Perhaps the best Kindle App so far, app thoughts

There’s a new app out – it’s called The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and it’s a Fighting Fantasy Adventure. Fighting Fantasy is a popular series of game books written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.

The Kindle App itself is made by World Weaver and it’s just amazing.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain – Quick Notes on Price

If the $3.99 price is holding you back please consider the following –

  1. The app is 3.6 MB in size. At 15 cents per MB, just the download is going to eat up 54 cents. If a user downloads it twice or to two Kindles that’s $1 gone right off the bat.
  2. Let’s say that’s $3 per app sold. Then you take off returns etc. and you end up with $2.70.
  3. Then Amazon gets its 30% cut. That leaves $1.89 in earnings per app copy sold for the developer.
  4. The app must have taken a ton of work. It’s very well polished. If the developer is getting $1.89 per app sale the only way he/she can make a profit is by volume. So, if lots of us kindle owners don’t buy the app the developer can’t make back his/her investment.
  5. Plus, $3.99 is not that much for a good game book. If $5 is a good price for a book, then $4 is a great price for a very good Kindle Game adaptation of a game book.

I felt compelled to write about this because it would be a tragedy if good apps like this didn’t get a fair chance.

Anyways, here’s more on the features.

Features worth $3.99

Firstly, it has a map. There’s literally a full-blown map which must have been a lot of work. What game book ever has a map?

Secondly, it has great graphics. eInk presents a lot of challenges. Plus we have the 54 cents per 3.6 MB download bandwidth charge. It’s a measure of committment by the company to go with a 3.6 MB app – basically, they didn’t compromise on graphics to make more money.

Thirdly, there’s a lot of polish. The images are great, the map looks beautiful. It’s just very well done.

Fourthly, there are up to 3 waypoints. So you can save your progress and try different options and restart.

Fifthly, there’s lots of replayability. It is, after all, a gamebook.

Thoughts on Kindle Apps

It’s hard to write anything here because the iPhone app market with its 100 million iOS devices and $1 apps and free apps has made things difficult. It has created the sorts of expectations that don’t translate well to an emerging app store like the Kindle App Store.

Plus there’s bias because of me being involved in Kindle app development. So I’ll limit it to stating the obvious – If Kindle owners don’t support Kindle Apps there’s no future for apps on the Kindle. Which means the probability of getting the apps you really want, at the prices you would like apps to be, goes to zero.

It’s not like books where authors will still write books for low earnings. Developers will just move to other platforms where they can make healthy profits.

The succinct way to put it would be – If you like an app, then buy it even if it is $1 or $2 more than what you would like. Because if you don’t, people are going to stop making Kindle apps.

If you don’t like an app – that’s fine. No one’s asking you to support an app you don’t want.

However, if you like an app, and want more apps like that, then buying the app is the only way to ensure the Kindle App Store can flourish and more apps of the type you want can come out.

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.

Kindle, Nook Strategy Review – Can Nook catch Kindle?

With the Kindle 3 doing very well and B&N going with a Nook Color ‘reading tablet’ rather than an eInk based Nook 2 the obvious question is – Does Nook still have a chance against the Kindle?

Well, there are 5 avenues of attack – 5 weaknesses Nook could use to catch up with the Kindle and perhaps even beat it.

Kindle Weakness #1 – No Device for Casual Readers (only reading apps)

Amazon is currently leveraging Kindle for iPad, Kindle for iPhone, and other reading apps to reach casual readers – these channels perhaps account for 10% to 30% of total Kindle book sales.

With the Nook Color B&N is going after this exact segment – people who read but want a device that does more than just read. A device dedicated to non-dedicated readers is a big risk to Amazon which also faces a few other risks when it comes to casual readers – Apple can easily kill two of the most important channels, Amazon doesn’t have the advantage of being the default or the only reading app on these platforms, other companies can beat it, and it has little control over the complete user experience (resulting in oddities like users having to buy Kindle books through the browser).

We have the extremes – the hard-core readers and the ‘read once a year or less’ people. Nook Color fails for both.

However, there’s a broad stretch in the middle – People who don’t need an iPad or can’t afford one and people who don’t read enough to justify a Kindle. If we were to take this section of people (who read between 1 book a month and 1 book a year) – They are there for the taking. The Nook Color easily beats the Kindle for these people.   

Kindle Weakness #2 – Amazon’s position of power making it slow and unable to take risks

Kindle 3 is a very impressive eReader but Amazon has shown a remarkable tendency to be slow – It didn’t add PDF support until Nook arrived, it’s only now adding support for lending, and it’s taken 3 years to add Kindle book gifting.

As Amazon’s position grows stronger it also loses the ability to innovate – Why change a winning formula?

It continues to do well but it doesn’t know what parts of its ecosystem are liabilities – Is the lack of ePub support a danger? Is the store too overcrowded? Is the Kindle not catering to some sets of readers?

B&N can take a big risk like go with Nook Color but Amazon, mostly due to it success, can’t really experiment. Which means that when an Amazon competitor creates a very dangerous Kindle rival (we don’t yet know if Nook Color qualifies) Amazon’s only option will be to react to the threat after it’s gained a foothold.

Kindle Weakness #3 – Library Books and ePub Support 

Let’s set aside talk of openness and ePub – it’s something even most tech-savvy people don’t fully understand. The real danger ePub poses is that Library Books are usually offered in DRMed ePub format.

That means a relatively large number of people want an ePub supporting eReader so that they can get free library books. The actual benefit isn’t huge when you consider you have to wait for library books and that ebook choice at libraries varies wildly. However, people are trained to get books from Libraries and many depend on it.

This is probably the single most frequent reason people give for picking Nook over Kindle. No one ever says – ePub. They just say they want to be able to read library books on their Kindle or Nook.

Kindle Weakness #4 – Google and desperate Kindle rivals combining forces

The Kindle Store is a huge advantage for Amazon – both in book price and book range.

Nook is unlikely to migrate to a Google Books store but Sony Reader is very likely to. Most of the smaller eReader makers are also likely to migrate to using Google Books. At that point we might have a dozen eReaders with better book prices and availability than the Kindle.

On top of that you have Google’s ability to set their Google Books store and their partner companies’ apps as the defaults in Android and elsewhere.

This is probably the biggest threat to Amazon and a very immediate one.

Kindle Weakness #5 – Slowly growing Kindle App Store

The iPhone’s App Store stands as an insurmountable obstacle to rival smart phone makers. Microsoft recognizes this to the extent that it’s guaranteeing money to developers to develop apps for its new mobile platform. Android is becoming a credible threat largely due to a rapidly growing app store which uses openness and a no-review policy to appeal to developers frustrated by Apple’s restrictions and control.

Facebook used apps to beat out MySpace and become enormous. It went to the extent of offering app developers 100% of revenue – something it’s changing now. There are dozens of companies that have grown out of its app store with the biggest becoming more profitable than Facebook itself. Creating a monster like Zynga is a risk – But taking that risk allowed Facebook to become what it currently is.

With eReaders the first app store that gains traction is going to destroy every other eReader. There are no two ways about it. No company in the world can compete with thousands and thousands of hungry developers (hungry for success and freedom and a chance to prove themselves).

Quite simply – The eReader company that attracts more developers will win the eReader wars.

The current situation is intriguing and puzzling at the same time.

Amazon’s Perfect, Perfectly Curated Kindle App Store

  1. Amazon is trying to be perfect. The Kindle App Store is like the prize-winning garden where not a single strand of grass is out-of-place. 
  2. Amazon is also being selective – there is a Beta with limited participants. Only two companies have released apps so far.
  3. Amazon is being deliberate – only 6 paid apps out so far and all are games. If we assume the Nook App Store will debut in March 2011 Amazon will probably have 40 to 60 apps available then – perhaps less.
  4. Kindle Apps embrace all Kindles except Kindle 1. They aren’t available internationally yet but, contrary to what international Kindle owners like to think, it’s not some grand conspiracy theory – Amazon is probably just testing the waters and will expand internationally in 2011 or 2012.
  5. It’s also Amazon’s own app development platform – completely separate from any other app platform.

Amazon is, in effect, striving for perfection – an app store where every app is 4.5 stars and perfect. An App Store that is carefully cultivated and blended into the Kindle ecosystem.

Well, the easiest way to destroy or beat perfection is through chaos. 

B&N’s Nook Color App Store – Cultivating Chaos

  1. B&N is building on top of Android though it has its own App Store and its own review process.
  2. B&N has no Beta and no Limited  appended to its App Store. Everyone who’s applying is being let in.
  3. Porting Android Apps should be easy which means a lot more apps than Kindle App Store which requires a lot more work to port over apps.
  4. Nook Apps work only on Nook Color. That means no restrictions due to eInk and there’s just one device to support. That’ll mean apps come out quicker.  
  5. B&N decides what goes in – However, from the long list of launch partners and the relaxed entrance policies it seems likely that B&N will go for quantity over quality and let Nook Color owners decide the winners.

The Nook App Store might debut with 10 apps or it might debut with a few hundred. It would, however, be a safe bet that due to its liberal policies and Android foundation it might soon have more apps than the Kindle App Store.

B&N, intentionally or unintentionally, is letting thousands and thousands of developers take a shot at providing value to Nook Color owners in return for the promise of a small to huge financial reward. That’s the best way to add value to a platform – let the developers in.

This presents a huge problem for Amazon – If it doesn’t attract developers and add apps at a similar rate it’ll turn its eReader Apps lead into a liability.

With App Stores the rich get richer

The more users on a platform the more developers want to make apps for it. The more apps for a platform the higher the chance a potential user will find a reason to choose the platform.

Let’s say Amazon and B&N continue with their current policies and in mid 2011 B&N has 500 apps out of which 50 are exceptional and Kindle App Store has 100 apps out of which 80 are exceptional. 

Does Amazon get an A grade and does B&N fail?

Actually, no.

An average user is more likely to find apps that cater to her/him when there are 500 choices than if there are 100 choices. In theory the Kindle App Store is more impressive. In reality, those 500 apps give Nook Color a big advantage –

Users care more about a platform having the apps they want than the average quality of apps on the platform.

Let’s say someone loves knitting and wants a knitting app. She’d probably pick a 3.5 star rated Knitting App on Nook over a 5 star rated Backgammon game on Kindle.

With 6 well rated games out for the Kindle so far the question worth asking is – Would Kindle owners be happier if they had gotten a simple Email Client?

Amazon has had a huge head-start in releasing apps – It’d be a huge mistake if it were to throw away that advantage because it’s chasing a mythical perfect app store full of 4.5 star rated perfect apps.

If B&N goes for sheer range it’s going to end up with apps that appeal to a broad spectrum of users and that will lead to a lot of sales. If Nook App Store ends up with 1,000 decent, 3.5 star rated apps by mid 2011 and the Kindle App Store has 100 perfect, 4.5 star rated apps with perfectly manicured nails it’ll be game over. Amazon will never be able to make up the difference and Apps will be an area it’ll just have to concede.