ZDNet recently ran a piece on the release of the Kindle Oasis that hailed “Amazon’s Apple moment,” which it defined as “near-monopolistic market control, apex agility in terms of supply chain, and sustained consumer zealotry for its devices.” I’m happy that this piece supports my own thesis that Amazon is aiming for both ends of the tablet/e-reader market. But does the ZDNet argument hold water? And if it does, what does it imply for the future of the Kindle range, the Fire tablets, and Amazon’s ebook ecosystem in general?
There’s one area of the thesis that I think needs careful parsing: ZDNet argues that Amazon has reached its Apple moment, but not its iPad moment. To my mind, iPads are still superior technology even to the Kindle Oasis, and Apple maintains an elegance and bling factor across its device range that Amazon still can’t match. No matter how strong the argument for e-paper screens – which ZDNet accepts – I doubt many would quibble with DisplayMate’s judgment that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the current ne plus ultra of onscreen reading. But Amazon is not about unbeatable products, it’s about unbeatable customer experience, and Apple is nowhere near matching that. Prime is only the most explicit manifestation of that customer focus.
“Amazon now has stratification across the Kindle product line to basically please everyone and still have very good margins. In some ways they are in better shape than Apple in this regard,” notes the ZDNet article. “And unlike Apple that has to compete with Android, the Kindle competes with essentially nothing.” (Except universal tablets, perhaps, but then Amazon owns a huge chunk of that space too.) The ZDNet thesis also maintains that the Kindle Oasis is the Executive grade Kindle for those sophisticates who spend long hours poring over documents onscreen, and who have enough money and taste for elegance to want something light and slick to facilitate that. And who inevitably will be Prime customers.
One thing should be obvious: No company is going to this amount of effort to salami-slice and build premium products for a market it’s not committed to. For all the critiques that claim that books are just a niche business for Amazon, and window dressing for its broader retail ambitions, Amazon appears all set to continue developing, and nuancing, the ebook market. So if there is still anyone in Big Publishing, or elsewhere, waiting and hoping for Amazon to pull back from the ebook business, you can quit holding your breath now.
So don’t expect new Kindles and Fires to achieve the elegance of the iPad. Even the Kindle Oasis is nowhere near that, for all its premium positioning. But do expect Amazon’s focus on its audience to keep on getting stronger, and its ebook platform to keep on getting better.
And Apple’s place in this Apple moment? Apple is a hardware company. A device maker. And my suspicion is that its attempt to lock a media platform into its hardware offering is going to lead it up the same blind alley as Sony. Onscreen readers enjoying the new iPad Pro should worry. But the next generation will probably be all about premium Kindles.