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The Emergence of the Disposable E-Book Reader — An Inflection Point in Ambient Computing?

The $79 Kindle

In the midst of the blitz over the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s Android-based competitor to the Apple iPad, Amazon made a slightly less-hyped move with their Kindle product line, introducing not only a new set of mainstream Kindles with touchscreens but, more disruptively, a low-end Kindle with ads, which sells for $79.

The importance of that price point can’t be overstated — it’s going to move a lot of Kindles, make the decision to dive into e-books much more trivial for many more people, and turn a technology indulgence into a reading reality. So, naturally, I snatched one up the day I saw it.

I’ve owned a number of Kindles over the years, starting with the Kindle 1, the Kindle DX, and the Kindle 2. While some may scoff and sniff at the Kindle, these little single-purpose devices help me do something I like to do without distracting me or being over-engineered. Some of the conveniences they deliver — during travel, while reading at night, for book sampling, and for book buying — make even their initially significant expense seem worth it to me. I haven’t had one yet that has disappointed.

But would the small, cheap Kindle with ads be the first to let me down? I was about to find out, I thought, as I clicked the “Add to Cart” button.

Two days later, it arrived in its little cardboard carrier. Lifting it from the package, I immediate felt that a moment from childhood had come full circle — a small, light, no-nonsense, no keyboard little reading device was in my hand, as if Yeoman Rand had handed me it on the bridge of the Enterprise. The way those props were handled suggested that while they were useful, they were plentiful and ultimately nothing to fret over. Not delicate. Not expensive. Just functional. And that’s how the new $79 Kindle feels. And it’s probably now my favorite Kindle yet.

It’s cheaper in every way — it’s smaller, the ads show every time it’s asleep, the screen refreshes less often, there’s no audio, and there’s no keyboard.

It’s a single-use device for something I love to do — read. And it’s the closest thing to e-paper I’ve yet seen.

It’s small enough to slip into your pocket, but the screen is the size of a typical book page. It’s thin, nicely made, and works just fine. The buttons works well. It’s incredibly light, and feels sturdy enough. But because it’s so cheap and all my books are in the cloud anyhow, I don’t worry about damaging or ruining it. I tuck it into my bag before a trip, and it disappears into a slot in my briefcase without creating a bulge or obstruction.

The lack of a physical keyboard is offset by a virtual keyboard you can scroll through using the five-way controller. That’s a pain, but since I typically shop for books on a computer and send samples to my Kindle, there’s no downside for me. I don’t type on the Kindle. I read on it. In fact, this new cheaper Kindle is more intensely single-purpose than any previous Kindle (no audio, no keyboard), and that seems to be a counter-intuitive improvement.

One of the complaints about this new cheaper Kindle is that screen refresh occurs only every sixth page turn — leading some to notice degradation the type and afterimages (ghosting) from previous pages. I personally haven’t experienced these artifacts of the new style of paging, and instead appreciate how quickly most pages come up. But apparently the noise has been enough to make Amazon release a software update so that users who prefer the old-style every-page refresh can have it.

Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, recently wrote a review that aligned with my feelings and spurred this blog post. The disposability of the new Kindle strikes his fancy, as well:

Knowing that this new Kindle costs less than the cover for my Kindle 2 is freeing: I can just carry it around uncased and unprotected in a (large) pocket, use it anywhere, and not worry about damaging an expensive electronic item. . . . This is exactly what Amazon wants: cheap, ubiquitous devices that run their digital media stores. Because while most people focus on the purchase price, buying a Kindle is a lot like buying a game console: it’s not very useful until you spend more money feeding it with content, and Amazon takes a cut of all content sales. . . . And therein lies Amazon’s true genius with the relentless pace of making the Kindles cheaper in both price and quality: they know that once you’re reading, minor hardware flaws are quickly forgotten.

The ads on the $79 Kindle are also intriguing. Allowing them apparently provides Amazon with more than $30 of value, and pricing something lower because it accepts ads is a model many of us are familiar with. As a user, I find myself in that normal consumer mode of liking some ads well enough that I’m a little intrigued when I switch the device into sleep mode — what ad will I get? Many of them beat the tired old images of Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson that haunted my prior Kindles.

A disposable, thin, light, useful e-reader than many can afford. The disruption of printed books is accelerating right before our eyes.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the Publisher at AAAS/Science. Previously, I have worked as CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are my own.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “The Emergence of the Disposable E-Book Reader — An Inflection Point in Ambient Computing?

  1. I don’t shop on my Kindle but I do search books on my Kindle. For that, one needs to have an input mechanism (such as a keyboard) in order to communicate the search query. I’d be interested to hear if the virtual keyboard is effective for that kind of activity.

    Posted by jillmwo | Oct 12, 2011, 9:14 am
    • I think it’s OK. The equivalent is using your DVR or Apple TV or GPS. You have to scroll to the letter and hit it. But with a wisely chosen keyword, you can still be efficient.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Oct 12, 2011, 9:22 am
  2. I think Amazon’s strategy here, and with the other devices they’ve just recently announced, is going to pay off in a big way for the company. The lowered price of the low-end Kindle and the near complete content environment they’ve created will drive a lot of business.

    That said, I still can’t see myself buying one. My problem is simply that I won’t pay for a device that limits my content purchases to one source. People complain about Apple’s “walled garden” but the iPad/iPhone is wide open for content sources as compared to the Kindle. There’s a balance between convenience and lock-in and I find a one-source only device too far to the lock-in side for my taste.

    I go back and re-read books far too often to abandon my back purchases. Case in point, I’m currently re-reading a book purchased in 1989, pulled from a box in my attic. To do that on a Kindle I likely would have had to repurchase that book in order to bridge a 22 year technology gap and more importantly, I would have had to remain loyal to the company I purchased the book from for those 22 years, never switching to another device from another company.

    Then again, I’m someone who transferred all my vinyl and cassettes to cd rather than repurchasing the same album twice, so I may just be a curmudgeon when it comes to this subject.

    Posted by David Crotty | Oct 12, 2011, 10:11 am
    • Why did you transfer your vinyl LPs to CDs? To play them in your car? Vinyl’s sound quality is much better, IMHO. I still have over 1,000 LPs.

      Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Oct 19, 2011, 6:48 pm
      • I had an enormous collection of vinyl, much from writing the music column in my college newspaper, and was tired of lugging it around the country (such is the itinerant life of the science graduate student/postdoc). Given the poor quality of the stereo I could afford at the time, the sound quality issue made little difference. I found myself playing the vinyl less and less because cd’s were so much more convenient to pop in to a multi-disc player and not have to get up and flip over. Also, as you note, once I got a car with a cd player instead of a cassette deck, it was all over. Transferring them to cd let me reclaim the music that I wasn’t listening to. A formative lesson in the concept of “good enough” perhaps.

        Posted by David Crotty | Oct 19, 2011, 7:52 pm

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