Will anyone break Amazon's hold on e-readers?

by Peter Griffin / 08 February, 2018
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The Kobo Aura, left, and the Kindle Oasis.

A decade on, Amazon still has the edge – as well as a potential deal-breaker. 

downloaded my 200th e-book from the Amazon store in November, about the same time as the e-tailing giant celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Kindle e-book reader. The first Kindle arrived in 2007, the same year as the iPhone, but its boxy design and wobbly white keys were a world away in design terms from Apple’s stunning smartphone.

Nevertheless, it sold out in the US in six hours and realised Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s vision of keeping book lovers in his world – the device, software and digital books themselves were all from Amazon.

That remains the greatest strength – and the major drawback – of the Kindle: it has by far the best range of e-readers in the world and the Amazon store has the broadest and cheapest selection of e-books. But those 200 titles I’ve downloaded will work only on a Kindle device, smartphone app or online reader, as the files are encoded in a proprietary format called Mobi. Other e-readers are locked out.

For monopoly haters, that is a deal-breaker, driving them to Amazon’s only remaining rival, Kobo, which supports the open epub format. Since Sony discontinued its Reader device in 2014, it has been a two-horse race, but although the Kobo Aura range ($199-399) delivers respectable hardware, it just can’t match Amazon’s selection, smart recommendation engine on the website and compelling subscription deals, such as Kindle Unlimited.

The $150 Kindle Touch WiFi is as good a starting point as any in Amazon’s e-reader world, although I love the look of the Kindle Oasis 2, which will debut here this year. It’s waterproof – perfect for reading in the bath or pool – and it will play audiobooks as well.

I alternate between my seven-year-old Kindle Keyboard, which serves me well for night-time reading, and the Kindle app on my Android smartphone, on which I can read snatches of books on the bus or in cafes. I’m reading more books and spending less time scrolling through Facebook.

Kindle’s e-ink technology delivers a more pleasant reading experience than a glary smartphone screen can, although the gap is closing and most Kindles have some backlighting for reading in low light.

Apple and Google are in the e-book game with iBooks and Google Play Books respectively. Both have decent libraries of books designed to be read on smartphones and tablets. Apple has made inroads in the education sector and with books that display beautifully on the iPad.

Amazon has the edge, and it will now allow you to buy the audio version of your e-book for a small premium so you can listen to it on your daily commute and pick up reading from the spot you left off at when you get home.

Amazon’s Audible audiobook service is the best bar none – I pay $22 a month for two credits, which gets me two new-release audiobooks. It is a compelling way to consume books, especially if you get a great narrator, and many of the classics are available for a few dollars.

Amazon still hasn’t embraced public-library-lending programmes in New Zealand, so you can’t borrow an e-book or audiobook and play it on your Kindle, except the Kindle Fire tablet, which looks just like any other entry-level tablet.

The Kobo supports the main borrowing apps used by our public libraries, such as Overdrive, Libby and BorrowBox, which are available on smartphones and tablets. You borrow books for a period just as you do physical books – the libraries buy a certain number of licences. You’ll still have to wait your turn if someone else is reading.

A decade on, then, Amazon is to e-books what Google is to internet searches. But in the smartphone world, buying and borrowing e-books from numerous sources is just an app download away.

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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