Without its own 'iTablet' yet, is Apple missing the boat?

E-readers seem to be smoking hot this year. The Amazon Kindle, of course, has been leading the pack, but Sony seems to have sold more than a handful as well, and its new Sony Daily Edition e-reader may be in short supply. Meanwhile, newcomer Barnes & Noble already sold out of its new Nook e-reader, which the company just announced a month ago -- and that's only pre-orders that aren't shipping until the end of this month. Order a new Nook now, and you'll have to wait until January to get it.

Sounds a bit like Amazon's first sold-out holiday sales effort with the Kindle.

So how popular are these e-book readers, anyway?

Consumers will buy 3 million units by the end of 2009, 900,000 of which will sell during this holiday season alone, according to Forrester. Plus, Forrester expects sales in 2010 to double, which will bring the cumulative sales of e-readers to 10 million by the end of 2010.

So those numbers are nothing to sneeze at, but still, we should be clear -- the e-reader market isn't nearly as large as, say, the iPod market. Apple sold 10.2 million iPods in its last quarter alone, and I wouldn't be surprised if the company didn't blow past those numbers this holiday season as well. The iPod touch is a pretty darn versatile device.

I believe that most consumers don't rush out to spend hundreds of dollars on a new device if the one they already use does a pretty good job. So would many Kindle users buy a Nook? I'm guessing not, based on all sorts of rave reviews. Part of those raves are due to the versatility of today's e-readers.

For example, actor Woody Harrelson uses a Kindle. "Oh, man! I love it!" he recently told Esquire. "They send my scripts to it. I read books on it. My office can send my schedule to it. So any time I want to see it, booooom -- there it is. Toronto, New York ..."

So is Apple missing the e-reader boat? The answer has at least two opposing sides. The first is that yes, yes it is. While Harrelson has enough extra cash to try a new device, I don't think most happy consumers do. If Apple ever gets around to delivering a rumored and much-anticipated iPod touch-like "iTablet," you can bet it's not going to sell for the Nook's USD$259. It'll most certainly be quite a bit more expensive. If this premise holds true, then some of the most technologically inclined readers will be investing in and building experience with e-readers that are not from Apple.

And yet, Apple might not be missing anything at all. The company does have a modus operandi for most of its products, and that is to let others fumble around with new devices and create a rudimentary market for a few years and then bust loose with a new device that aims to do most everything better than the original device leaders. The iPhone is the biggest example, of course. Now it's hard not to mention the iPhone anytime anyone is discussing smartphones. It's got crazy mindshare, super profitability for Apple, and if you really think about it, the iPhone is simply a well-thought-out upgrade to previous smartphones already available in the marketplace.

So yeah, there's still a spot on the boat for Apple, if the company ever chooses to build an iTablet device.

The plot gets a little thicker. Steve Jobs has already gone on record to say he doesn't believe that single-purpose dedicated devices will be a big market. "But I think the general-purpose devices will win the day. Because I think people just probably aren't willing to pay for a dedicated device," he told The New York Times.

So what is the iPod touch? Just an MP3 and video player? No way. It's also a gaming unit that runs a full universe of apps, including email and Web browsing. One day it'll eventually get a camera like its smaller iPod nano sibling. That's right: general purpose. It's safe to say that any new Apple device with a larger form factor than the iPod touch, regardless of its name, will be designed to play games, movies, television shows, surf the Web, run apps, and maybe even navigate the world.

An iTablet would be so much more than an e-reader.

If Apple does indeed redefine the publishing industry for newspapers, magazines and textbook publishers, an iTablet would be a supremely capable device for it. And while we're talking about the publishing industry, Apple has filed a patent for technology that displays on most any electronic screen and compels users to notice it, according to The New York Times. This is not to say that Apple will use the patented idea, but it's clear the company is thinking and planning.

Back to versatility: Forrester also notes that its latest e-reader projections -- 6 million to be sold in 2010 -- could be easily surpassed if the category expands beyond e-ink-based displays.

If Apple does create and deliver an iTablet, it's got enough resources on hand to build its own vessel -- so I doubt Jobs is concerned about jumping aboard any e-reader boat. First of all, an iTablet would appeal to any person interested in the consumption of media. You don't have to be a book lover, and in fact, Apple might prefer it if you weren't. Movies. TV shows. Music. iTunes. App Store. Games. Gorgeous moving graphics and flickering light. This alone is enough to sell iTablets.

Throw in some snazzy TV commercials, and it's not hard to envision mindshare sliding toward Apple.

Of course, if Microsoft could deliver something almost as compelling as the mockup of the Courier that slipped out a couple months ago, even Apple might miss connecting with more than few potential customers. In the meantime, at least a few million consumers are buying e-readers right now and aren't waiting on Apple -- but I wonder how many are?

Originally published on MacNewsWorld

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