Will Google Editions kill the ereader?

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Jason AnkenyAmazon.com's Kindle ereader remains the online retail giant's bestselling, most gifted and most wished for product, but Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad tablet is coming on fast. According to a new survey conducted by research network ChangeWave, the Kindle currently accounts for 47 percent of the ereader market, down from 62 percent in August 2010--the iPad grew from 16 percent in August to 32 percent in November, essentially leaving the Sony Reader (5 percent) and the Barnes & Noble Nook (4 percent) in the dust. In regards to user satisfaction, iPad has already overtaken Kindle: 75 percent of iPad owners tell ChangeWave they are "very satisfied" with their purchase, compared to 54 percent of Kindle owners. Consumer behaviors also differ between platforms: 93 percent of Kindle owners read books on their device, in relation to 76 percent of iPad owners, but the latter demographic is almost five times more likely to read newspapers and magazines than their Kindle counterparts.

Five percent of respondents tell ChangeWave they are very likely to purchase an ereader unit over the next 90 days, while 10 percent say they are somewhat likely; 42 percent of those prospective buyers are looking at the iPad, with 33 percent planning to scoop up a Kindle. But now a major new player is poised to enter the digital book segment, challenging the basic concept of the proprietary ereader platform. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) says it will introduce its long-delayed Google Editions ebook venture to U.S. audiences by the end of the month--originally slated to go live this summer but beset by technical and legal hurdles, Google Editions looks to revolutionize the existing ebook market by offering an open, "read anywhere" model enabling consumers to purchase titles directly from Google or its online retail partners (including independent bookstores) and add them to an online library connected to a Google account. Like all Google initiatives, Editions leverages the company's online reach and scope to appeal to users across most every corner of the web--for example, a jazz-related blog could recommend a book on John Coltrane to site visitors, point consumers to Google Editions to purchase the title, and share in the resulting revenues. In addition, Editions content will be optimized for all web-enabled devices, including smartphones, tablets and PCs.

That poses a big question: Are dedicated, proprietary ereader devices still a viable proposition moving forward? The ChangeWave survey doesn't identify why iPad satisfaction outstrips Kindle satisfaction, but if I had to take a guess, I'd wager it has a lot to do with the limitations of the Kindle hardware--as an ereader, it's excellent, but the iPad does so much more. Kindle still wins on price: The cheapest iPad--the 16GB model with WiFi--is $429.00, while the Kindle WiFi rings up at $139.00. But how many more consumers will spend even that much when it's now possible to access ebook content via so many retail outlets and so many different devices? Amazon itself has further devalued the Kindle unit by introducing Kindle smartphone applications optimized for all the major operating systems--by making its library of books and periodicals available across devices that also integrate voice calling, messaging, social networking, navigation and multimedia entertainment, Amazon is simply underlining all the stuff the Kindle doesn't do. With Google Editions promising to rewrite the ebook narrative once again to champion an open model over proprietary approaches, devices like the Kindle and Nook must evolve and expand their capabilities to keep pace--if not, they're in serious danger of losing the plot for good. -Jason