The importance of apps in general, and eReaders apps in particular

The Kindle has an app store. Nook color is going to get an app store soon. If Sony stays true to form the Sony Reader will get an app store in 2020.

At the moment there isn’t really very much going on. We don’t have any eReader app store like Apple’s iPhone app store i.e. an app store that has become as important as the device itself. We don’t have any eReader apps like Facebook apps i.e. apps that have millions and millions of users using them every single day.

However, eReader apps are going to be critically important. This post will go over some of the reasons why. You could also take a look at this excellent post by Kontra at CounterNotions – How Dogma begets Anti-App Myopia.

Let’s start by looking at things that apply to all apps, including eReader apps.

The Power of Apps

Here are a few things apps do –

  1. Let users pick the winners. The importance of this can’t be over-stressed. Users tell developers whether or not an app is worth focusing on. They tell every other developer whether an app is worth competing with.
  2. Let developers provide value straight to users. Instead of a company adding 10 features in their product, they can have developers offers thousands of features – then users pick what they want.
  3. Provide free features. There are costs for the platform. However, the features are all free. There are supposed to be hundreds of thousands of iPhone app developers – Could Apple ever hire that many people? Could it ever get the variety of apps it currently has if all these people worked within Apple and followed Apple rules?
  4. Natural Selection. The fittest survive – then they have to compete against stronger rivals, and the fittest from that contest survive. It isn’t who sucked up more to the manager or who said the right things in the team meetings.
  5. Create magic customization. Each niche, and in a way each single customer, gets its own set of features.

The list is very, very long.

Fundamentally, an app store means that anyone who wants to provide value to device owners, gets a fair chance. A fair chance that doesn’t cost the app store company anything. No health insurance costs. No salary. No office space. No pain of firing the person if the app doesn’t do well.

It’s very, very low risk and high reward.

Think of eReader Apps as Developers trying to figure out ways to provide value

There’s some resistance to apps because people translate it to mean ‘things other than reading’.

There are a few other ways to translate it – value related to reading, value when in transit, value in terms of convenience, value in terms of customization, etc.

Yes, there will be apps that take away from reading, and those are probably bad. There will, however, also be apps that add solid value.

Right now we have the first few stabs – developers are trying to figure out what Kindle owners want. With time things will get better.

Let’s take a brief detour and look at the concept of 1 company vs 100,000 developers.

Can 1 company compete with 100,000 app developers?

One of the most beautiful things about an app store is that you never know what you’re going to get and you know you’re going to get things that developers really, really want to build.

The first is important because you can’t predict success – You have to take quite a few shots and try out quite a few different approaches before things fall into place. With an app store all of this is being done for you for free.

The second is important because people put in 10 times more work when they’re doing things they really, really love. An app developer making the app of his dreams is 10 times more invested than someone doing something his manager told him has to be done. This shows up in lots of ways, and it’s the difference between a feature that customers absolutely love and a feature they feel is good.

Note the ‘free’ part. Apple has hundreds of thousands of developers working for free to make the iPhone better. That is really what it comes down to.

The ‘Take It or Leave It’ aspect of apps

Something that is never given enough credit is the fact that each and every app is optional.

It’s not a feature you have to live with. It doesn’t even come pre-installed on the Phone. You choose, of your own free will, whether you want it or not.

Think of apps as an array of switches –

  1. Each switch turns on some feature. That feature provides some function – which for you is either valuable, useless, or negative.
  2. Each switch is totally under your control. You decide which switches to turn on.
  3. Each switch has a fail-safe. You can turn off anything that you find is useless or negative. You can turn it back on again if you like.

You get your phone. Then you turn on whichever switches you want and you get a stream of value flowing in. Keep the streams you like, and turn off the streams you don’t.

Developers are simply providing these streams – You control the switch.

You get to construct whatever combination of value you want. You get to change it anytime. You get to turn it all off. You control everything.

eReader Apps as optional features

 Let’s say there are 5 features Suzie’s eReader is missing – 5 features she’d really like. Let’s assume she has the Nook Color.

  1. Suzie would like Netflix.
  2. She would like an email app. 
  3. Suzie also wants a knitting app – one that lets her store photos of her favorite patterns.
  4. She would also like a Radio App. 
  5. She would like an app that searches for free WiFi.

The twist is that this list is different for every Nook Color owner. Suzie’s husband Jack would like these 5 features – Sports Scores, Stock Quotes, Email, Scrabble, Family Photos.

What should B&N do?

It can’t code each and every feature. No matter what combination of features it picks large segments of users will get left out. It’s already lost out on people who wanted eInk and people who wanted Kindle Store access – It can’t very well keep losing out on customers.

Well, with the Nook App Store it’s letting developers code all these features. Consider the Radio App – Perhaps 1 million Nook Color owners want the app and the developer makes millions, perhaps 1,000 Nook Color owners want it and the app makes $3,000.

From B&N’s perspective – either case is fine. It’s not investing anything. Whether 1 million people get value from the app or 1,000 people get value from the app the bottom line is – B&N invested nothing. Nook Color owners got extra value. B&N sold more Nook Colors because of the app being available.

It’s the ultimate win-win situation with zero risk for B&N.

Each app is an optional feature. In some cases it’s an optional feature 25 people love, and in some cases it’s an optional feature 250,000 people love. In every case it’s an optional feature that improves the Nook Color’s appeal and its value proposition.

Same for the Kindle and Kindle Apps. These are just features and mini-features that are optional and add to the appeal.

By end 2011 we’ll know how eReader App Stores are doing

By the end of this year we’ll have –

  1. A Kindle App Store that is nearly 1 and a half years old.
  2. A Nook App Store that is nearly 9 months old.

These should be at least a few really good apps in each store. There should also be at least a few very innovative apps in each store.

We’ll have a very good idea of whether or not eReader apps prove to be as powerful and important as apps on other devices.

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