Sunday, 1 August 2010

It Ain’t Cheap, or: Why She Won’t Buy the Kindle 3 Despite (21/3.5) Grams of Internet Access


- 21 Grams, Alejandro González Iñárritu

- deeply shaken, the god who rocks the earth replied,/ 'hera, what wild words! what are you saying? / i for one have no desire to battle zeus, / not you and i and the read of the gods together. / the king is far too strong - he'll crush us all' - from the iliad - homer - robert fagles -


The Kindle 3 was released to much Amazon fanfare late last week; in the sea of iPad and general tablet news at the moment I wonder how many people have even noticed. My girlfriend didn’t know what a Kindle was until tonight, and I really don’t know how this has happened. I can only assume that I’ve been right every time I thought she wasn’t really listening to me. She’s been mocking my iPad cravings for a little while now (I maintain it’s not iPad-lust (iLust?), but borderline-usable-tablet-lust, it’s just I happen to think that that’s a very narrow category right now), but she’s the kind of person that Amazon must hate, because she’d probably rather like a Kindle if she knew what it was and what it could do. See, she’s a neuropsychologist and reads almost everything as a sea of .pdf articles, but hates being tied to reading at her desk. She also reads a lot of popular, modern classic, and classic novels. This seems like a person for whom a Kindle would seem a natural fit: native pdf support with highlighting and annotating, easy on the eye, portable, a store full of books she’d probably enjoy; there’s a lot to love for the scientist in your life. And yet, and yet…nothing.

She’s probably an unfair test subject, I thought, because, well, we’re students. At £150 I couldn’t buy her a Kindle if I wanted to eat; she wouldn’t buy herself a Kindle (she’s funded which makes it a choice, at least, if still an obvious one); and very few of our friends are in a position to indulge themselves either. If we don’t listen to the advertising then the device ceases to exist, as became apparent during our conversation.

And yet we can’t afford an iPad either, doubly, triply so, but still we listen to the adverts, we read the articles, and, in a spate of boredom disguised as love, she even tried to win me one in a variety of online competitions (and I choose to believe she would have parted company with said device if it had arrived at her door). Not only do we know it exists…we have friends who own them. The same friends who complain about money being tight, about savings being hit hard, about recessions double and triple dipping, they get all this information by reading the FT as an app on pin sharp touchscreens, downloading it from 3G networks supported by less than generous pay-monthly plans. The iPad is not dead to us, even if it is out of reach.

I went to a talk recently where the person presenting used the words: “after all, ereaders are cheap.” They then went on to talk about Nooks, Kindles, and Cool-er Readers. At the cheapest estimates these readers average at £150 (in fairness there’s a version of the Kindle 3 going for £109, it just doesn’t have the free 3G access to the bookstore. I was interested to learn that 3G appears to weigh 6 grams

a number I couldn’t help thinking implied that the internet weighed three and a half times less than a human soul).

I don’t think I’m going too far wrong when I say that £150, or even £100, doesn’t feel ‘cheap’ just yet. And of course, this doesn’t factor in the price of ebooks bought, a figure which remains awkwardly close to how much p-books cost, but without the added perks of actual ownership, rather than what feels like renting evanescent content.

I’ve been trying to work out just why a Kindle 3 doesn’t seem cheap, or rather trying to establish what could make it so. The answer seems to lie not in low cost, but in value. I read around 100 books a year (if you factor in poetry and comics and ignore journals), and I probably pay for about 75 of them (the rest being gifts, a general backlog of unread items, borrowed books, free ebooks, or used works so cheap as to be negligible). Of those 75 I try to get about 50 second-hand (not possible with ebooks), so my average spend is maybe £350 (I suspect it’s a bit lower due to bargains, but that’s close enough). If I bought a Kindle at £150 I’d treat it like a computer and would want it to last a minimum of 5 years, so that works out as an extra £30 a year for its life. Would I make enough savings buying slightly cheaper ebooks over 5 years to cover the cost of the device? Without second hand books I doubt it. Plus my tastes and requirements aren’t always catered for; critical theory, cognitive psychology, and books on the philosophy of technology are probably not at the top of any ebook store’s priority list to provide, and colour graphic novels wouldn’t work on an e-ink screen anyway. So the Kindle would represent no saving unless the ebook market rapidly evolves to accommodate me. If we ignore graphic novels and say that I’ll be able to get everything that I want, then maybe, maybe, the small savings on each book would make me break even or better. But that’s on my 75 books a year for 5 years. Many people read a lot more than that, and they might find it very easy to call the Kindle cheap; abundant ebooks of things you like and a decent device, which I have no doubt the Kindle 3 is, may well represent a solid saving. Most people, however, don’t have the time, tastes, or inclination to turn the Kindle into a ‘cheap’ (i.e. good value) device. If you read 10 books a year or less, if your tastes are esoteric, or you can’t fathom why you would struggle with an e-reader when there’s perfectly good paper kicking around, then the Kindle 3 can only feel expensive as hell.

The iPad’s expensive too, of course, three times more than a 3G enabled Kindle at a minimum, but it’s only been out for a couple of months. The original U.S.-only Kindle, released in 2007, was $400 (£255 at the current exchange rate). The Kindle 3 is $139 (or £88.50; yes we get ripped off here), a better than 2/3 drop in three years. By the same factoring, a $200/£125 (in the U.K. more like £200) iPad in three years time, a device covering near all of your book, video, radio, music, picture, and internet needs, would be an incredibly persuasive set up, possibly even deserving of the word ‘cheap’ in a way that a £150 Kindle 3 could never be. A lot of people are even finding £450+ very persuasive right now it would seem.

Seth Godin’s discussions of a ‘paperback kindle’ make a lot of sense. In societies where we will probably, in the long term, see a waning interest from the majority in physical written media, the best way to get everyone on board with dedicated devices is to put one in everyone’s hand. You need to nearly give them away, perhaps that’s the only way, to persuade people that this is a device worth carrying. Because if tablets (almost certainly not just iPads) do a mobilephone-like sweep of the marketplace over the next decade or so, that will mark the end of people’s appetite for a dedicated apparatus for reading, save for a vocal and significant minority, in many nations. And if the next OLPC project succeeds, converged devices may become the norm for written work in many places across the world.

I don’t know if this is good or bad yet, no one does. It’s an argument for another time, but if we are able to maintain our attention and attraction toward long form arguments I see no reason to disparage devices which can also play movies and connect us to the web. Is a visually ergonomic (go with it) e-ink screen enough to save dedicated readers? Is super-long battery life? Is 6 grams of free 3G? It’s not enough to make a £150 device feel cheap to me (or to her, the tolerant scientist). It’s probably not enough to make a £50 device feel cheap to be honest: “after all,” will go the argument, “that’s money you could be putting towards one of those expensive i-book-pod things.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why were you not asleep?
Needless to say I agree with you
M.

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