Wednesday, May 25, 2011

New Ereaders Giveth, and Taketh Away

As the price of ereaders falls—Barnes & Noble’s just-announced touchscreen device goes for $139, while Kobo’s, announced the day before, shaves ten bucks off that (yet both still cost more than Amazon’s months-old Special Offers Kindle, which weighs in at a mere $114)—they’re all giving up a feature that once seemed essential to these read-anywhere, buy-anywhere gadgets: 3G cellular service.

[We interrupt this rant to admit that Amazon has just announced a 3G version of the Special Offers Kindle for $164. So Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos clearly feels this trend toward Wi-Fi only ereaders offers an opening in the market for those who know they need 3G.]

When the Kindle debuted in 2007 its true disruptive genius—what allowed it to trump the seemingly sleek ereaders Sony had been selling for years—was its free 3G connectivity. Suddenly it was easy to imagine buying and reading a book most anywhere: while commuting to work on the train, waiting at the airport to board a flight, vacationing at a resort, eating lunch in a city park. The possibilities were so tantalizing I remember doubting at first that Amazon really was offering 3G at no cost. (It's easy to forget that at the time 3G cellular service was state of the art.) Then, when I learned it was true, I decided the Kindle was so expensive because fully $100 of its initial $399 price must have been subsidizing that lifetime AT&T 3G contract.

And I still think having 3G on an ereader is a powerful plus. That’s because I spend a lot of time in upstate New York out of reach of free Wi-Fi or reliable 3G service. Rural New York has shown me that my year-old refurbished Nook 3G, which uses the same AT&T network as the Kindle, somehow manages to connect in areas where even my first cell phone, which used Verizon’s venerable network, typically gave up.

More to the point, I’ve learned that outside an urban center cellular data networks are far more reliable than cellular voice networks—they obviously require a fraction of the bandwidth to function. The telcos are certainly aware of this advantage, because they’re happy to tack on added-cost 3G data plans for just about any portable device—phone or tablet—that can benefit from them.

Yet ereaders, now that they’ve lost their free 3G cellular function, appear unlikely ever to gain the kind of optional cellular data support AT&T and Verizon offer for Apple’s iPad.  I surmise that the big ebook retailers don’t want a buyer worrying that an attractively priced ereader has the added cost of a perpetual 3G data plan weighing it down. They recognize that such marketing gambits are strictly for brazen telcos hawking tantalizingly cheap, heavily subsidized smartphones.

It’s easier to tout Wi-Fi capability, since affluent ereader buyers almost certainly have a wireless home network, bought and paid for, ready to do the heavy data lifting. (Of course, none of these devices supports Wi-Fi’s state-of-the-art 802.11n spec. Since downloading a text-centric book is fairly undemanding, Amazon and B&N and Kobo deem it sufficient to go with the slower, middle-aged 802.11g spec. Whenever cool technology is for sale, you can be sure the seller is rationing it somewhere.)

So we’ve come to a crossroads. Since today’s sexiest mobile devices are all data capable, we’re leaning harder than ever on carriers’ data networks. That turns Wi-Fi into a convenient fallback. I suspect when Virgin Mobile’s marketers decided to pair an all-you-can eat data plan with a tightly restricted voice plan (mine gives me 300 minutes a month for $25) for their android phones they consoled themselves that subscribers would get most of their data via the phones’ integrated Wi-Fi—either at home or on the road in a Starbucks, hotel, or the like. (My android phone has revealed that even supermarkets offer free Wi-Fi.) Sprint’s 3G network would thus take less of a hit, especially from Virgin Mobile’s inevitable android data hogs.

Certainly I go Wi-Fi whenever my phone tells me there’s a wireless access point available.

Then, too, even a pedestrian Wi-Fi network is visibly faster than a good 3G network—and good 3G service, at least from Virgin Mobile’s parent, Sprint, isn’t that common. (Not long after getting my LG Optimus V I found myself unable to text my daughter from a parking lot on 9th Avenue and 33rd Street in Manhattan.) So users like me naturally train themselves to prefer Wi-Fi hot spots for surfing the web, streaming a YouTube video, or using a data-intensive app.

There’s just one problem.  The more mobile data we use, the more we want.  Getting it at home and at Starbucks and (amazingly) at the supermarket just makes us pine for it wherever we can’t have it—on a highway, at a rural park, in the wilds of upstate New York.  (Places where, maddeningly, your mobile phone’s GPS system has no trouble finding you.)

The Victorian art critic Walter Pater once wrote famously that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”  My take: all technology constantly aspires towards the condition of real-time.

Real-time data, data on the run, data whenever you want or need it—whether it’s the latest bestseller on your ereader or an emergency text message from someone you love on your mobile phone—continues to be elusive. With the exception of that new Kindle 3G with Special Offers, these latest low-cost ereaders aren't aspiring hard enough towards the condition of real-time.

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