Apple, iBooks, and competing with Kindle

Buried among the numbers at yesterday's iPad and Mac event, Tim Cook announced a new version of iBooks with a few new features. From the beginning I'd heard the iPad mini was about removing weight and cost as barriers of entry to iPad sales, and about taking the ebook fight to Amazon and, as Ryan Block of GDGT aptly terms them, their Kindle line of consumer content appliances. Yet the event came and went without Apple matching the Kindle on pricing, or challenging Amazon on ebooks. Why?

Macworld's Serenity Caldwell made an excellent point at the Çingleton Symposium earlier this month -- Amazon's leadership in ebooks is based on market quantity, not product quality. Apple's original iBooks format was far superior to Amazon's original Kindle format, and while Amazon's new Kindle format allows for a far more iBooks-like experience, Apple isn't slowing down in the rich ebook department by any means. Yet Amazon clearly has the market momentum and mind share.

As Graham Spencer of recently mapped, while Apple far outpaces Amazon and other competitors in many content areas, when it comes to books, its 31 country footprint is dwarfed by Amazon's 179. According to Apple Insider, Apple is reportedly adding 18 additional (mainly South American) countries shortly as well, if they haven't already, bringing the count to a still far-behind 50.

But there's a lot to unpack there. Apple announced additional language support yesterday, including Asian-languages like Chinese and Japanese (which looked gorgeous), bringing their total supported language count to 40. Amazon still seems stuck at 9 (opens in new tab), all of which require latin-based alphabets. Asia, and China in particular, are huge markets for Apple. That could make some difference going forward.

At the event, Apple announced 1.5 million items in the iBookstore. That includes picture books and "multitouch" books, and Apple claims customers have downloaded 400,000,000 iBooks since launch. Amazon claims over 1 million items in the Kindle store on their website, but Jeff Bezos said millions (plural) in his recent Kindle keynote. (Amazon's numbers seem to include magazines where Apple doesn't include magazines in iBooks, but has them in the App Store for Newsstand instead.) Among those Amazon titles, however, are 180,000 Amazon claims as exclusives, and with 100,000,000 downloads of these exclusives to date, popular ones. Add to the lending and library features, often cheaper content, and on rock-solid syncing services, and it's a solid advantage.

Textbooks complicate matters slightly. Apple held a special education event earlier in the year to announce text books for the iPad. Apple released iBooks so rich-media text books could be more easily generated. Tim Cook claimed at yesterday's even that 80% of the U.S. school core curriculum was now covered by iBooks textbooks, and that they're deployed at more than 2500 schools in the U.S. (Sadly, they're still not deployed to iPhone or iPod touch.) Cook also introduced a new version of iBooks Author, which included vertical templates, embedded fonts, rendered mathematical formulae, multitouch widgets, and am easier, better process for updating books. International textbook support, of course, can vary wildly for both Apple and Amazon. Amazon released the Kindle DX in the past to offer a bigger screen better geared towards the education market. Amazon no longer sells the Kindle DX, but they still offer Kindle eTextbooks, both for sale and for rental, that run on the Kindle Fire and in all Kindle apps.

And that, writ large across their catalog, is the biggest advantage Kindle books has. You can read Kindle books on Amazon's Kindle hardware, including many of them on Amazon's ultra-cheap, ultra-legible e-ink line, on Android devices, BlackBerry devices, Windows Phones, iOS devices, Mac and Windows PCs, and even the web. You can only read iBooks on iOS. There's not even a Mac client, much less a browser client. That creates a feeling of control and a sense of assurance. Even if the typography is worse, even if the app experience is worse, the lower pricing, plentiful availability, and the ability to read content on pretty much every smart device on the planet adds up to the killer feature -- ubiquity.

Apple could equal or eclipse the Kindle catalog through sheer force of deal-making, something they traditionally excel at. But platform diversity is something in which Apple has historically shown almost no interest. Apple did make iTunes for Windows, but they haven't made any iTunes apps for any other non-Apple devices. And because, unlike music, commercial ebooks are still bound by DRM (digital rights management), they can't be opened by generic ereaders either. Whether you buy Kindle books or iBooks, you're still locked into that format, though the Kindle cage is much, much bigger. (I'm tempted to make the Adobe analogy, where they'd love for you to be locked into their cross-platform development tools rather than someone else's platform-specific ecosystem, but I won't. Promise.)

More content, in more places, on more devices, among other reasons, simply trumps whatever technical, interactive, and visual advantages iBooks has on iOS. Video is the same way, but books seem to evoke an even greater demand for cross-platform compatibility.

Ultimately, the ability login, be it on a $69 Kindle or high end smartphone or tablet, have access to your entire ebook library, synced and ready to go, even in base text, is compelling, and is something Apple simply can't and won't match .

Given that, my expectation that Apple would make a direct run at Amazon in the ebook space was unrealistic. Given that, a broader focus on education at yesterday's event, which would have almost certainly required a broader focus on books and textbooks, was also unrealistic. The ongoing lack of iBooks for Mac is disappointing, but a new version of iBooks and a new version of iBooks Author, keeps Apple's foot in the door, provides an amazing experience for those for whom that matters more than anything Amazon's Kindle offers, and the focus on languages maintains Apple's dominance in international markets.

Apple, not surprisingly, was far more realistic when it came to iBooks than any predictions or expectations, and that's not likely to change, at least not until DRM goes away.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • For many of us, it is not that "the industry" has to change, it is that Apple does. A personal library is a years or decades long-term pleasure, not a short-term fix, and multi-platform support is important. I buy a Kindle book, and I can read it on one of the family Kindles, my iPhone, my iPad, and my wife can read on her Galaxy S3, not to mention the computers. Apple does not even allow you to read an iBook on a Mac. If I build my library on iBooks, then I have tied it to iOS devices, exclusively. Even as an iOS fan I see no reason why I would want to restrict how and where I can read when I do not have to. 2 years from now, I might re-read The Walking Dead. 10 years from now, I might re-read The Call of the Wild. Barring any wide roadmap from Apple, a book reader buying heavily into iBooks commits to using iOS 10 years from now. For anybody who looks at books as something more than read-once quickie disposable entertainment, that is ludicrous. Amazon is no saint in this regard [ ]; I would much prefer an open, interoperable book format, but, except for paper, that looks unlikely. Until then, I am always going to go with option that gives me the most choice, even if today I mostly choose to read on an iOS device anyways.
  • By industry change, I mean DRM going away :)
  • I'll be on the parade route right next to you cheering on that day - and I agree with your initial portrayal of Amazon as a "bigger cage." But since I plan on keeping my reading materials around for decades, I am going with paper much of the time, Project Gutenberg or other non-DRM sources whenever possible ( -- good for classics), then Amazon, then iBooks as a distant fourth.
  • Hopefully I'm allowed to do this, but this might help some folks:
  • Interesting article. I am one of those people who would think that morally, people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their legally purchased content -- as long as they keep it to themselves and do not redistribute. Legally, that right is unfortunately not so clear, and Apple and Amazon (not to mention Hollywood) will argue that no, the purchaser does *not* have that right.
  • Oh, absolutely! I own every movie and music track I have. I'm completely against people who share such content, even if it is just giving it to a friend or two. To me, this is an insurance policy, as well as enabling me to better use and organize the information. I'm just trying to match a paper book a tad bit better, where sure, I don't own the content, yet they can't come into my home and remove the book or make sure I only read it on the couch. Of course, the paper book, I could lend to a friend, but then I wouldn't have access to it. But I'll even trade that ability for all the benefits that having it in digital form gets me.
  • I agree. Books, apart from just light pleasure reading, are a fundamentally different market from movies and music. They need to be available for a lifetime, not just as long as some trend stays popular. DRM is a major impediment to this. (What if Amazon goes out of business, or Apple? Or, they decide to make changes or get out of those markets, etc.?) At least Amazon minimizes this a bit by being so broadly usable (though they are still in control of it all instead of me). I've been slowly replacing my paper books with e-books for a number of reasons (easier to move, always have them with me, easier for me to read, easier to keep organized with notes and such, easier to search)... in other words, more useful as a tool. Amazon best lets me do that at this point, and besides, actually has the content I need. This all said, I've been looking into removing the DRM recently, so that I really can regain control and have a good shot at using it anywhere... currently, or 20 years from now. That's really the only way I'll be fully willing to give up print books.
  • +1 I can read my Kbooks on my iPad, PC, my wife's Android Phone, and my Nokia 900.
    Why on earth would I want to be stuck on 1 device.
  • Re: "Yet the event came and went without Apple matching the Kindle on pricing, or challenging Amazon on ebooks. Why?" 1. Because Apple doesn't need to match Kindle with iPad mini pricing. 35% bigger screen plus vastly better general-purpose computing power and usability are enough to justify the base $329 price. 2. Because Apple doesn't need to challenge Amazon on ebooks. Publishing has already been changed forever. Better to focus on bigger, more profitable industries, especially those that will take years or decades to disrupt. The television industry, for example.
  • I agree the iPad mini is worth more, and worth the $329. I'll gladly pay that to buy one. The problem is that a lot of the world's population don't realize that. They see these all as 'those tablet things' and will look at a few specs and things they want to do, and the price tags. Getting below $300 would make a difference worth more than the $30 it really is for how people perceive and consider the iPad mini.
  • I have to chime in here on being "locked-in" with ebooks due to either format, DRM, or both. I was an earlier adopter to ebooks on my HP iPAQ. I joined eReader and later fictionwise and have over 300 ebooks that I read on my HP device and then on several BlackBerry devices. Now I'm switching over to Apple (iPhone, iPad) and discover that there is no longer an app to read my books (PDB files). I have used Calibre to remove the DRM on some ebooks, which does allow me to use iBooks to read them, but there are some that Calibre doesn't work to remove the DRM. Barnes & Nobles bought out eReader/fictionwise a few years back and their Nook reader started as the old eReader program. I wrote to B&N about this and they said contact eReader since it is run as a separate company. I wrote eReader and they basically said sorry for the "inconvenience" and they had nothing to offer. I've been using an iPhone for several weeks and am enjoying it. However, something needs to be done to change this ebook system. DRM has to go! I bought these books, so why can't I read them on the device of my choice. Which also raises the issue of being locked in to Apple products as well. Sorry for the rant. Needed to get that out of my system!
  • I think Amazon is a better choice just because of all the platforms they support. They even have a web app.
  • I want to use iBooks, I really do. They app is beautiful, as are the books. However, Amazon makes it so much simpler. My son has an iPod Touch, for example, with his own iCloud and iTunes store account. However, we buy him books to read. It is impossible to gift him or even share with him an iBook. Only thing I can do is buy him a gift card for iTunes that he would then use to buy the book himself. You can't log out of the iBooks app separate from the rest of the iTunes eco system (music, movies, apps), so I can't even get them for him on my account. With the Kindle app, this is incredibly simple. Using my Amazon account I can either gift him a Kindle book or simply log into his Kindle app with my account and download the book.
  • I believe Apple is more interested in selling their products than books. While Amazon is far more interested in selling their content and services than Kindle products. That is because Apple historically command a higher margin for their products. I don't think they make a ton of money from selling content on the iTunes and App stores. These stores are the ecosystems that are necessary to sell more products. Not the other way around.