The iPad: Amazon's Secret WeaponS

The iPad may seem like Apple's move to cockblock Amazon in the Ebook Wars, but Amazon's Kindle app makes it part of Amazon's larger ebook ecosystem. In many ways, the iPad is the best Kindle yet.

This argument suddenly (but not surprisingly) stopped being about e-ink readers, and Amazon is the only one of the reader makers set up to compete with Apple. Apple will fight Amazon by growing its iBooks store, and by promoting compatibility with the ePub standard. While this kind of competition is good news for consumers, it might not mean victory for Apple, especially given how well Amazon is already playing on Apple's home soil. Not to mention everywhere else.

Amazon's Bookstore Is Better

When it comes to bookstores, nobody yet has missed the obvious issue: Apple launched with a skimpy selection of books. According to what most pundits quoted, there are 60,000 books in Apple's bookstore, while Amazon is selling over 400,000. Though that doesn't say much, it's terribly revealing when put to practice.

Here's a spot check of my current favorite reading material:

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee
• $30 for Kindle Edition
• $30 for iBooks Edition (and an impressive 100-page free sample, btw, which any cooking enthusiasts should grab)

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
• $9.75 for Kindle Edition
• NO iBooks Edition

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
• $7.14 for the Kindle Edition
• NO iBooks Edition

The Battery by Henry Schlesinger
• $12 for Kindle Edition
• $12 for iBooks Edition

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
• $5.50 for Kindle Edition
• NO iBooks Edition

Googled by Ken Auletta
• $15 for Kindle Edition
• $15 for iBooks Edition

Icelander by Dustin Long
• NO Kindle Edition
• NO iBooks Edition

There are plenty of books not available for Kindle—trust me, plenty—but at the moment, the bulk of decent stuff can be found at Amazon, and not at Apple's store. And I haven't found a book yet available on iBooks that isn't on Amazon. (Maybe you have.)

I have always argued that this stuff changes constantly, and Apple is trying its best to get in good with the book publishers and undermine Amazon's relationships. Still, this is a poor showing at a time when the iPad is as good a Kindle reader as it is an Apple iBooks reader.

Kindle Books Work on More Devices

I have already relished quite a few hours of reading on the iPad. The LCD isn't a bother, not for someone like me who stares at an LCD all day every day anyway. Maybe I'll change my mind in a month or a year or in 50 years when I'm declared legally blind from staring at too many liquid crystals, but at the moment, I'm fine with it.

You know why the debate about reading on e-ink versus LCD is never ending? Because it's just a matter of opinion. But guess what, if you and your significant other want to agree to disagree, you can still share books. If you stick with Amazon, that is.

Apple was kind enough to permit Amazon to extend its Kindle app from the iPhone to the iPad. Even if it was the honorable thing to do, and the best business strategy, it's tantamount to Apple allowing a Zune music service on the iPod Touch, so it's respectable that they even let it happen.

The new Kindle app covers all the necessities of modern ebook reading—bookmarks, font-size adjustment—though without any frills. There's no keyword search, there's no dictionary, and of course there's no text-to-speech function, like the Kindle device has. I don't care about that last bit, and frankly, a dictionary is cool but not necessary. It's the lack of search that hurts most: Searching is the one thing that makes up for the lack of super fast old-fashioned page leafing.

Amazon: Some of what Apple did in iBooks can't be duplicated for unfair technical reasons, but whatever you can fix, please do. Don't hinder your own great Kindle app in the mistaken impression that it's somehow protecting your own black-and-white ebook reader. It's not. An even better Kindle app will help your whole business, so make it happen.

Yes, for the growing throngs of iPad owners, the alternative isn't a Kindle device, but Apple's own iBooks program. It's tolerable—in fact it has some nice frills. What I have against iBooks, besides the current catalog of for-sale titles, is the fact that it's locked to the iPad so tightly. There's no way to shop for iBooks on a Mac, let alone read them on the Mac. When I downloaded a ton of iPad apps, I was surprised how many came piggybacked with iPhone editions. iBooks was not one of these apps.

To some extent, I understand this. I wouldn't try to read a book on my iPhone, but I will certainly read on the iPad. But Apple's iBooks is on iPad and iPad only—no iPhone, no MacBook, no Apple TV, no iPod Nano, no nothing. So much for ecosystems.

Amazon currently offers its reader for Windows and Mac computers, BlackBerry and iPhone smartphones, the iPad and its own fancy easy-on-the-eyes e-ink readers. Not only is it your choice, you don't have to choose just one.

The ePub Standard: Where Amazon Falls Short

Up until now, I've acted like the main way to get a book is to buy it. For the majority of people who will be using any of these devices, that's still mostly true. But for some of you, grabbing books off of BitTorrent or finding free sources of ePub books will be the focus of your digital reading. For you, iBooks has an edge. Like many of the underdogs in the ebook reader business, iBooks supports the ePub format. Amazon doesn't. Not on the Kindle device, and not on any Kindle app.

The error that you shouldn't make here is buying another ebook reader that supports ePub, under the naive belief that ePub titles you buy on iBooks will also show up on that. Or vice versa, that what you buy from Barnes & Noble or Sony's store will actually run on your iPad without a specialized app from B&N or Sony. Since iBooks uses iTunes, and not a more universally accepted ePub management tool, it ain't gonna happen. Not any time soon, at least.

The beauty is, if you just get your ePubs through back channels, and they're all DRM-free, the iPad is ready for you. Why should that preclude you from taking advantage of Amazon's retail store, too? So what if a handful of purchased books are found under the Amazon program but not under the iBooks program? It would be annoying if half your music collection was in one app, and the other half in another, but books don't behave like music. The pace of book reading is slow enough that you won't have any trouble finding what you need.

Do What You Do… Well

There's one thing I don't get: Why should Apple run the best bookstore on the iPad? Sure, they run the best music store for the iPod, and have re-written the book on retailing several times over, but Amazon already holds the title of best future-looking bookstore. Why shouldn't Kindle be the best ebook platform for iPads (and Windows machines and BlackBerrys and God knows what else)?

People afraid of joining Amazon's walled garden can rest assured of two things: 1) The book business will insist on DRM-canopied walled gardens for many years to come, and 2) that of all the walled gardens you can choose from right now, Amazon's is the most spacious and sustainable.

And to the iPad haters, I say just this: There are more tablets on their way, some that run Android, some that run Windows. Do you honestly think Amazon would skip the chance to be on them, too? Here's to the new era of digital books, and Amazon's continued support of a diverse array of gadgets to read them on. The only person I feel sorry for right about now is the poor bastard in charge of Amazon's Kindle hardware division. If I were that person, I'd be polishing my résumé right about now.