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What better place to be the day after Amazon unveiled its $199 Kindle Fire tablet (plus three Kindle models starting at $79) than a conference on e-readers? Long scheduled for September 29 and 30 in San Francisco, Intertech’s two-day eReaders 2011 conference offered an even better platform than its organizers could have dreamed to examine a fast-changing digital reading marketplace.

Besides extending a look at all facets of the digital marketplace, the conference provided a first response to an impressive new multimedia device—not a tablet in the iPad sense, but a multimedia device designed to take advantage of Amazon’s ability to deliver not just books but movies, TV shows, apps, games, and music. For its price and functionality, Amazon’s Kindle Fire may have as much impact on digital content consumption and reading—not to mention Amazon revenues—as the original Kindle.

Throughout the conference the Kindle Fire was praised for not being the iPad—the Kindle Fire is smaller, with a 7-in.screen, no cameras, no GPS, modest storage (8 GB) and a drop-dead price. If Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle in 2007 effectively kicked off the e-book market, many believe the Kindle Fire will drive the category to the next level of digital usse as mobile Web-enabled devices take reading to a new level. How? 900,000 e-books, 17 million songs, thousands of Android apps and games (Kindle Fire runs on an Amazon-developed version of Android), 100,000 movies and TV shows, and an innovative new Web browser, Silk.

The conference featured 20 or so digital publishing experts, including Doug Klein, Barnes & Noble’s v-p of program and product management, responsible for developing the original Nook and subsequently the NookColor. Klein’s keynote was a survey of the history of the e-reading market (he also developed the Rocket eBook) and offered thoughtful projections about where the market may be headed: the mobile Web—“20% of the traffic on BN.com is by mobile device and by Christmas 2012, I predict it will be 80%,” he said. Klein emphasized that the Nook is a tech phenomenon, going from scratch to a 250-person Nook development unit; zero to one million users in six months, and zero to 30% market share in 18 months.

He praised Amazon for “paying attention to us” by designing a “purpose-built device and not a tablet.” His point is that neither the Nook nor the Kindle Fire are intended to compete head-on with Apple’s iPad, a standard for a full-featured tablet computing device. Both devices are designed to deliver a defined suite of content. By contrast, he noted, HP’s WebOS tablet, a solidly designed full tablet that offered very little content, was “an epic fail” that was canceled 49 days after going to market.

Klein said the digital reading marketplace is driven by “devices, content, infrastructure, rights, and the reading experience.” The Nook, and potentially the Kindle Fire, offer the infrastructure—“the plumbing to support all this stuff.” Rights, he said, are always difficult; “the content, the mental part, is where the value is, but it’s confused with the physical book.” Now, he said, the challenge is to continue to develop the reading experience: “With digital reading 1.0 we created a digital copy of the analog reading world.” He said digital reading 2.0 will be “a seamless blending of content, discovery, consumption, and the social book that blurs the line between all of those aspects,” pointing to Flipboard as an example. Flipboard is an iPad app that turns a user’s Facebook and Twitter feeds as well as content feeds from magazines or blogs into an oddly satisfying virtual booklike experience on the iPad.

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Steve Mather, principal analyst at IHS iSuppli, which provides technology research and analysis, said Amazon is “booming” and projected $2.6 billion in revenue from Kindle hardware and $1.8 billion from e-book content this year. By 2014, Mather projects $3.8 billion from e-readers and $4.6 billion from e-books. IDC research director Tom Mainelli said the notion that consumers will settle on one device has been discarded. In the U.S., consumers average 6.6 devices/person, while the rest of the world averages 4.8 devices per person. “Multiple devices per person is the new reality; dedicated e-readers remain relevant thanks to lower prices and improved reader experiences; and the best content delivery experience wins. Hardware won’t sell if content selection is limited,” Mainelli said.

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