NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Amazon is opening up the Kindle to third-party applications, just as the iPhone has, but developers aren't exactly clamoring to build apps for the e-reader.
A sizeable development community has grown up around the iPhone, which has more than 120,000 native applications, and development shops field substantial demand from marketers for apps. But developers say they're in no rush to build for the Kindle.
The biggest problem: Amazon refuses to divulge the number of Kindles it has sold. In an analyst report, Citigroup estimates Amazon sold at least 2 million Kindles in 2009, accounting for about 70% of all e-reader sales. That's a small fraction of the number of iPhones and iPod Touches in circulation. For that reason and others, Donald Brady, director-business development at apps consultancy Ubermind, is doubtful that many developers will rush to make apps for the Kindle.
"The market size would be too small unless Amazon was underwriting it," Mr. Brady said. "Plus, there's too much demand for iPhone and Android apps right now."
Starting next month, Amazon will be inviting software developers to build "active content" -- the e-commerce giant did not use the word "app" in its announcements -- for the Kindle Store later this year.
So far, Amazon has announced that handheld developer Handmark will build a Zagat guide for cities internationally, and mobile games publisher Sonic Boom will create word games and puzzles. EA Mobile, a division of games publisher Entertainment Arts, creator of the popular "Madden" football games, will also be developing apps for Kindle. Like the iPhone API, the Kindle development kit will give developers access to programming interfaces and tools to design applications for the device.
Kindle less compelling
But the broader developer community expressed skepticism about the Kindle as a platform for apps. As a black-and-white device with no touchscreen, it's intrinsically less compelling than other e-readers coming on the market in the next 12 months. Additionally, development shops are having trouble keeping up with demand for iPhone apps.
Jemuel Ripley, VP-general manager of independent digital agency Sapient, New York, said iPhone apps are by far most often requested by clients, with interest in apps for Google's Android operating system only picking up in the last 6-8 months. Blackberry apps are still far behind. What's more, upcoming e-readers will also pose a threat.
"The pressure for Amazon will come from a number of new devices announced at [consumer Electronics Show] that have feature sets that are, from my perspective, more sophisticated," he said, singling out Skiff, Hearst's e-reader with a flexible touchscreen.
There are three reasons developers took to the iPhone: its multiple, rich functions; the ease with which to develop and market apps; and the size of the installed base, said Jim Routh, VP-business development at Smule, the developer responsible for Ocarina, the iPhone flute app.
Reinventing the e-book
But, as of now, Kindle functionality pales in comparison, and its developer kit is untested. Yet some see opportunity for a different kind of app on the Kindle, including apps that deliver information and text, even an opportunity to re-invent the e-book.
Brandon Starkoff, senior VP global director and resident mobile guru at media agency Starcom, thinks companies that want to deliver text-based or promotional material might find the Kindle a good platform. "It's going to be a bit of a different game than on the iPhone," he said. "Apps are going to be more relevant to the Kindle." Mr. Starkoff calls Kindle content "thin apps," which are single dimensional, quick feeds of information, like the reviews planned for the Zagat app, a cookbook, catalog or instructional book.
Amazon has allowed publishers to upload and sell content in the Kindle Store through a self-publishing platform for the past two years. But with access to programming interfaces, Richard Schatzberger, director of creative technology at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, thinks the real value of Kindle apps will be publishers' ability to revisit the entire e-book format. He imagines "living books," where an author could program a story to tailor itself to the reader -- a book that reflects the current weather, or is set in a reader's city.
Mr. Shatzberger also thinks the open API could mean books that link to social networks, or could push readers to related video content on laptops or mobile devices.
"Right now, a book has fixed content," he said. "The way I see things going forward is that you can bring live data into that storytelling, like a location-based book or details tweaked to a reader."
Amazon did not return calls for comment. The Wall Street Journal reported that small apps will be sold for a small fee, and larger programs will be sold as a monthly subscription. Some small apps might even be free. Like Apple, Amazon plans to take 30% of revenue from the developer, as well as a fee of 15 cents per megabyte. Since the model resembles Apple's, it doesn't look like revenue-sharing will sour the deal for potential publishers.