Amazon's New $400 Paperweight

The Kindle is here, though it may as well be kindling.

Priced too high. Out too early (or too late). Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) electronic reader is finally out after three years of development, and I'm still scratching my head in trying to nail down its target audience.

At $399 a pop, it's not going to win over the casual reader. It would take years of paperback books to offset the initial outlay. Locked into a proprietary bookstore format where all purchases must go through Amazon's digital storefront, it's not going to win over the thrifty, either. Don't even ponder the purists, my friend.

I'm not saying that the Kindle is a total dud. Despite its throwback design, it is slim and lightweight. The "electronic paper" text format is easy on the eyes. Working with Sprint's (NYSE: S  ) EVDO data network, purchased downloads don't have to be tethered to WiFi hotspots.

There are also sweet perks like free Wikipedia access, a built-in dictionary, and the ability to pay for discounted digital subscriptions to select newspapers, magazines, and blogs.

Still, I don't give it much of a shot.

Bezos is no bozo
Don't get me wrong. If anyone can do it, Amazon can. Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) struggled -- even with Borders (NYSE: BGP  ) as a chain-store partner -- to make a market for its Sony Reader, but Amazon is a brand that consumers associate with both books and online technology. The company also has more than a decade's worth of book-loving customers to whom it can market its Kindle.

In fact, this morning's Amazon.com landing page featured an open letter from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introducing the device to the community. If Amazon is willing to give up that kind of primo online real estate to the Kindle (at the expense of customers who clicked away at that point), you know the company isn't going to give up on the gadget without a fight.

A brazen commitment doesn't mean that it's right, though. Let's think about this logically. You can buy a Kindle, then pay another $9.99 for e-book versions of most of the hardcover bestsellers. You would be saving a few bucks over the print version of those books, but it would take you roughly five dozen purchases to offset the initial hardware purchase. The gap narrows once you dig deeper into the library of 90,000 titles that are available, especially for titles that are already out in paperback.

For instance, one of the top-selling books at Amazon's new Kindle store is Anne Enright's The Gathering, for $8.40. The book is available for the same price through Amazon.com in paperback form.

Yes, these are eco-friendly times. Sacrificing a cobwebbed bookcase in exchange for print-free content is commendable. Then again, conventional reading never drained resources the way perpetually juicing up rechargeable batteries does.

Then you have the security issue. If you take a paperback to the hotel pool, you won't think twice about setting the book down as you take a dip. The same can be said for resting a book on an airport terminal seat as you take a bathroom break. You're unlikely to be that carefree if it's a $400 gadget you're leaving unattended.  

Despite its lightweight simplicity, the Kindle is still a pricey consumer-electronics contraption in the end. And unlike similarly priced gadgetry like Research In Motion's (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) BlackBerry or Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPhone -- both of which offer a wider breadth of features -- the Kindle, while small, won't fit in your pocket.

Giving Amazon a chance
It's important not to be too critical here. Some of the irksome features of the Kindle -- like having to pay to read free blogs or the high price points for digitally delivered media -- are likely to change once a more desperate Amazon needs to cater to more than the early adopters.

You can't blame Amazon for aiming high at the beginning. Give it a month or two before it realizes that it can't cash in on both the razors and the blades.

The only real "killer app" beyond the wireless storefront in the Kindle right now is the access to digital subscriptions to a few popular publications like The Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily, and The Washington Post. Passive commuters who are comfortable flashing the Kindle in public will get a real value with that.

Beyond that? Let's just say it's all too easy to hit the Wikipedia entry for Kindle to let the world -- and Kindle users -- know what I really think of the device's chances. $399 for a paperweight? Are you kidding me?

A look at the best of Bezos:


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