Thursday, August 12, 2010

iPad vs. Kindle, Round 1

It's been a summer of technology upgrades here at Schloss Haren. First, in late spring the main desktop computer died a sudden death. The old Dell just wouldn't work anymore. After the usual resuscitation efforts and the unsettling realization that we still had big checks to write to UGA for both Roberta and Aileen, I headed over to Best Buy and told Mr. Junior Sales Drone that I needed the cheapest desktop computer he had in stock. After rejecting some really low end pieces of junk I settled on a fairly recent Compaq Presario model with an AMD processor and enough RAM and hard drive space to carry us for a few years without having to upgrade. Now, if you know anything about the computer biz you know that Compaq is Hewlett-Packard's low end line and it's clear where they cut some corners - the case. This computer case is nothing more than a simple stamped sheet metal box. It lacks the sleek design and unique engineering of many of the more upscale desktops, and it actually buzzes when the CD drive spins up. Heck, even the old Dell had a much better case. But that's OK with me. I work with computers all day, every day. I consider them nothing more than an appliance, like a toaster or blender. When one craps out I go looking for the cheapest replacement that has all the features I want or need. This Compaq fits the bill.

Next was Roberta's graduation gift. Roberta spends a lot of time with a laptop computer in her, well, lap! While much of that time is spent writing papers for grad school, grading student papers, writing lesson plans, etc., a good portion of her laptop laptop time (ha, ha) is spent doing less critical but still very important tasks like tending her garden in Farmville, playing Sudoku, checking with friends on Facebook, shopping on the web for my birthday present, etc. For those tasks you don't necessarily need a full-power laptop device. I thought an iPad would be just the ticket. We are both Apple fans and I figured she'd really like Steve Jobs' newest fanboy device. I tried to get her one before our trip up to Ohio in early July, but I didn't realize that Apple doesn't just keep these things on the shelf waiting for people to buy one. Noooo, here's how it works:

1. You call Apple, give them your credit card number.

2. Apple rings up their factory in China (Taiwan, actually) and tells them to schedule one for production with your name on it. Yes, this is the same iPad and iPod factory where workers have been hurling themselves off the roof in despair because they can't stand the pressure of the production line. The factory management fixed that problem by stringing circus nets around the building to catch the flying workers. Very Monty Pythonesque (I ain't makin' this up, folks!)

3. In due time (a few weeks later) your name comes up in the queue and your iPad gets cranked out and sent to the shipping department.

4. The shipping department tosses your iPad onto a waiting FedEx airplane and sends Apple a shipping notice which Apple forwards on to you.

5. Through the magic of the World Wide Web you get to watch as your iPad hops from China to Alaska to Atlanta. That part of the trip is fairly straight forward. However, once the iPad gets to Atlanta the fun begins. You get to watch as it's onloaded and offloaded from one container and conveyance device after another, then sent out for a complimentary trip or two around the Atlanta perimeter roadways as FedEx determines it's final destination. Finally they figure out that the package has to head south from the airport and after an extra day or two it arrives in your carport.

6. You unbox and begin to enjoy the magic and awesomeness of the iPad!

Now, Roberta's iPad arrived a little bit after her birthday but before her graduation, so we called it a combined gift. It is the low end 16 gig wifi only model. So far she really likes it. I was afraid she'd play with it for a few days then quickly give it up for her more powerful laptop, but I'm pleased to see her using it almost every day. She says it is an awesome pig killing machine (if you've ever played the game 'Angry Birds' you know what I'm talking about).

Next up is the Amazon Kindle. I had been looking at one of these for months. I spend much of my morning and afternoon commute listening to talk show hosts like Bill Bennett, Neal Boortz and Hugh Hewett. All of them praise the Kindle as the way to receive and enjoy reading material. Both Bennett and Boortz have championed the Kindle as a way to distribute, upgrade and manage a student's textbooks and other required reading material, and being the father and husband of UGA students I find that idea compelling.

The basic Kindle used to be a fairly expensive device - about $400. This put it within $100 of the base price of an iPad. Amazon got smart and drastically cut the price of the basic (yet still very capable) Kindle to $189. Overnight the Kindle went from the status of expensive toy to somewhat affordable impulse purchase. That's when I jumped.

Unlike the iPad, ordering the Kindle is very straightforward and lacks the drama (and hopefully the flying Taiwanese) of the iPad purchase. Buy the Kindle on Amazon's website and for a small shipping fee it shows up in your car port the next day.

Of course, you can't really do anything with the Kindle until you buy something to read on it, and you can only buy things to read on it from Amazon. This reveals the genius of Jeff Bezos' business model (which has worked smashingly since the days of King Gillette) - sell the hardware cheap but make sure they stay tethered to your service. Unlike Apple, which makes a healthy profit on every iPad sold, Amazon loses money on every Kindle sale. What they expect to do is make up that loss through the sale of digital media - books, magazines & newspapers. So far it seems to be working.

That's it for now. In the weeks to come I'll be reviewing both devices, not in some fanboy lab where everything with an Apple logo on it is golden, but out here in the real world of middle aged techno-junkies who actually have jobs and responsibilities and (gasp!) really do expect their high tech devices to do something useful. Stay tuned!

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