King Gillette and the Kindle

E-Reads is second to none in rooting for the success of Amazon’s Kindle. Not only does it represent the realization of a dream we have cherished for two decades, but, just to be selfish about it, our books are carried on it and we want to make money. That said, we have a real queasy feeling in the pits of our stomachs that the Kindle is on a path to the same resting place as the Rocket eBook.

Above: Amazon’s Kindle.

My technical colleagues have their own reasons for thinking so, but I’d like to stress a couple of my own. The first is that the man and woman in the street does not want or need a dedicated reading device. We have come to rely on our ubiquitous cell phone to carry every electronic and digital application we need, from video to music to games to text to telephone communications. With some clever engineering it can serve as a reader, and in particular the iPhone is only a few warranty-killing tweaks away from adding book reading to its repertoire. What does it take to convince appliance manufacturers that most of us don’t really want to carry two or three dedicated devices in our pockets or purses, even ones that weigh only ten or eleven ounces. We’re happy with one gadget that satisfies all needs.

There’s an important exception to the above, and that is college students, who have no choice but to carry a computer to classrooms in addition to their cell phone. College students are ripe for a better dedicated reading device than the laptop, and it’s been sitting under our noses for years in the form of the tablet. Tablet computers perform the same functions as laptops but their streamlined design enables users to read the way college students read textbooks, assignments, or books for pleasure — that is, in an armchair or sofa or in bed. The first manufacturer to realize this and successfully pitch laptops at colleges will make a well deserved fortune, perform a priceless service, and bring the digital revolution closer to what we all visualized when we pledged our hearts and souls to the service of the Internet.

The other thing that bedevils me is the price of the Kindle, as well as that of the Sony Reader. Forgotten is one of the wisest maxims ever coined by an American businessman and usually attributed to King Gillette, the inventor of disposable razor blades: “Give away the razor and sell them the blades,” Gillette pronounced. Amazon has it all bassackwards, making the price of the device high and the price of the content low. It’s already been pretty well demonstrated that the public is willing to pay relatively high prices for online books, but it is far from proven that the public will pay a high price for a reading device.

If Amazon wants to give away the Kindle (or at least sell it at a loss for that magical price point of $99.95) it might bring us closer to the tipping point. Amazon has tons of money to lose on a loss leader, but aside from the usual early adopters we may very well see the public respond to the Kindle with less than overwhelming enthusiasm on the grounds of list price alone. Anything less than the stupendous response to the iPod is probably going to fail. At least, Amazon, give us a cheaper device so that we don’t add price resistance to all our other reservations!

– Richard Curtis

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