The Kindle is the killer ebook platform, and it is so successful that pretty much nothing can kill it now, nor has anyone managed to put together a serious competitor. But that wasn't always the case.
There was a point in time, right around when the Kindle was launched, when this ereader could possibly have died as a result of the iPad. A couple unrelated decisions on the part of Apple kept this from happening, but as a thought exercise I want to explore how the situation might have played out.
If you followed the Samsung/Apple lawsuits at all, you probably know that any number of confidential bits of Apple history were revealed during discovery. For example, I was thrilled to learn that all the rumors from the last decade were true; Apple had been secretly working on a tablet (photos).
Yes, the iPad came before the iPhone, but it was released 3 years later because (reportedly) Steve Jobs wanted to release a smartphone first. That was a smart decision, as I will show you later, but wouldn't it have been interesting if the iPad had come first?
It's April 2007, and Steve steps out on stage with the iTablet. For the sake of simplicity I will assume that this tablet is the same as the 2010 iPad with no camera, a single core CPU, and a 9.7" screen. Let's keep the price the same as well.
So the iTablet is sleek, powerful (for 2007), and makes all the tech bloggers drool. And it sells like hotcakes. There isn't much you can do with it just yet, given that there's no app store, but that doesn't stop people from buying it just too use for web browsing, email, Youtube, and other basic internet stuff. It even inspires a renaissance of website design and online games as developers rush to support the hot new gadget.
2007 progresses, and we start hearing new rumors that Amazon is going to launch the Kindle that fall. Thanks to a 2006 leak of some FCC paperwork, everyone already knows what the Kindle looks like, and we also know what the user manual said. Lots of bloggers post a photo of the iTablet and original Kindle next to each other and heap scorn upon Amazon for being so deluded as think such a fugly device could compete with the iTablet. The nicest posts argue that either Amazon wasn't going to release the device shown in the leaked images or the rumors were simply false.
Amazon weathers the scorn, buckles down, and launches the Kindle a month early, in October 2007. It's the same fugly device we know and love, only now Amazon decides to double down. They price it at $300.
To the shock of most of the bloggers who attend the press event, the Kindle manages to sell out in just a couple days. That's not quite as good as it would have done absent the negative press, but it is still a stellar achievement.
I can sum up the early success in one word: content.
The (real) Kindle was the best reading devices on the market in 2007, but one of its other great strengths was that it launched with the best ebookstore as well.
In late 2007, the (real) iPhone didn't have a real reading app (I think there might have been hacked apps), and it didn't have much in the way of apps of any sort. If we apply that same situation to the (fictional) iTablet, then much of the Kindle's early survival could be attributed to the being better than the iTablet in exactly one way.
Amazon could capitalize on the Kindle-iTablet differences with clever ad campaigns. For example, they could highlight how you can carry the Kindle on your commute (the iTablet is too heavy) or use the Kindle outside.
As 2007 winds to a close and 2008 starts up, the Kindle will still succeed in sparking a revolution in digital publishing, Steve Jobs will still say in January 2008 that no one reads anymore.
Let's pause in January 2008 and consider the state of the gadget market. The iTablet is still selling great, but the shortage of official (nonhacked) apps is really beginning to be felt. People get bored with their iTablet, and there's a growing rate of iTablet returns.
Interjection: It is my opinion that the (real) iPhone was unaffected by the lack of apps because it worked fine as a phone. The iTablet would not have the same grace period because apps would be more important.
This starts to worry Apple, so they rush out the iOS App SDK in January. It's still in beta and was released several months early, but Apple releases it anyway because even the Apple fanblogs are beginning to comment on how limited the iTablet was and how little you could do with it.
They open the iTunes App Store in April (a few months early), before it is quite ready but just soon enough to mollify the critics.
Two other events happen in April, and here is where things get interesting. First, Amazon releases a redesigned Kindle which isn't quite so fugly; they cannot make it look as good as the iTablet but at least it doesn't make you want to claw your eyes out.
Second, the other Steve is quoted in an article, criticizing the iTablet. Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, says that he wishes he could read a book on the iTablet. He loves to use it for web browsing, and he regrets that it didn't launch with a reading app.
That changes everything, and Apple starts scrambling to launch a reading app for the iTablet. They start courting publishers, working on an app, and looking for any way to speed up the process.
This brings us to June 2008, when iRead 1.0 hits iTunes (think Stanza). It starts getting attention right away. It's the best reading app on the iTablet: fast, comfortable, beloved by users, and most importantly it was developed by 3 engineers who liked Apple and could be talked into selling out.
Fast forward to October 2008. Amazon has sold a couple hundred thousand Kindles in the past year, and Apple has sold a couple million iTablets in the last 14 months. eBooks are still taking off, and Amazon still has about 95% of the market.
And then Apple unveils the iTablet 2. It has a faster CPU, a 1MP front facing camera, and sells for the same $499 price. But wait, there's one more thing.
Steve Jobs invites the iRead developers out on stage, and they unveil iBooks, the new reading app for the iTablet. It won't be out until December, but all of a sudden the Kindle has major competition. Current iReads users convinced to update the app to iBooks, and suddenly Apple has a half million potential customers, making iBooks potentially a bigger platform than the Kindle.
Apple has signed 4 of the 6 major US publishers as well as a whole host of magazines and newspapers. They've also got most of the publishers to agree to the 70/30 split. The publishers are thrilled to get more money and they start pressuring Amazon to agree to similar terms.
But here's the catch. The Kindle has only been around for a year, so in this alternate history the major publishers don't fear Amazon's dominance as much as they would have if Apple approached them in late 2009 (that's when Apple really started iBooks).
So the publishers push for more money out of Amazon, but they don't push for price fixing. (They also don't get caught colluding to control the market, so that's a plus.) This leaves Amazon free to continue to discount ebooks and grow the market.
So at the end of this thought exercise, we see an alternate history where Amazon only got to run rampant for a year before a major competitor comes on the scene.
Question: Would that have been enough to kill the Kindle?
Answer: I'm not sure. What do you think?
P.S. The above scenario involves a number of shortcuts and improbable situations. For example, I'm not sure that iBooks could have gotten out the door that quickly. I also took liberties with Murphy's Law and assumed Apple would not have any major catastrophes due to rushing the SDK, App Store, and iBooks out the door before they were done.
If there is a detail which you feel should be changed, change it and then lay out your scenario explaining whether the iTablet would kill the Kindle. I want to know what you think.