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Importance of Kindle and Cheaper eBooks

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Are eBooks finally ready to go mainstream?

On Thursday Amazon took us - and I suspect all eBook reader manufacturers - by surprise with the announcement of a slightly modified new Kindle. It wasn't the hardware itself that caught us off guard, but the potentially game-changing price tag attached to it. The new range starts at just £109 ($139) for a WiFi only equipped edition and rises to £149 ($189) with the addition of 3G. Less than three years ago when the first Kindle was announced it would set you back $399 (£256).

Interestingly the new Kindles aren't a budget range either, they are the new flagships. Both sport the same six inch screens as their predecessor, but have 50 per cent better contrast ratios, are 21 per cent smaller, 15 per cent lighter, come with battery life lasting up to a month, double the storage (4GB) and faster page turns. Excited? Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos certainly is:
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"Kindle is the best-selling product on Amazon for two years running," he proclaimed. "We lowered the price to $189 and sales growth tripled. Now, we are excited to introduce a new generation Kindle... {at} an incredible new price point - $139... At this price point, many people are going to buy multiple units for the home and family."

The tone here is interesting. In the past Bezos has been keen to stress the need for eBook readers, their cutting edge technology, convenience and reduced environmental impact. Now it seems Bezos believes the message has gotten through, the pitch is no longer needed and only the price barrier - something he has now smashed - is blocking mass adoption. With talk of people buying "multiple units" anything less than an eBook revolution will be deemed a failure at Amazon HQ, but is this vision too simplistic?

The Stores

While the new Kindle's price is a significant breakthrough, for eBooks to have any chance of usurping the printed page what we really need is availability, affordability and flexibility.

Amazon may have the largest eBook library in the world with more than 630,000 books including 109 of the 111 New York Times Best Sellers, but it only launched its first stores outside of the US with the announcement of the new Kindle. Consequently around 400,000 titles will be available in the UK by the end of August, but the format remains proprietary meaning the eBooks can't be used in other readers. Furthermore with the majority of them retailing at $9.99 (£6.40) consumers have yet to benefit from the substantial savings Amazon enjoys from virtual distribution.
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It is a similar story elsewhere. Sony's Reader Store is equally expensive, but it has taken the wise decision to move to the open EPUB format which (despite some limitations with specialised formatting) is widely supported and surely the industry's long term equivalent to the MP3. By contrast Apple, determined to push its more graphically impressive iBooks, currently maintains both high prices and a proprietary standard.

Interestingly Amazon came out this week and told Pocket-lint it expects eBook sales to eclipse those of paperbacks in the US by the end of next year, but until the publishing sector learns the same common sense distribution lessons (if not legal tactics) as the music industry I can't see that happening.

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