Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amazon and Apple in Asymmetric Competition

Today it is widely expected that Amazon will launch a 'next generation' Kindle. The rumor mill says that it will be called the Kindle Fire, it will be running an Amazon controlled and adapted version of Android 2.1, it will be priced 'competitively' a bit lower than the basic iPad, it will have a smaller form factor than the iPad (7") and may look much like the Blackberry PlayBook, but above all it will be a new and better way of consuming the books, films, music and other digital media properties that Amazon successfully sells to its large consumer following.

Many observers think that Amazon has perhaps the best chance of competing with Apple in the 'tablet space', which increasingly looks as though it might otherwise become an Apple preserve. As David Streitfeld in the New York Times points out, one of the reasons that Amazon has a chance is that it is not a straightforward competitor but an asymmetric competitor. The tablets that have abysmally failed to compete with Apple so far (and its a long list: Blackberry, HP a fistful of Android efforts) have failed because they have been competing head-to-head the level of hardware with a device that in every case, however serviceable the hardware, abysmally fails to match the content and software eco-system (its all about the apps) which sustains and grows Apple's market. Amazon will position its tablet not as a device that matches the iPad in specification and function, but as a better conduit to media resources and media consumption. Amazon does have a very significant content mix that it can channel through its device. In the books area it has a stronger and deeper selection than Apple, and although it may be lagging in its selection of music and film, it has nonetheless a respectable harvest. Books is a key strength and with its successful eInk Kindle track record Amazon has the potential to migrate millions of book lovers (and their purchased libraries) to the new platform. Apart from Apple no other media/tech player has anything like Amazon's content reach (not Google, not Facebook, not Microsoft or Sony).

But the competition will be intriguingly asymmetric "because Apple sells movies, music and books in order to sell devices. Amazon sells devices in order to sell books, movies and music. Apple has never faced an opponent with such a vastly different strategy." (New York Times 25.9.2011)

In fact the competition is deeply asymmetric in a number of ways. Amazon already provides access on Apple devices through its Kindle app, the chances are that Amazon will try to maintain the compatibility between its eInk-based Kindle app on the iOS platform and its native Kindle Fire app software. That could get to be complicated, it could inhibit development of better native-Android reading software, but this is an asymmetry that gives Amazon market reach. There is no chance that Apple will provide access to iTunes or to iBooks on an Amazon tablet app. Amazon would probably not allow that, and Apple certainly would not want that. If iBooks were to get a lot better, perhaps through taking advantage of hardware or system features, that would put some competitive pressure on Amazon's lead with eBooks. Asymmetric also in that Apple will stick to its 'agent' or facilitator role, whereas Amazon will act more as principal (Amazon is in fact becoming an eBook publisher). Apple will continue on its policy of levying a distribution tax from content that uses its iTunes marketplace (30%). Amazon will seek to maintain and re-introduce its 'merchant' role, wherein it can exploit and require deep discounts from publishers developers. Amazon will not lightly give pricing power to its publisher partners (its rules for the app market give Amazon the right to discount to zero!). Apple does give developers and publishers more pricing autonomy, because Apple knows that it will attract more developers that way and will sell more hardware and grow the ecosystem. Ironically, Apple will be able to move much more quickly to cloud-based services (Apple has struck deals which permit this streaming management of content with the permission of the music majors and publishers). Amazon will be more 'stuck with' a distribution and download model in which bits and megabytes are moved from server to device and copied to personal lockers. Ironic this, given Amazon's second to none services in cloud computing. Netflix (Amazon WSC's biggest customer) has been streaming film from Amazon cloud computers long before Amazon has the music majors signed up to a streaming approach for consumer music.

In fact the competition between Apple and Amazon at this point looks so asymmetric that one doubts that either side really needs to win a knock out. Mutually assured co-existence will be enough. Amazon will have an apparent success on its hands if it can migrate the majority of its existing and growing Kindle market to a better tablet Kindle Fire. It doesn't need to compete with Apple at this stage in the provision of the widest and richest form of app market. It has a lot of negotiating and catching up to do before it can hope to challenge Apple in music and film, and it is not interested in the new post PC computer market that Apple has in its sights. Apple may not mind Amazon getting further success in the books market (as Jobs said people don't read books anymore). The incidental benefit for Apple of a perceived to be successful Amazon tablet is that this 'success' will severely compromise and complicate Google's struggles to move Android from success in the smart phone form factor to successful tablets. If the first acceptable Android tablet is one in which Amazon have forked the operating system and taken control away from Google we can expect further fragmentation and frustration in the Android eco-system. Apple should be rather pleased about that.

From my standpoint, the most interesting area of conflict that now opens between Amazon and Apple is the one which touches on magazines and newspapers (and of course that interests us most at Exact Editions). It seems very likely that Amazon will have a strongish hand in the periodicals space for its new Kindle, and it will be very interesting to see how the Amazon commercial model for those periodicals works out. I doubt it will be easy to get an entirely satisfactory magazine/newspaper digital experience on a 7" tablet, and there will be some challenges in then moving a suboptimal experience to a 10" device in 2012, just about the time that Apple brings out its likely iPad 3. We live in interesting times!

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