By Beth Kowitt, writer
FORTUNE -- Could Oyster be the Netflix for books? It's the question many industry-watchers have been asking since last October, when the New York City-based startup received $3 million in funding led by Founders Fund.
Today's launch of Oyster in Apple's (AAPL) App Store gets us closer to an answer. With Oyster, subscribers get unlimited digital access to more than 100,000 books on their iPhones for $9.95 a month. Backing from a venture capital firm with the star power of Peter Thiel gave Oyster an important seal of approval, but up until now, with just over 100 users trying out the service in beta, it's been virtually untested.
Oyster's founders don't shy away from the Netflix (NFLX) comparison. Even the interface "feels like the Netflix experience," says co-founder Willem Van Lancker.
But in the realm of book publishing, which is dominated by one 800-pound gorilla by the name of Amazon.com (AMZN), industry players seem eager to support an initiative that distributes power more broadly. Oyster has done deals directly with publishers such as HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, and Rodale, and has also signed up Smashwords, the world's largest distributor of self-published e-books. While Oyster wouldn't comment on the mechanics of the deals, it has previously been reported by TechCrunch that publishers get a cut of the revenue every time their books are read.
There is the big question, of course: What's to stop Amazon from offering the same service and shucking Oyster before it gets out of its shell? Indeed, Amazon already has its own Lending Library, which lets Kindle owners who are Amazon Prime members borrow one book each month for free. Offering Amazon customers an all-you-can-eat version isn't much of a conceptual leap. And even other startups are getting into the mix: eReatah recently launched a private beta app for e-books, which lets you choose between three plans (two books per month for $16.99, three for $25.50, or four for $33.50).
But there is something compelling to the Oyster idea. Just as Netflix altered the way people consume movies, Van Lancker and his fellow co-founders Eric Stromberg and Andrew Brown are trying to impact the way people read.
Having a flat monthly fee makes it easier for any reader to check out a book on a whim -- or discard a book they're not enjoying and move on to another one instead. Oyster's team says its goal is to inspire people to read titles they wouldn't otherwise pick up. "We're trying to allow people to spend less time deciding if they should read a book and more time just reading it," Stromberg says. (Hence the company name that stems from the Shakespeare line "then the world's mine oyster." Stromberg and Van Lancker say it's meant to capture the Oyster library's sense of limitless opportunity.)
Oyster is iPhone-only for now and has not announced plans for Android or for e-readers. The iPad app will launch in the fall. Stromberg says the team is targeting phones first because it's a device you always have on you and engage with at a high frequency. But even if they wanted to have a presence on e-readers, there's a big hurdle in Amazon, which would have little incentive to allow Oyster on its Kindle.
MORE: 5 social media all-stars
A big challenge for Oyster (again, as was the case for Netflix) is not accumulating books, but accumulating the right books. Van Lancker says that he's read that a typical big-name bookstore has 40,000 to 50,000 titles, a number that Oyster has well surpassed. But if Oyster doesn't have the hot book of the moment or a handful of searches come back with "no results found," the service will quickly alienate users.
What Oyster really does have going for it is its clean, easy-to-use experience. The last 10 books you've opened are kept available offline (I found they download quickly), so you don't have to worry about trying to open them when you're without Internet access. Your activity helps inform recommendations, and genres are laid out in a carousel design -- "Sweeping Histories," "Book to Blockbuster," "Rebels and Groundbreakers." Users are encouraged to create profiles and follow friends to see what they're reading. But you can also hide your activity if you'd rather they not see how much progress you've made in your favorite romance novel.
Some time with Amazon's latest Kindle Paperwhite reveals there's much to like in this familiar-looking device. Surprised?
FORTUNE -- Based on first impressions, the best e-reader is about to get even better.
Amazon (AMZN) announced a new Paperwhite e-reader, available for preorder this week and expected to ship by Sept. 30. It will ship in three flavors: $119 with ads, $139 without ads, and $189 sans ads with built-in 3G connectivity. But despite MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Sep 4, 2013 1:47 PM ET
Will consumers buy as many e-books when they can borrow them?
By Verne Kopytoff
FORTUNE -- Amazon's dominance in digital books is under perpetual attack by Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL). Now you can add another threat to the list: the public library. That's what an analyst from Barclays suggested in a recent research report. Consumers will likely avoid buying e-books if they can borrow them from the library for free.
"As MOREJul 22, 2013 10:13 AM ET
More firepower in the startup's bid to transform interactive books.
FORTUNE -- Just five months after digital book publisher Inkling launched Habitat, a set of cloud-based tools that let users create interactive books, the startup has picked up two powerful new partners. Publishing giants Pearson and Elsevier have announced multi-million dollar deals to use Inkling to build digital versions of the textbooks, scientific and technical journals they publish. The news comes MOREJessi Hempel, writer - Jul 17, 2013 12:20 PM ET
Barnes & Noble's tablet business is struggling mightily. So what's the book chain to do? Let Google in.
FORTUNE -- Ask Stephane Maes, Barnes and Noble VP of Product, why holiday sales of its Nook tablets were weaker than expected, and he'll tell you it wasn't due to lack of interest. When shoppers looked at the Nook HD, one of the first things they asked was whether apps bought for their MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - May 3, 2013 1:07 PM ET
The iPad's usage share in North America rose in March for the first time since December.
FORTUNE -- Despite increased competition from tablets running Google (GOOG) Android, the presence of Apple's (AAPL) iPad in the Chitika online ad network rose in March to 81.9%, up from 80.5% in February.
According to the report Chitika issued Thursday, the rest of the tablets are all distant also-rans.
In the same one-month time period, it saw the presence of MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Apr 18, 2013 2:57 PM ET
Japan has some of the fastest internet connections in the world, but physical media such as books and DVDs still remain popular.
By Michael Fitzpatrick
FORTUNE -- Despite Japan's "default-setting-for-the future" status, coined by Sci-fi writer William Gibson, time on this rocky archipelago appears to be headed backwards. Kerosene is replacing nuclear energy; deflation, not inflation, is still rife; and, publishers are clinging energetically to print when, in neighboring South Korea, MOREFeb 11, 2013 2:48 PM ET
For what it's worth, iPad tweets outnumbered Kindle 7:1, Google Nexus 18:1, Surface 50:1
FORTUNE -- I can't vouch for the accuracy of the information in this chart. The nominal source -- A.X. Ian -- describes himself on Twitter and other venues as "Purveyor of pseudo-random ideas. Information massage therapist. Always prolific, seldom profound."
But the ratios square with other signs we've been seeing -- including store traffic -- and bode better MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Dec 26, 2012 5:47 PM ET
When you're selling a device at cost you can't really make it up in volume
FORTUNE -- From the start, Amazon's (AMZN) plan for the Kindle family of tablets and e-readers was to sell a compelling device at or below cost that would direct customers to Amazon's online stores.
"We want to make money when people use our devices," CEO Jeff Bezos often says, in a remark widely seen as directed at MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Nov 27, 2012 8:43 AM ET
A new generation of kids' tablets will go head-to-head this holiday season, but will children go for them instead of their parents' iPads and Kindles?
By Omar Akhtar, reporter
FORTUNE -- All of those parents who'd rather not let their kid toy around with their iPad will have plenty of cheaper, kid-friendly tablets to purchase as stand-ins this holiday shopping season.
This year, a new generation of children's tablets will try to MORESep 20, 2012 1:21 PM ET
|Military retirees: You betrayed us, Congress|
|I work 4 jobs and I'm still struggling|
|Instagram launches direct messaging|
|Apple supplier draws scrutiny after worker deaths|
|Twitter restores blocking function after outcry|