Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Will the App Store make a Good Book Store?

There are a few reasons for thinking that the iPhone's App Store may become the next and best digital book store. These are a few of the reasons that occur to me:

  • iTunes is already the most important digital music store and the AppStore is inheriting a lot of the momentum and the kharma of the iTunes e-commerce system
  • the iPhone App Store is already a pretty good App Store and seems to be building Apple a possibly dominant position in the race for mobile Apps. Robert Scoble has some perceptive observations on this.
  • Apple is rumoured to be building and close to launching a tablet computer, which will share the iPhones touch interface and the e-commerce system that supports the iPhone and the iTouch. The possibly mythical Apple tablet was last seen bounding through the Australian outback looking for media content, but when when this wallabook/kangoozine finally lands it will be a gorgeous display for newspapers and books. So Apple in producing a tablet is trying to make their hardware the best for books (and newspapers, films and albums!).
  • Users like reading stuff off their iPhones and when there is a tablet the chances are that they will like that even more.
  • The Apple system despite its creaky approval process, and the very weird rules that Apple imposes on its developers, is in some respects (and surprisingly) more open than the Amazon or the Google systems. Amazon for its Kindle and Google (for Google Books, or Google Editions) require that the books they distribute or will sell reside on their servers and in their 'format'. Amazon and Google already know what digital books are. Apple is not so sure. The architectural potential with Apple is more open: any publisher or author or inventor can throw an App with some new software and display potential at the Apple system (paying their small fee) and see if it catches on (Vooks or Enhanced Editions can be experimented with in the Apple media space). Google Editions and Amazon's Kindle have no such open-ness, no inventor-driven potential, and the same goes for Sony and Barnes and Noble.
On the other hand, we can find some reasons for not too readily buying into the Apple-flavoured vision of the App Store as bookstore (or even Vookstore or Nookstore).
  • I think it was Tim O'Reilly who said that the book as App does not scale well. Which I took to mean that whilst we can envisage having one or two or several Books as Apps on our phone, it is not likely that we can manage libraries this way. That may be correct, but individuals, unlike institutions, merely accumulate libraries. We buy books one at a time and if we buy enough of them within our iPhone ways will be found for managing those collections. I have been impressed by the way in which Apps can be found within the App Store. Even though it seems to be lamentably lacking in shopper-oriented convenience and friendliness. Users have been finding and buying the Exact Editions Apps for the Spectator and Opera magazine, though there has been very little explicit advertising or promotion for them (yet). The offerings within the App store are being found. Traffic is being generated. With a bit of merchandising skill from Apple, it is conceivable that millions of individual book Apps could be found and purchased within the App store by the tens of millions of users who have iTunes accounts. Scaling may not be such a big problem.
  • Perhaps a more serious issue with the one book per App model for the Apple Bookstore is that books need to be open and to work with each other in ways which Apps do not. Apps are self-contained applications and do not provide much scope for interoperation and interaction in the ways that digital books really need to do. But is this merely a short-term problem? Apple are developing their mobile developer environment and interoperating Apps are bound to come.
The Appstore/Bookstore could work out rather well. Especially if Apple resists the temptation to over-control the environment. If Steve Jobs really is sitting on the final specification of the iTabloid as he scans the latest field reports from Wooloongabba, Woomera, Bullaroo, Geelong and Gulgong, my advice is that he should ditch the pink, opt for matt black, OK the slightly larger form factor, the bigger memory, better battery (please! a better battery) and sign off. It will not be in my Christmas stocking but I am ready to stand in line in January, or February, or whenever....


Kirtim said...

I am curious what you mean when you say: "Apps are self-contained applications and do not provide much scope for interoperation and interaction in the ways that digital books really need to do" What kind of interoperation and interaction do you mean? reading? or something more along the lines of the bookriff idea -a mash up idea?

Adam Hodgkin said...

Thanks for the mention of Bookriff, which I didnt know about. That might be the kind of thing I had in mind. When we are really used to having and using digital books, we will do more than merely read them. I dont know what that could amount to: but there will be many computational/interpretive uses of books when we get going. "All the references in book X" to pages in my books A,B,C and G...; My previous reading track through these books...; The variations in these two editions (or two translations) of the Tempest. These are rather obvious examples, the point is that digital books need to be open to digital uses that we can not at this point imagine. And its not just a matter of searching.