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Can you say Apple Tablet?

January 20, 2010 |  7:13 am


If you haven't tried putting the words "Apple" and "tablet" together, go ahead -- almost everyone else has. The rumors are flying -- again -- that Cupertino-based computer maker Apple will finally unveil a tablet-like device, something that could be used both as an e-reader and for bigger, richer music-and-visuals content than the iPhone. The day that the company will unveil the tablet something is just a week away, on Jan. 27, in San Francisco.

We've heard for a long time that Apple was working on something tablet-ish that could rival the Kindle. Although the Kindle has a big head start with consumers, Apple has a reputation for elegant design; if it could make a full-color interactive screen like the iPhone's in a larger, e-reader size, the tablet might well be, as Forbes Magazine speculates, a "Kindle Killer."

It's worth noting here that the full-color screen and interactive interface might, in the short run, benefit music and film aspects more than books. But many in publishing have been trying to figure out what the e-books of the future might look like, and those features -- color, interactivity, multimedia -- are likely to play a part.

But back to the matter at hand. If Amazon has a head start on Apple in getting its product into the hands of readers, it also has another significant advantage: the world's biggest online bookstore. Apple doesn't have a bookstore -- at least, not yet.

Which is what makes Jeffrey Trachtenberg's Wall Street Journal story so interesting. This week he reported that unnamed sources told him publisher HarperCollins is in negotiations with Apple to sell e-books for a tablet. Trachtenberg writes:

It couldn't be learned whether Apple will sell the HarperCollins titles via a new e-book store or through its existing iTunes Store, which sells music, television shows and movies. Other publishers also have met with Apple, people familiar with the matter said. Apple declined to comment. ...

The HarperCollins negotiations with Apple represent a direct challenge to Amazon, which dominates the fast-growing e-book market but which could face significant competition from an Apple tablet.

People tend to buy music song by song from Apple's iTunes store. How might they buy books from Apple? Would "Moby-Dick" be chopped into chapters, arbitrary page-length sections, or sold only in its full-length behemoth size? Will Amazon's storefront be joined by a full-fledged iTunes for books? Come next Wednesday, will Amazon's Kindle for iPhone app suddenly disappear, or will it be joined by a tablet-for-Kindle counterpart?

What's underlying these questions is a much bigger one: Are Apple and Amazon headed toward a direct rivalry, with competing devices and storefronts? If so, could publishers find themselves choosing between Amazon and Apple? This morning, Amazon put the squeeze on publishers, offering a very high royalty rate -- 70% -- for e-books sold through Amazon at the substantial discount of $2.99-$9.99 (a new hardcover often retails for $20-$30). Analyst Henry Blodget writes that the plan should "solidify Amazon's already tremendous dominance of the ebook business."

As long as there aren't any other major announcements in coming weeks. Apple may not have an e-reader tablet-like product to show next Wednesday after all.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Vintage pill tin, which does not contain Apple tablet-like device. Credit: sebilden via Flickr