iPad Reviews Raise Doubts About eBook Impact
The early reviews are coming in and Philip Elmer-DeWitt and Pat Kiernan offer some much-needed perspective:
Steve Jobs’ handpicked reviewers have tested his latest creation and pronounced it a winner. The first three reviews of Apple’s (AAPL) tablet computer were posted Wednesday night — each, coincidentally, from newspapers that are developing their own iPad apps.
I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the relationship Apple has with tech reviewers. For each product launch, Apple taps a few reviewers on the shoulder with an offer to send a review unit a few days before the rest of the world has access. Huge numbers of page views and retweets are assured for the writer who is among the chosen few. But who can be completely objective under these circumstances?
Not surprisingly, the reviews themselves are mostly positive, though not without notable caveats that might not concern the most fanatical early adopters, but should certainly tone down the Amazon vs. Apple hype for a little while.
It’s qualitatively different, a whole new type of computer that, through a simple interface, can run more-sophisticated, PC-like software than a phone does, and whose large screen allows much more functionality when compared with a phone’s. But, because the iPad is a new type of computer, you have to feel it, to use it, to fully understand it and decide if it is for you, or whether, say, a netbook might do better…
My verdict is that, while it has compromises and drawbacks, the iPad can indeed replace a laptop for most data communication, content consumption and even limited content creation, a lot of the time. But it all depends on how you use your computer.
Apple iPad (Wi-Fi): The fact that you won’t find a single port, USB, or otherwise, tells you that this product is not meant to be a full-fledged computer, or the substitute for one. Apple expects you to use e-mail and syncing to shuttle files and documents between the iPad and your computer. I can understand the decision not to include USB ports: the iPad is basically a big iPod touch with added capabilities, and decking it out with a bunch of ports opens a can of worms the iPad isn’t intended to deal with. Still, this is bound to be a deal breaker for plenty of potential buyers.
There’s an e-book reader app, but it’s not going to rescue the newspaper and book industries (sorry, media pundits). The selection is puny (60,000 titles for now). You can’t read well in direct sunlight. At 1.5 pounds, the iPad gets heavy in your hand after awhile (the Kindle is 10 ounces). And you can’t read books from the Apple bookstore on any other machine — not even a Mac or iPhone.
When the iPad is upright, typing on the on-screen keyboard is a horrible experience; when the iPad is turned 90 degrees, the keyboard is just barely usable (because it’s bigger). A $70 keyboard dock will be available in April, but then you’re carting around two pieces.
But Amazon retains some bragging points for avid readers, starting with a cheaper $259 price that I suspect will need to drop a lot further. At 10 hours or so, the iPad battery life, while impressive, falls far short of the two weeks you might get off a Kindle charge. It remains to be seen whether reading on a backlit screen for hours will be as easy on the eyes as the Kindle is. Curling up in bed was more comfortable with a 10.2-ounce Kindle than with the weightier iPad.
Amazon has about 450,000 book titles in the Kindle Store vs. 60,000 in iBookstore. Many best sellers in Apple’s store cost $12.99, though some are $9.99. Amazon is likely to charge similar prices after iPad arrives; Amazon wouldn’t comment. Out of the gate, Apple has support from major publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster. Random House remains on the sidelines; it does support the Kindle.
The Kindle has a few unbeatable advantages, though. In the price, size, and battery life portions of the competition, the iPad can’t put up any kind of a fight. The Kindle 2 will fit in nearly any back pocket and most jacket pockets. My other favorite book reader, the Sony Digital Reader Pocket Edition, will even fit inside most shirt pockets. You can almost buy two Kindle 2’s or three Sonys for the price of the cheapest iPad, too. And I think I’m right in guessing that the power source of the Kindle is something atomic. I almost never think about charging it because a single fillup can last for weeks. The iPad’s battery life is incredible for a device of its kind: you can count on ten hours of use per charge. But after a full day of travel and reading, you’ll still need to plug it in to top off the batteries when you get to the hotel. If you find yourself near a power outlet for a few hours once every day or two, it’s not that big an issue. Let’s not forget that the $259 Kindle includes access to the Store via free 3G Internet for the life of the device. To shop for books wherever you go on your iPad, add $129 for 3G capability and a minimum of $14.99 a month for the broadband service.
The most dramatic difference between the Kindle and the iPad is the depth of their respective stores. When the iBookstore opens, it’ll contain 60,000 titles. The Kindle Store currently packs over 475,000 titles, “including 103 of 110 New York Times bestsellers,” the company would like me to know. The iBookstore is so new that you can still smell the carpet adhesive. Nonetheless, the Kindle Store’s two year headstart on the iBookstore is a big plus. Ah. But the success of the Kindle Store is also a big plus for the iPad: Amazon will be releasing a Kindle app for the device. The Kindle can only read Kindle books. The iPad can read all of those, plus every iBookstore title. And when other bookstore apps are released, you’ll be able to read every Barnes & Noble title and comic books from many publishers…on and on. Kindles and Sony Readers and most other ebook devices won’t go away. Nor should they. Many consumers will be attracted by their smaller size and far more reasonable prices. But after the release of the iPad, any ebook device that costs more than $400 is dead meat.
Finally, not a review of the iPad itself, but of the iBookstore and potentially significant issues with discoverability:
Some of you will protest that what I’ve shown you are from publishers who won’t be in the iBookstore. Well guess what? Murder Piping Hot is a Smashwords books — and it’s going to be in the iBookstore. Under the frikkin Category of haggis, apparently!
If you think none of this matters, this is why you aren’t working for Apple. How do you think their Genius system will work for books? It will be based primarily on sales and matched to book Categories. It won’t recommend a Romance to someone who primarily buys Biographies — unless the underlying metadata is screwed up. And as we have just seen, in the case of Murder Piping Hot, it will be!
What’s your take on the iPad? Is it a true game-changer, an over-hyped new gadget, or something in between?
And is it a “Kindle killer”, or simply another channel for Amazon to sell more eBooks?