Fighting Words

22 06 2010

Everyone loves a price war. Well, most of the time.

Yesterday’s news carried the tale of the ongoing feud between Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble Booksellers. Both sell fairly comparable e-readers; B&N opened the round by announcing it had lowered the price of its Nook from $259 to $199. Amazon called and then lowered the bid by $10 to $189 for its Kindle.

And somewhere in the middle of this we forgot that this is really all about a monumental shift in the way we consume print media. Oh, and never you once mind that Apple has been missing from this little war, opting instead to sit back giddily as it counts the receipts from selling 2 million iPads in two months (starting at $499).

At stake here is how magazines, newspapers and book publishers deliver content. Music has gone digital. Video games are in the progress of doing so. And movies are streaming into broadband homes faster than Blockbuster can say, “Can someone get the license of that truck?”

There’s a lot at stake here. There’s a ton of money to be saved by eliminating paper, printing and distribution costs. But reading is a far different experience from watching a movie, listening to music or playing a game. You see, there’s that highly tangible aspect in reading that is completely missing in the other three. Ink smudges on fingertips. Doing the morning crossword…in ink. Flipping the pages.

And therein lies the problem. Reading is a very rich user experience (well, for those who like it, anyway). Turning the page of a book is a metaphor of progress. I own both Kindle and iPad, but do not read books on them (opting to limit my print consumption therein to only magazines and newspapers). I just can’t let go of my books, though.

Because I like to lay on the sofa to read. I like to go to sleep with a book hopelessly splayed across my chest, or fallen to the floor. And when I travel, I always lug at least one tome with me for company. Yeah…and the Kindle or iPad comes along, to.

The transition to e-books is probably going to be the toughest one for readers. I can see college students loving them, though, as texts slowly become available in this format, but will these same people continue to read e-books after they complete their studies? I have my doubts.

While music soothes the hearts of beasts and all that, books represent an escape. We become one with the protagonist; we dig in our heels against the antagonist. We journey together.

Manufacturers of e-readers understand this problem, and have gone to great lengths to enhance the page-flips. But it’s just not the same as holding a real book. Nice substitute, perhaps, but only a facsimile.

It helps not that we are talking about the oldest form of media in the history of man. Printing has been around in one form or another for over 5000 years. It’s hard to let go of something with that much legacy. In contrast, audio recordings date only to the mid-1850s, while photography dates to the mid-1820s. It’s much easier to accept new technologies when the old one hasn’t been around too long.

But if and when we do embrace this change, it is going to radically change yet another retail sector. Bookstores (if they exist at all) will feature kiosks at which we dock our e-reader for downloading content. A more likely scenario, though, is already in place with current e-readers: wifi and/or cellular transmission.

In the mean time, I see more rounds of price-cutting. I am confident we will break the $100 barrier. It is only a matter of when and by whom. The race will be to get the hardware in everyone’s hands, because the real money is going to be in the sale of content.

That is, as long as people turn the page on history and move on to a completely paperless society. But I don’t see the end of this chapter coming any time soon.

Dr “Still Old School” Gerlich

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