Back To School Kindles

How fast can you say, e - lec - tro - phor - e- tic?

Come September about 60% of American college textbooks -- including most freshman texts -- will be available from Amazon.com in cheaper, portable Kindle editions. Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos reports that Kindle editions now account for 35% of book sales for any title available in Kindle format.

The freshman class of 2009 can be expected to arrive as every other freshman class does in new clothes, excited, well-scrubbed and horny, but many of these young adults will have Kindles under their arm. Mom, Dad, your totally uncool older brother, the neighbors you babysat for, the guys at your summer job, the assistant coach, the high school teacher who had faith in you, that older woman who thinks you're cute, one of those people may well cough up a Kindle 2 in exchange for a goodbye hug.

Give them the hug.

You'll have the K2 under your arm as you saunter into the first class. When the prof writes the name of the textbook under his name, you can press a button on your new educational device and within a minute the thing will reach your hard drive and signal its arrival.

Instructor: Dr. Frederick Wildebeest.

Textbook: Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.

'But shoot,' you say. 'Them Kindles are expensive things!'

Not any more. As of yesterday they're priced at exactly the level -- give or take -- of many other eBook readers including the Sony whose price window stretches from a basic eReader at $280 to one with all the bells and whistles. The lovingly named, Sony PRS-700, is now $350, $51 more than a K2.

This new pricing reflects many things. Estimates put the number of Kindles sold at about 1.5 million, so undoubtedly the unit manufacturing cost once estimated at about $185 has come down. But competition is also becoming greater as more models enter the market and as the market itself matures. The display maker Prime View International/Netronix that assembles the Kindle out there in the wilds of Taiwan, purchased the patents from the Cambridge based company eInk last month for $215 million. That may well have been ridiculously cheap. PVI sees enormous potential for eInk monitors.

Significantly, the cost of the monitor component in the Kindle2 had been placed at about $60, and this is exactly the amount of Amazon's current price cut. So PVI appears to be offering this key component at a much reduced price to its partner Amazon in order to drive volume sales and promote this new technology in what many believe will be a key year in the acceptance of eReaders.

Of course, once these electrophoretic screens are universally accepted as state-of-the art power-sipping alternatives to text reading LCDs PVI will take over the world as Intel once did simply by acquiring the rights to Busicom's 4004 chip** Its worth noting that general acceptance of the Busicom chip came after calculators were developed for academic use in classrooms, forcing the obsolescence of slower, less accurate and more skills-intensive slide-rules.

Anyway, with 8 weeks of summer left, you could buy a Kindle 2 at $299, and spend what you save on eTextbooks. If you order now you can still take it on summer vacation with you and then get ready for your classes while you tan since, as you lie on the beach, the Kindle will read itself to you.

(Unfortunately, the larger and more expensive Kindle DX which can download and display .pdf files currently has a three to five week waiting list. A cheaper DX is available, however, if you also subscribe to a bundle of subversive, left-leaning rags including the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post).

With sales of eBook readers predicted to grow by 3 million in 2009-2010, the market for eBooks is also expected to expand considerably. Google, Sony, Amazon and PVI all hope this year may become a watershed for the devices, and many other readers will soon become available so it's reasonable to anticipate a price war by December. So if mom and dad missed a beat packing junior off to school without the appropriate technology, they can rent out the empty room and use the money to buy eReaders for Christmas-Hanukkah.

** See Made To Break (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2006): p 200.