eBooks: It’s Betamax Versus VHS All Over Again

The Wikipedia long version: Videotape format war

The shorter to the point version: The Betamax vs VHS Format War

The victory was not due to any technical superiority (Betamax is arguably a better format) …

And so it has been with ePub versus Kindle.

ePub is superior to Kindle format.

Even ePub hardware is superior to Kindle hardware.

But none of that mattered. Or matters after today.

Amazon cornered print books, earned a good reputation for its service (unlike Sony, which created a plague of buyer complaints), and when it introduced the Kindle, it had a market established and waiting for it.

Apparently no one much minded Kindles mark 1 and 2 were fugly beasts. Amazon’s service and no-brainer syncing made it a winner.

But what about Apple, some people have asked me.

What about Apple? They’re irrelevant for books.

So many people have bought Kindle format books and have such large investments, they’re not about to dump them for eBooks that are trapped on iOS devices. There’s no iBooks software for OS X or Windows or Android. Apple has a lock-in ecosystem just as Amazon did before Amazon woke up and introduced “Kindle Everywhere” software.

Should Apple act foolishly and remove eBook programs from the App Store due to the impossibility of complying with the 30% vig, such a move would hurt Barnes & Noble, hurt Borders, and hurt Kobo.

But it wouldn’t hurt Amazon.

Apple probably thinks it can get away with Amazon having to outright pull its software from the App Store or otherwise cripple it so purchasing is impossible. All that will do is create bad will towards Apple. It would be serious error. This isn’t like Apple going after Adobe and Flash. These are books we’re talking about.

Amazon would just sell more Kindles or upgrade customers to a new Amazon tablet.

And if you think an Amazon tablet is not coming, then you’ve forgotten all about those “Kindle AV” books. If Apple kills the Kindle program for iOS, what do you think will be able to read them? An Amazon tablet. Amazon is not about to let its customers lose those books.

Apple can’t win with books. They’ve repeatedly shown they don’t care about them.

So don’t look to Apple as a savior for ePub. That’s not going to happen. Even if Apple followed Amazon’s example with “iBooks Everywhere” software, it wouldn’t help. In everyone’s minds, Amazon equals books, period.

What of the investment people have made in ePub books? Stripping DRM from most ePub is trivial. It’s easier than stripping Kindle DRM. Once stripped, the books can be converted into Kindle format using Calibre. Some won’t look perfect, but that’s better than having to re-buy them. Buying a Kindle is cheaper than re-buying a library in Kindle format.

So Amazon has won, with its eBook version of VHS.

Just as Sony lost with Betamax, it has lost again with ePub.

9 Comments

Filed under Amazon Kindle, Apple: The Company, Sony Reader

9 responses to “eBooks: It’s Betamax Versus VHS All Over Again

  1. Ravi

    The other big weapon that Amazon hasn’t even deployed yet is Kindle for Web. Other than Google (who isn’t a relevant player otherwise) no one else has anything equivalent, AFAIK. My guess is they’re trying to spread Kindle apps everywhere they can (because the reading experience is better). I think they’re going to keep Kindle for Web in reserve until they’re forced off iOS (or another popular platform) so they can demonstrate how comprehensive “Kindle Everywhere” is and how committed they are to it. Being forced off a platform also gives them leverage with publishers if they’re the ones holding up “Kindle for Web”.

    • mikecane

      It’s clear that Amazon has amazing strategists. They know when to time news and releases. The library loan announcement made everyone forget about the $50M Kobo raised.

  2. Ravi

    I will separately say that I don’t think Barnes and Noble is as far behind Amazon as you think. They are a solid #2 in the eBook market and they’ve sold a surprising number of NOOK Colors so far. More importantly, the NOOK Color is a more exciting gadget than any Kindle produced to date.

    Personally, I think the forthcoming “Amazon Tablet” is more aimed at the NOOK Color than it is aimed at the iPad. Or at least that is how it was aimed prior to Apple’s 30%. After all, Amazon’s Cloud Player may be an advantage they have over Barnes and Noble, but it directly targets Apple.

    I continue to be amazed at Apple’s strategic blindness. With their 30% vig they’ve converted Amazon from a current partner and/or neutral player (who was a hypothetical future problem) into an active enemy today. And beyond the ways Amazon targets Apple directly, I think they’ve gravely underestimated how competition between Amazon and Google is going to rapidly improve the Android ecosystem and how that is going to impact iOS.

  3. It’s actually a better analogy than you think. A large part of the reason why VHS won the video wars was that they viewed convenience as a feature. Namely, you could tape a movie on a VHS tape while the Beta’s were too short. It wasn’t until after VHS had garnered an unbeatable lead that longer Beta tapes were rolled out.

    This has been the exact same fight. One product focuses on technological features, assuming that there is a perfect equivalence between a technological benefit and a consumer benefit: CSS rendering, typography, distributed infrastructure and independent standards.

    The other has a near insane focus on features that increase convenience: Direct wifi delivery, near invisible DRM, public notes, book sharing, availability, selection, pricing, book updates (when has iBooks or an ePub platform sent a reader an email telling them that the book they bought has been updated), an aggressive refund policy.

    If you frame the two platforms in terms of actual features that are visible to the user—features that benefit them directly instead of the producer or retailer—then the Kindle and mobi is the most feature-full and advanced ebook platform out there.

    As a designer and developer, I hate to say this, but it is the truth, and ePub3, exciting as it is to geeks like me, is doing nothing to change this.

  4. I take a different message from VHS vs. Sony’s Betamax. Namely that the more open platform tends to win because one vendor can’t keep up with a whole ecosystem of vendors competing with each other. The same lesson of Windows PCs vs. Macs, or Compuserve/AOL/MSN vs. Internet. Not a pure analogy here because Sony did license Betamax but on a more limited basis than VHS.

    And re: Internet the inherent advantage of EPUB 3 is it is based on HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript. I can’t see Amazon convincing publishers around the world to use something proprietary instead of these broadly-adopted browser-based Web Standards, and when it comes to things like interactivity it will not be possible to translate JavaScript with its myriad of APIs to something else. So Amazon’s faced with some difficult choices here. One potential outcome is that Amazon ends up adopting EPUB 3 but wrap Kindle Books in their own DRM. But if they were to then support un-DRMed EPUB content (which there would clearly be pressure on them to do, including from publishers like O’Reilly that reject DRM) then that would intrinsically makes their platform more open – it’s a two-way street that could help competition and would certainly help consumer choice.

    So while we in the open standards for publishing community clearly have our work cut out for us, I think it’s premature to declare either “EPUB is dead” or “Amazon equals books”.

    • mikecane

      Amazon has the most eBooks, period. So yes, “Amazon equals books” is how most people see it. And, in fact, how most *writers* see it. There is not a single writer who wishes to sell books who would say, “Put me everywhere *except* the Kindle Store.”

      • That’s like saying circa 8 years ago “B&N has the most books, period, so ‘B&N equals books'”. No one would have said that even in U.S. and most certainly not extrapolated from their to the global market. And there may be few U.S. writers who don’t want to be in the Kindle Store but that doesn’t mean that there’s many writers who *only* want to be sold via the Kindle Store.

      • mikecane

        >>>That’s like saying circa 8 years ago “B&N has the most books, period, so ‘B&N equals books’”

        Some people were saying that before eBooks gained traction.

        >>>No one would have said that even in U.S. and most certainly not extrapolated from their to the global market.

        Ah, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my posts are mainly addressed to the American market. But Kobo has its work cut out for it internationally. It’s books only. Amazon is a retailing monster, like Walmart.

    • I really wish people would stop using Windows versus Macs as examples of ‘open versus closed’.

      First of all, Macs have been outperforming the Windows market in terms of growth in unit sales, revenue and profits for quite a few years now. That’s a kind of ‘losing’ most companies would gladly like to see more of.

      Second: Windows isn’t open, not by a long shot. It’s a closed-source, tightly controlled, licensed piece of software sold by a company with a long history of favouring its own applications over those made by other devs (Office, web browser and more). It was also a monopoly that crushed innovation in the market for more than a decade.

      The internet is a clear case of open that won, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly that’s not likely to be repeated any time soon.

      Epub3 isn’t the panacea you think. Most Kindle books are developed as epub as that is the origin format Amazon recommends. JS in epub faces serious interop issues, with the only reading system that has tried to implement it (ibooks) doing so in a way that is full of bugs that render it largely incompatible with a lot of the JS work you’re used to doing for the web. Add to that the numerous incompatibilities between the way CSS has been implemented by reading systems and the way it’s implemented on the web and you have a developer’s nightmare.

      Open standards aren’t a user feature, only the things implemented using open standards can be features. For epub3 to be an advantage against Amazon it would have to enable developers to make books that are amazing, don’t degrade gracefully (otherwise there’d be a Kindle version), have perfect interop between ePub reading system and can’t be implemented in a less interactive way. That’s not going to happen. The only way the various ePub2/3 channels can win is if they do a massive push for user-facing features in their client apps/devices, coupled with aggressive iterative improvements to their ecommerce interfaces. That’s assuming that Apple doesn’t kill them all off in their infancy on 30 June, which would harm the ePub-based vendors much more than it would Amazon.

      Epub isn’t dead, but it risks being relegated to a niche. The only thing the ePub players can hope for now is to prevent Amazon from becoming a de facto monopoly.

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