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The eBook Competition

Amazon and its Kindle products have had the eBook market to themselves since the market began taking off a couple of years ago. The eBook market is now starting to grow fairly fast. Sony has decided to grab some of that growth.

Sony is entering the market with three price points: a $199 entry product called the Reader Pocket Edition, the $299 Reader Touch Edition with a touch screen and the high-end Reader Daily Edition at $399 with both touch screen and wireless capability.

Very fast-growing markets see market share changes due to Function and Price innovations. Let’s use the Customer Buying Hierarchy (see Audio Tip #95: Customer Buying Hierarchy on StrategyStreet.com) to evaluate Sony’s prospects against Amazon.

The Customer Buying Hierarchy holds that customers buy using four major criteria: Function, Reliability, Convenience and Price. Customers go through the hierarchy in that specific order and purchase when there is one, and only one, competitor who can offer them a unique benefit.

Function refers to the way the customer uses the product. Function innovations in this eBook market are two types: hardware innovations and content. In hardware, Sony has two Price Points with a touch screen capability that Kindle does not offer. On the other hand, the regular Kindle 2 offers wireless downloads. The only Sony product that offers wireless is the high-end Reader Daily Edition at $399, compared to Kindles’ $299 Price Point. Without considering price, it is hard to call a winner when the Kindle 2 offers wireless connectivity while the Sony offers a touch screen.

Content is likely to be a different story. Sony has adopted the ePub format, which is an international format for digital books and publications. Amazon, on the other hand, offers eBooks which can be read only on Kindle 2 devices, a proprietary approach. Sony argues that its readers can download books from the local library using its format, saving costs. But libraries have only a limited number of digital copies of books available. And, if the market takes off, the authors and publishers are likely to severely limit the number of free library copies available to ereaders. Kindle, for its part, is the progeny of a book retailer. There are many books available through Amazon for the Kindle 2, far more than will be available for the Sony products. In addition, the Apple iPhone and the iPod Touch also allow their owners to read books in the Kindle 2 format. With its extensive experience and product platform already in the market, content providers are highly likely to choose the Kindle 2 format before choosing the Sony format, if they must make a choice. Certainly in the early going, the content, and thus the Function advantage, goes to Amazon and it’s Kindle 2.

Reliability refers to how a company keeps the promises it makes to its customers. For an end user customer, Reliability means that the product works and will be fixed promptly if it does not work. Amazon has a superb reputation for Reliability among consumers. Sony’s reputation is also good. However, since Sony produces mostly electronic gear, its reputation is unlikely to be as good as that of Amazon, who sells mostly digital products. I would guess Amazon gets a slight nod in Reliability.

Convenience refers to the ease with which a customer can buy and begin using the product. Sony’s products will be in 9,000 retail outlets, including all the leaders in the industry, this holiday season. Amazon sells its Kindle online. The customer can see and touch the Sony products in the many retail outlets. Seeing and touching a Kindle is much more difficult for the perspective Amazon customer. The nod in Convenience clearly goes to Sony.

Price is the last consideration. The Kindle 2 product has a price of $299. The Sony Reader Daily Edition has a price of $399. As we noted above, the Sony product offers a touch screen at this price. Kindle does not, at least not yet. The Sony product is a third more expensive than is the Kindle. This additional price is likely to make the Sony product a Performance Leader product (see Audio Tip #82: Performance Leader Products and Companies on StrategyStreet.com), rather than a true competitor for the leading Standard Leader position.

It is going to be difficult for Sony to make the $399 product the most common product in the market. Amazon’s Kindle has already established the industry standard for benefits and price. Sony would have been more successful offering its touch screen benefits at no price increase over the Kindle 2 Standard Leader product. Sony looks to be in a Leader’s Trap here. It will eventually have to reduce that price or see the product garner relatively little market share, likely well below 15% of the market.

Both Sony and Amazon would probably be better off if they responded to the content challenge each offers the other. Sony might try to license the Kindle software and offer that format, as well as the format. Then Sony could have competed on its strengths in making small electronic equipment. Amazon could add the ePub format to its software and open up a new world of content for its customers. This will become imperative for Amazon if a great deal of content comes available in the ePub format that is not also available in the Amazon proprietary format.

Posted 9/3/09

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