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4 posts from May 2010

Amazon's iPad App(s)

Amazon app I've been pretty critical of Amazon and their lack of innovation with the Kindle.  I've talked about those frustrations here and it's ultimately why I stopped posting on my Kindleville blog.  So when I see Amazon doing something good, particularly on someone else's platform, I feel compelled to call it out as well.  That's the case with the Amazon Mobile app for the iPad (iTunes link).

Amazon could have taken the easy way out and either (a) not created an iPad app, figuring customers can use Safari to get to or (b) created an iPad app that's nothing more than a quick-and-dirty version of their website.  They went with option "c" though and produced an app that's highly engaging and makes you want to explore and discover more.  How many retailer apps can say that?!

What do I like about this one?  Let's start with the fact that it focuses on my interests.  Sure, most if not all of the personalized recommendations in the iPad app are accessible through, but they're scattered all across the page, above and below the fold.  The app presents them in a way that really makes me want to see what's new.  In fact, I've done more deep dives into these lists via the app than I've ever done on Amazon's web site.

Next up, Amazon wasn't afraid to experiment with the user interface.  I totally love the product details pages.  (I've included a sample screen shot of one in the top left corner of this post; click on it for a larger view.)  Each of those three objects that look like sheets of paper (Details & Features, More to Explore... and Customer Reviews) can be tapped to enlarge, all without ever leaving the main product page itself.  It's a clever way of offering quick and easy access to a lot more content than can fit on the iPad's screen.  The result is a very clean UI; compare that to the extremely busy and cluttered product page on Amazon's website.  In fact, I'm hoping Amazon's website team considers implementing some of their iPad app's simplicity.

I like this app so much I've given it one of the precious slots on my iPad's home screen.  I open it almost every day, curious to know what's new and whether something is worth buying.  I'm sure that's music to Amazon's ears.

P.S. -- So if they can build a terrific retailing app, why are they unable to improve their Kindle app for the iPad?  As I've said before, Amazon needs to make an even bigger investment in the Kindle iPad app.  Apple's iBooks app is already better and will undoubtedly add more features in the future.

Amazon, your Whispersync technology is great.  The fact that Apple doesn't have an iBooks reader for the iPhone (yet!) means you've got an app availability advantage over them.  I love it that I can read part of a book on my iPad then switch to my iPhone and pick right up where I left off.  Wonderful.  But soon that feature will feel as old and unappreciated as Whispernet does today.  Don't make the same mistake you made with the Kindle hardware platform.  Be bold and invest in the Kindle readers on all the platforms.  Make them the envy of the rest of the industry.  You've got the resources, so stop letting these apps feel like an inferior reading experience to the Kindle itself, OK?

When Less is More

We live in an age of seemingly infinite choices.  Hundreds of thousands of new books are published each year.  Actually, the total is even larger when you add in all the self-published books.

So isn't it interesting that while the number of books published every year continues to climb, the biggest story in the technology world has to do with providing less, not more.  I'm talking about the iPad and a very insightful blog post by Forrester's Sarah Rotman Epps.  Sarah talks about limited content on the iPad platform and refers to it as "curated computing", which she defines as "a mode...where choice is constrained to deliver less complex, more relevant experiences."

The skeptic in me points out that the iPhone/iPad platform now has 200,000 apps and includes the Safari browser that let's you go anywhere you want (as long as your destination doesn't rely on Flash!).  Nevertheless, her point is relevant to everyone in publishing.  After all, isn't content curation the single most important service a publisher can provide?  When the choices are many it's the trusted brand (e.g., author or publisher) that's sought out.  The one who has built a reputation for curating content floats to the top.

That's always been the case and it always will be, regardless of the format.  Another key point here is that portable devices often lend themselves more to short form content than long form.  Get in and get out.

Remember that great quote about how "if I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter"?  That rule still applies, perhaps now more than ever.  With all the information coming at me each day I place a high value on filters and content curation.  I don't have time to read every technology article, so I often focus on the ones pointed out to me by people I trust.

Thanks to the low barriers to entry for content creation, content curation becomes even more important in the future.  I'm willing to pay for filtering services, but only if they truly save me time.  When you look at it this way, living in a world of limited choices isn't such a bad thing after all!

Reaching New Audiences

CrowdAfter 5 weeks of iPad use one thing has become crystal clear to me: Magazine, newspaper and book publishers are too focused on applying the same old, tired business rules.

Maintaining your current customer base is critical to any business, but the number of existing customers is generally a fraction of the total potential base.  We're somewhere in the midst of an inflection point in the content business.  This is a stage where existing models are challenged, new ones are created, leaders can be toppled and the proverbial "guy in a garage" can completely reinvent things.  So why are so many publishers trying to apply all the old rules?  Here are a few examples:

Magazines at $4.99 an issue.  This one's just too easy to pick on.  Are you kidding me?  The product is nothing more than a quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversion.  Were these guys not paying attention to the book industry when they saw nobody could sell their quickie p-to-e books at the print price? Curiosity is driving some sales now, but that's not a long-term strategy. Look at some of the comments about Time's app:

Only $260/year to get content freely available on the web or delivered to your door in print for a fifth of that.  Idiots.

If each issue was a dollar I'm sure more people would buy this mag.  $5 is silly.

Time notes that they're only selling single issues right now and that a subscription model is coming.  Fine, but in the mean time how about doing something more creative?  If not a dollar an issue how about giving me the last 5 issues for $5.  Just because you can sell print copies at a newsstand for $5 each doesn't mean you should charge the same for single digital issues, especially when there's little to no value added.

I really want these guys to succeed and I'm more than willing to pay a reasonable amount for an issue or a subscription.  They should use this opportunity to come up with models that help them reach new customers, not just squeeze the early adopters because they know they have more disposable income.

P.S. -- It seems so obvious but I can't help think these guys have forgotten that they make a good deal of money on advertising, so if they go with lower prices and expand their audience they'll increase their reach...without the cost of printing and mailing.

Newspapers are still asleep at the wheel.  The New York Times seems afraid to commit.  Their Editor's Choice iPad app is OK but it's more of a teaser than a viable, long-term product strategy.  As I mentioned in this earlier post, these guys are just training me to find workarounds to get the content I want.  And although I'd love to pay for a subscription they don't even offer one.

USA Today is doing a better job but only going half way to a total solution.  Their iPad app is nice and it's even free.  I only read USA Today when I'm on the road but I'm starting to read it more thanks to this app.  That said, they need a model that pushes the content to me every day, not one that forces me to open the app for updates.  Go ahead and's OK!

My local newspaper is more typical of the larger problem though.  We've been paying subscribers for almost 20 years and every month we're one step closer to canceling.  Want to know how they could keep me on board?  Offer an iPad app version of the paper for free with my print subscription.  And please, make sure it includes every bit of content that's in the print version.

The focus there is on customer retention, not reaching new ones.  To solve that problem, how about forging alliances with other newspapers so that the app provides much broader access?  So if I'm heading to Seattle today I can open my app on the flight west to catch up on all the local news.  Sure, you can accomplish all this in a browser for free...if you're willing to grab the pages in advance.  But we're talking about convenience, which often comes at a price.  And don't forget about the additional advertising reach for all those non-subscribers today who could become customers tomorrow.

Lemmings waiting for the next channel to open.  Why does it seem like publishers are all sitting around waiting for channel equilibrium to happen on its own?  I have two words for everyone: Go direct!  Sure, you'll want your products in iTunes, the iBookstore, etc., but why is everyone so leery of creating a direct relationship with their customers?  Yes, some existing accounts will complain, but if you're not building a direct strategy you'll lose in the long run.  Despite Apple's "closed" model it's remarkably easy to add epub books bought elsewhere to your iBooks library.  And look at Amazon.  Even though they have a Kindle app for the iPad, any purchases you make for it are untouched (and untaxed) by Apple.  Why wouldn't you want to capture 100% of the transaction by building a direct channel, especially since the choices aren't mutually exclusive?  The more storefronts your products are in, including a storefront of your own, the better!

Here's an example of how we should all be thinking: The Elements, from Touch Press.  Why would a tightwad like me spend $14 on a subject I dreaded in high school and has nothing to do with my job or personal interests?  Because it encourages discovery.  I don't know the difference between Dysprosium and Holmium but this crazy app makes me want to learn more about both.  So while most chemistry publishers would have done quick-and-dirty p-to-e conversions, these guys took the time to make the topic fun and interesting.  As a result, they're reaching far more new customers than a dusty old periodic table ever would have.

So if the periodic table can be completely rethought to encourage discovery and reach a totally new audience, what about the topics you specialize in?  How can The Elements inspire you to approach your business differently?

eReaders and Digital Bookstores

Zerosnones I recently came across a couple of great articles that are must-reads for anyone in the publishing industry.  The first one is a Gizmodo piece called How to Fix Today's Ebook Readers.  Much of the article talks about aesthetics like fonts and hyphenation.  Noteworthy, but not revolutionary.  Things get much more interesting with the headline The Greater Whole.  Here's an excerpt:

So consider this: 10,000 of us reading the same Kindle book, each of us highlighting and taking notes. Would the aggregate of this not be illuminating? If I want to publicly share my notes with fellow Kindle or iBooks readers, shouldn't there be a system in place to do this?

And check out the illustration that appears shortly after that excerpt.  Yeah, Id love to see that sort of heat map for some of the books I've read over the years.  Then there's the plea for Amazon to integrate social networking so excerpts can be tweeted.  Hey, Amazon patented one-click buying, so why not create a one-click tweet feature?

The other article I want to highlight is from Fast Company and it's called Amazon Slaps Penguin Across the Beak Over eBook Pricing.  Here's the key quote:

And if consumers buy into an e-reader platform that only supports one digital bookstore, then they might find themselves in tricky positions until the various business shenanigans have wound down to a conclusion.

That's one of the reasons I ditched my Kindle.  Sure, you can load content from sources other than Amazon, but there's really only one digital bookstore for the Kindle.  The iPad offers two advantages.  First, you can buy from Apple and Amazon, not just one.  And second, the iPad natively supports ePub files, which are closer to an industry standard than the Kindle's mobi format.

It's so easy to load an ePub file onto an iPad. I wonder how many iPad owners realize you can buy ePub products that look just as good in the iBook reader as the ones you buy from Apple.  Speaking of which, when are more publishers going to start selling these files right off their own websites?  I'm still amazed at the number of publishers who are so wedded to DRM that they can't imagine creating that direct relationship with their customers by selling non-DRM'd content on their own site.