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Monday, July 18, 2011

The "Disposable" Price Point

J.A. Konrath is back from vacation, and brought home an interesting insight. He shares it in One More Nail in the Coffin. The heart of it is:

Kindles have dropped in price to the point where they've become disposable, like cell phones and laptops and digital cameras. Ever notice that you buy a new cell (or computer, or camera) every few years, even if your old one still works?

"Disposable" as a price point seems to have a pretty wide window. To me, it’s a lot closer to $20 than $114 (for the ad-bearing Kindle). Of course, I’m not the people he’s talking about: I’ll use a cellphone or computer until it wears out, or just won’t do what I need it to do. For me, MacBooks have a five-year use life (if they endure the life of hard knocks that laptops are heir to). Since I live in a rural area, and am often doing outdoor kind of things, my cellphones get banged around even more than laptops — if they last three years, they’re limping across the finish line with multiple injuries.

Yes, I’m a cheap so-and-so, and eBook readers are (IMO) nowhere near the “disposable” price point. But fear not, they’re following the same curve as calculators. When I was gifted a Kindle a couple years ago, it was 1974 for eBook readers: $250+, limited functionality. It's now 1976, maybe 1977: prices approaching $99 for basic models, features considered “premium” last year (touch, color) are rapidly becoming standard in the mid-range.

Come “1980” (3–4 years from now), the price wars and standardization shakeout will come. Most of us will have to replace our eBook readers, but that won't matter because they’ll be $49–$79 and will have tablet-like functionality yet with amazing battery life. If what I’ve been hearing about solar panel developments is true, we could see the high-end ($119) sporting a solar panel on the back (again, like calculators except for placement). Lay your reader face-down near a sunny window to recharge it while you’re off doing something else. If you read outside a lot, you could have potentially infinite battery life.

The next step is “1984.” That’s when I had a calculator built into my watch. I don’t know how the equivalent would work for an eBook reader — maybe a goggle display with controls based on eye motion? The end-point is around 1990, where calculators (with solar cells and lots of features) ended up in supermarket checkout racks at $19. The thing is, I don’t think it will take 16 years to get to that point for eBook readers… it might happen by 2020 instead of 2025. Either way, that’s when paper books will finish dying out — when eBook readers are truly disposable.


  1. You had a watch calculator too? Those were awesome.

    But I'm not getting the eReader watch. Mainly because I don't wear watches any more now that my phone tells me the time.

    It is amazing how the price point for readers is getting lower and lower. I agree it shouldn't be long before they are dirt cheap. (I'm with you that $100+ is not disposable yet.)

  2. It's fitting to read this on the same day I saw news of Borders closing up shop. The times they are a changin'. eReaders are getting pretty darned affordable. And that means eventual doom for the printed word. For the avid reader, even a more expensive iPad is "cheaper" than giving up a room in your house to be a library.

  3. Yea, soon it will be all e-reader. The only print books will be limited editions or cheap paperbacks for those that want to stick with the physical copy.

    Same fate as CDs...

  4. I have a Kindle and love it but the other day I bought a real paper book because it wasn't available in ebook format.
    I'm most stricken by your comment that you only expect your Macbook to last 5 years. I've only had my MacBook Pro for a couple years and it better last longer than that... a couple grand is certainly not disposable. I hope to be using it until I'm quite dead and rotting.
    (What IS that smell?)

  5. I share your opinions on using stuff till it dies and "disposable" price points. I just wanted to say that this post brought back the purest excitement that my Dad's calculator watch elicited in me as a child. Ah, those halcyon days... takes so much more than "It's a watch *and* a calculator!" to excite me now...

  6. It's not disposable until my wife can clip a coupon and get it at Harris-Teeter on triple coupon days so the clerk has to give her money back as she leaves the store.

  7. I don't think paperbooks will ever truly die out. After all, people still use pen and paper, in spite of the fact that digital writing is so prolific - and it's not just us old people who can't make the change. There's just something about books that will endure.

    I don't have an e-reader, yet. I'd love to get one, but I still prefer books :).

  8. Brontosaurus, here. I still buy CDs. :p

    I think eReaders are very close to disposable now - my definition of disposable being is it cheaper to get it fixed or to replace it. TV sets cost much more than ebook readers and they certainly are considered disposable.

    Discretionary disposable is another matter. I'm with you there, I'll keep it until forced to replace it, not because a newer model has arrived.

    I don't think they care about the ebook readers. They care about you building up an inventory of books from their bookstores in their formats, so that when you do need to get a new one you stay with their brand.

  9. Hi all!

    Chuck, those calculator watches came in handy quite often. If the eReader watch is a headset, it would be lots more comfortable for reading in bed!

    David N, i think paper books will be around for a good long while. But that's one heck of an insight about an iPad being cheaper than dedicating a room to a library. That's what I've been talking about doing to The Boy's room, just to keep him from moving back in. :D

    Michael, CDs are still around and do have some advantages. I think there will be paper books for the same reason. But for beach reads? magazines? Mostly pixels.

    Cathy, the Pro models are a little more rugged. I have a beige G3 desktop that's 12+ years old and still runs. Like I said, laptops do have a rough life (especially in a house with kids).

    Emma, the child's fingers are well-suited for punching those tiny buttons too! I did love my iPhone when I had one — all my electronic gadgetry (phone, calculator, clock, music player, Internet access) in one pocket-sized device. I'd probably get excited if Mrs Fetched let me have a new one. :-D

    Hi Rick! Good to hear Harris-Teeter is still around; they pulled out of this area. I'd love to come up with that kind of deal too.

    Wendy, eBook readers are making huge inroads among the elderly — "large print edition" at the touch of a button is a huge draw — but you're right. I still use pen & paper sometimes. I'm going to blog about my old Smith-Corona portable typewriter (that I just found) soon. Me, I prefer eBooks because they don't take up any more space in a crowded shelf.

    Hi Jon! Good point about lock-in, but I heard recently that Amazon is soon to support ePUB format on Kindle… so it might not be as firm a lock as Amazon (or Sony or B&N) would like. After all, we can often buy at Smashwords and re-download in whatever format we need later on.

    Great comments folks… keep 'em coming.

  10. It's even weirder to go from conversations about three-digit costs for "disposable items" to news on the economy. Horrible unemployment, the massive share of corporate profits being reserved and not yielded to employees - but there is a class of people to whom a hundred bucks warrants a disposable device. I'm certainly not in that class.

  11. JohnW, all I can say is I agree 100%. Including the part about $100 not being disposable.


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