Apple has entered the e-book market by announcing their long-awaited iPad (although many speculated it might have a snappier name). Whatever you think of it, just because of their market position they're likely to sell a few. Along with their new gadget, comes a new store, the iBookstore. Its no secret they are trying to do for ebooks what they did for MP3s - make a killer device, match it with a easy-to-use integrated store and then own the whole stack. Which is great for them, but sucks for consumers, because it leaves us tied to Apple device's and it's hard for anyone else to compete with them. Case in point, witness how hard Apple is making it for Palm Pre users to have access to their music library on their phone. It's actually even worse in the case of ebooks, because they'll be encased in DRM that makes it even more difficult to move them outside of Apple's devices. So imagine that you've built up a neat library of books for your iPad, when another company release an even cooler book reader. Since it's not Apple sanctioned you have the rather uncool choice of buying your library again or sticking with Apple approved hardware.
Obviously, there's a simple way out of this. All the ebook people can use a standardised, non-DRM format, and have nice export APIs that make their stores play nicely with each other. Then you can choose the device you like and buy books from the store that offers you the best deal. That is about as likely to happen (in the short-term anyway) as the devil is likely to report snow at his (or her) headquarters.
But there is a another way out. Ebook devices are pretty multi-functional, so there's space for someone else to add their own software. Of course, as is well known, Apple guards the entrance to its devices closely, only Apple-approved apps are allowed in. Judging on their past performance, Apple is not about to approve competing ebook readers for the iPad (goodbye Kindle!) However, as Google will tell you, there is a way around that.
One of Apple's golden achievements (and really it is something to be proud of) is mobile Safari which is on the iPad, iPhone and iPod. It's a modern browser with support for HTML5 features like offline browsing. Best of all, at least for now, Apple let's you load any webpage you want (even ones they haven't carefully approved!). So anyone can go right ahead and write an HTML5 ebook reader, including offline support (so you can read books without a net connection). With a bit of work, this can basically be as good as a native application. Better yet, since most other new and up-and-coming smart phones have nice web-browers it won't be too much hassle to have your nice ebook reader work on most new smartphones (Android, Pre, Nokia and even Windows Mobile if Microsoft ever gets their act together). Since an obvious thing to do with an ebook reader is browse the web, one can predict that on most new ebook readers you are going to start seeing decent web browsers this web-book solution is likely going to work for a lot of newer ebook readers (although offline support might lag). And obviously, you get automatic support for reading books on a PC. The happy thing about this setup from the point of view of the consumer, they buy their books once, and they can then use them on all their devices. Better yet, there is nothing to stop multiple companies from doing this (although consumers will probably prefer having their books all in one place).
The time to do this is right about now. The technology is easy, one could get a working prototype within a week, and a decent setup in months. The key thing would be to make this available before iPad owners have already bought a bunch of books from the iBookstore. The biggest problem is getting rights from publishers. In fact, getting rights has been such a problem for Apple the iBookstore is coming out US only for the time being. However, if publisher don't want to end up in the same place as music retailers, where Apple sells such a high percentage of all their sales that Apple basically gets to dictate the terms, they should be looking to help some competitors. If someone could get this setup with global rights by the time the iPad ships it could be a major coup. Imagine, Australian iPod owners look for the iBookstore, only to realize it won't be available in Australia for months, but they can buy books right way from someone else.
There is one obvious company that could do this in a heartbeat. Amazon. They've got a huge ebook collection already (so no time trying to negotiate publishing rights which is the really time-consuming aspect), already sell ebook readers, have the server infrastructure and they've already put Kindle on the iPhone. Apple is not going to let them put Kindle on the iPad but this provides an end run around Apple's rules. If I was Amazon I'd be desperately working on a HTML5 ebook reader right now. Release it the day the iPads ship. Then people have the choice of buying books from Apple and using it on one device, or Amazon and having it work on everything they own (especially good for households that end up with a Kindle and an iPad). Even better, since Amazon's already got international distribution rights for a bunch of ebooks, they'll be the only option for non-US users for the time being. If Amazon cuts its margins on ebooks for awhile they could give seriously better deals than Apple. The war would be over in about a year.
Amazon this could be your moment to parlay yourself into being THE ebook supplier and let us read our books on any device. You've got a month.
UPDATE 15/02/2010: I wasn't aware the Google had said they planned to enter the e-book market. I think this web-based ebook for every device is probably pretty much what Google is planning on doing.