Monday, February 1, 2010

Give Them What They Want

Christmas has come and gone, and every year the wife and I have the same debate: I like to buy things that she doesn't know about so that I can watch the smile on her face when she gets something that she wanted but didn't expect to get; she likes to buy things that I have told her that I want so that she doesn't get me something I don't want.

What happens instead is that I don't tell her what I want and she tells me what she wants. I am the one with the surprise because she always gets me neat stuff, and she's the one who is happy because she knows she is getting the things she wants.

This Christmas, I learned that sometimes people don't know what they want until you give it to them. For example, this year my wife got me an ear and nose hair trimmer. My OCD has always driven me to spend lots of time in the bathroom several times daily "manscaping" because I get real satisfaction out of cleaning up my appearance. (Of course, the only way to measure how effective I am is to count the hairs that I pluck out of my ears, eyebrows, and nose. But I digress...)

I've seen these hair trimmers in the media for years, but I've always resisted getting one. Ironically, it's because I associated these devices with old men and I am not old even if I am 42. But after staring at this thing in its packaging for 2 weeks after Christmas, I finally opened it up; inserted the battery; and...found that I really like it.

Speaking of things that people may not know what they want, Apple announced the iPad last Wednesday. My concern is that Apple is known to think outside of the box, but sometimes this box is exactly what people want. They do hit the proverbial home run when they successfully show the public another box that they like even more (iPhone anyone?) though so this is a hard call to make.

Will it be able to compete against the Kindle replete with the blessing of the Almighty Oprah? While I am seeing more and more Kindles in the subways, I personally don't like the device much. My in-laws got me a 1st generation Kindle for Christmas in 2008 and, after deciding the user interface was extremely "clunky" (for lack of a better word) I shut it down; put it back in the box; and haven't taken it out since.

But the bigger question and one that is relevant is: is the public only interested in a reader or something more capable? Apple didn't announce a reader-only device, but is this what the people want? It's difficult to guess which way the tide will flow given the readily apparent shortcomings in the iPad's design: no camera; it's 3 times as heavy as the Kindle; there isn't a real keyboard; and the price is much higher than a Kindle especially if you want 3G support. (Wired recently ran an article entitled Ten Things Missing From the iPad. Go read it for more information.)

Ironically, while Apple is attempting to compete against the Kindle in the reader space, Amazon is going to go toe-to-toe with Apple in the applications space. Specifically, they announced that they have released an SDK for 3rd party applications to be developed. This is a huge mistake that will cost them in mindshare, in my opinion, because the display is far too slow to update. So unless 100% of the applications are content related (like the discussion about a Zagats port to the Kindle), people will quickly become disenfranchised with the concept and then, on a larger scale, the entire device. In other words, why should I stick with the Kindle when it has crappy applications when I can get an iPad with its immensely huge and popular App Store and a great reader included.

Oh, and did you know that Amazon has a Kindle e-book reader application for the iPhone? The iPad will run iPhone applications so Jeff Bezos better know what he is doing because in my opinion he is heading down a road he should not be. The one thing going for Amazon is that Electronic Arts has signed up to develop applications for the Kindle. While EA has a decent track record, they also have a few bombs under their belt so I'm not yet 100% confident that even they can pull it off.

To summarize all of this, I leave you with a quote by Richard Charkin, executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing in London. In a recent New York Times article, he says bluntly, "will Kindle pricing [for e-books] trump Apple sex appeal?" Good question indeed.

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