornering the ebook market while Apple's own iBookStore languishes in the doldrums.
At the moment, the Kindle app circumvents the App Store (and Apple's 30% commission) by taking book buyers to the website where the transaction takes place entirely within the Amazon system. Presumably Apple doesn't like this and there is a fear that they could now do something about it. Since there is absolutely no chance that Amazon would give in and pay Apple's commission, there's a strong likelihood of a confrontation that will penalise users.
The Kindle store is successful because purchases can be read on almost any device, from the dedicated Kindle reader through to smartphones, Macs and PCs. Contrast this with the Apple iBookstore which is a closed eco-system. Buy a book there and you can read it on your iPad or your iPhone. Nowhere else.
Apple has failed to introduce iBooks apps for other platforms - not even for OS X which is pretty inexplicable. If they had done, and could approach Amazon in price and content, they would have had a success on their hands. As it is, few avid book readers are interested in closed systems any more.
Many of us have by now invested a lot of money in the Kindle eco-system and will be seriously disgruntled if Apple tries to turn off the tap. While Cupertino might see short-term financial advantages in restricting book sales in this way, they would lose in the long run.
Today Sony joined the music-streaming band with subscription-based access to over six million tracks. With Spotify and other similar services already winning customers, Apple's much-delayed entry to the market even more inexplicable. Usually out there ahead of the pack, Apple is looking decidedly tardy.
The traditional iTunes muscic-selling leviathan is now holed below the waterline, possibly fatally. It is beyond doubt that subscription streaming is the future - at least for the mainstream music consumer. Purists will still want their CDs or massive audio files on their own computers, just as some still prefer vinyl, but the man in the street with his iPod will be happy to move to subscription streaming.
In my case, now I have Spotify installed on my Macs and my iPhone I cannot envisage a time in the future when I would actually purchase a piece of music. I have never been a big music buyer, but I am listening to a wider variety of music than ever before thanks to Spotify. The pressure is on Apple now and I would not be surprised by a January announcement; after all, they have to do something with that massive North Carolina server farm.
The Sony Reader was my first experience of ebook reading and I had invested the best part of £500 in books at the Waterstones' online bookstore before I decided to defect to the Kindle store - initially because I could synchronise my purchased on all my devices. Since then I've been left with a budding library of purchases that have been inaccessible except by using the Sony software on my Mac.
In December, though, all that could change when Sony introduce their apps for iOS and Android. The hope is that all books bought from the Sony Reader Store will magically appear on the smartphone apps. This would be ideal and would answer all my criticism of the Sony as a closed system. I wonder, though, how this is going to be achieved because. Unlike Kindle and other cross-platform systems, the Sony Reader works on the basis that purchases are downloaded once and that's it. And for users outside the USA, who have to rely on a ragtag of third-party bookstores in the absence of an official Sony store, the problems can only be greater. How are we to get our purchases from Waterstones, W.H.Smith and other suppliers to sync to the iPhone app?
I hope these purveyors of eBooks are now giving some serious thought to how it can be accomplished because, without doubt, there will be some very unhappy customers out there. We have paid good money for our books and the least we can expect is that they should be readable on a wide range of devices. It's no use saying we can't, because Amazon and others have shown how easy it is.
More words of wisdom from Steve Haber, president of Sony's digital reading business division: "Within five years there will be more digital content sold than physical content. Three years ago, I said within ten years but I realised I was wrong - it's within five years."
He predicted that we would see the same patterns in book distribution as we have already experienced in the digitisation of music and photography. Sony believes that the eBook market has now passed the point of no return. Said Haber: "I have multiple meetings with publishers and tell them paradigm shifts happen. You can say fortunately or unfortunately you haven't had a paradigm shift in, what, hundreds of years." He added: "We in the consumer electronics area have a paradigm shift every year or two."
I have felt for a long time that the advantages of digital books will propel eReaders to the fore and I cannot argue with Haber's logic that we will see the big revolution within the next five years. Of course, readers are generally a conservative lot and will need prising from their dead-tree books, but I now think that Haber's paradigm shift in publishing is unstoppable.
Interesting story in this week's Economist featuring Steve Haber, head of Sony's e-reader business. He welcomes the hype surrounding the iPad and believes the iPad's much-vaunted book reading capabilities will benefit the whole industry, including Sony, by drawing attention to the concept. According to Mr. Haber, Sony's plan is to focus on dedicated (he prefers the term "immersive") reading devices: "Our focus is immersive reading, so that you forget you have a device in your hand." He also seems to believe that the iPad is too large and too heavy to be a regular companion.
Similar arguments are used by fellow blogger Tony Cole of eBookanoid.com. He also believes that you don't need distractions - such as incoming SMS messgages, phone calls - when reading. I can understand the reasoning, but I also prefer not to carry around too many devices. That's why the iPhone, despite a number of arguments against it as a book reader, is actually my device of choice. It does everything in one compact, pocketable package.
I certainly do not rule out lightweight e-ink devices. I could argue, for instance, that Sony's Pocket Edition reader - which is smaller than the Touch Edition - is the perfect size and form for carrying and holding while reading. Sony's problem, as I have said before, is that they have no Kindle-style eco-system. Buying books is a pain and requires a computer and some ability; and, once bought, these books are stuck on the one device.
Tony Cole has pointed out that books for the Sony can be bought from many retailers and not just from the Sony store (which is available only in the USA in any case) and that free books can be imported without problem. You can even, he says, export your books to another format if you change to another brand of reader. This is all well and good, but it is fiddly and doesn't appeal to the thousands of people who are coming to book readers with absolutely no computer knowledge. In stark contrast, Amazon makes book buying a simple, quick and easy process. There's no need ever to worry about converting the books because Amazon is rushing to introduce compatible reader applications for just about any device out there (except, of course, for the Sony and other directly competing e-ink readers).
Apple's iBookStore, although currently restricted to the iPad, makes buying and installing books just as easy as adding an iPhone app. And Barnes & Noble's new system promises to be a direct competitor for the Kindle system when more apps are introduced. The current trend is clear and I believe keen readers will soon demand the ability to read and synchronise their books over all popular devices, whether they be dedicated e-ink readers (such as the Kindle) or multi-function phones and computers.