The Kindle Fire and the Betamax Problem: Confessions of an Early Adopter

Indulge me, if you would, in the telling of an everyday anecdote.

Last week I tried to buy some replacement brush heads for my electric toothbrush. I don’t know if you’ve ever used one, but they make it a lot easier to do a good job of scrubbing up your dental hardware. Alas, the heads wear out, just like a regular toothbrush, so you have to buy replacements. Much as with certain brands of unfeasibly over-bladed razors, a set of three new brush heads can cost you almost as much as the toothbrush did...

… provided you can find ones to fit the model of brush you invested in, that is.

Many things can prevent you from being able to find the right heads- from the manufacturer cynically killing off a series of models in order to shift a wave of new ones, to availability issues (“our supplier doesn’t carry those, sorry”), to poor take-up leading to the gradual withering and/or abandonment of a product line. The one thing that unites them is this: they all stop you from getting the best - or perhaps even anything - out of that toothbrush you bought.

So, what do you reckon to the Kindle Fire, huh?

That question remains, for me at least, an academic one. Amazon have yet to announce when the Fire will launch in the UK, though the price difference on the new “basic” Kindle suggests that -- after waiting with the quiet desperation that Roger Waters rightly called out as being “the English way” -- we will be shafted just that little bit harder for the privilege than our friends across the pond. In the meantime, maybe I could get one of the numerous Android-based tablets that are popping up all over the place... or even renege on my refusal to buy Apple hardware and get myself an iPad!

I could do any of these things, but despite being a card-carrying technophiliac and lover of gadgetry, I’m not going to buy a tablet any time soon. I’ve been burned too often by the “early adopter” habits I inherited from my father, who got into computing as a career back in the days when it took a machine the size of a terraced house to pull off the sort of stuff your wristwatch can do today. Early adopters are cursed, but we’re a godsend to the consumer technology industry: they know that we’ll rush out and buy the first iteration of The Brand New Shiny!, only to surf the queasy waves of buyer’s remorse six months later when a competing product is launched to great fanfare, with twice the features in a sleeker form-factor, at almost half the price.

Put it this way: ours was a Betamax household.

The salutary message of the video-cassette format wars is well worth revisiting. In many ways, Betamax was a superior format to VHS: smaller form factor, more advanced end-user functionality, wider range of applications (and hence integrated ranges of products for such), extended and enhanced format iterations. Trouble is, the majority of folks bought VHS anyway. Even before the end of the eighties rolled round, it was all over bar the shouting. Betamax had become much like my orphaned electric toothbrush, its long-term utility attenuated thanks to lack of market support.

We take a gamble every time we buy a piece of high technology: a phone, a laptop, a tablet. What initially seems a simple choice between a small set of models, informed by an equally simple set of functionality requirements and aesthetic preferences, is actually a complicated spread-bet on the future evolution of technology. When you buy a mobile handset, you’re not just choosing the phone itself: you’re choosing an operating system (and, at one further level of abstraction, a philosophy of software deployment and customer [dis]empowerment as held by the phone’s manufacturer), and you’re probably also choosing a carrier to be locked into for at least a little while (by which time your bleeding-edge handset will feel like you lifted it from the paleontology exhibit at your local museum). Tech-biz types call this layer-cake of choices “the stack”, and it’s a lot like choosing to invest unknowingly in one faction of an invisible and bloodless many-sided ideological war of territory and attrition. You know, a little like voting.

Going back to the matter of tablets, at first glance the Kindle Fire looks like a good sweet-spot compromise between cost and functionality; I’m kinda glad it’s not out over here yet, because I’d have probably caved in and pre-ordered one by now. But I’ve held off getting any model of Kindle up to this point because I’m innately wary of proprietary file formats and walled-garden content delivery systems; the very same reasons I refuse to buy Apple kit, in fact. The prospect of building up a library of eBooks only to suddenly find that a sudden change in terms and conditions prevents you from using them in some way or another is all too real, as is finding, a few years down the line, that dwindling sales of your preferred platform have left you hunting for anecdotal toothbrush heads that no one sells any longer.

This is why I don’t intend to use this column as a soap-box from which to recommend any one device, service, or piece of software over another. I can’t tell you what’s best for you, because I’m not you, and I can’t see into the future. All I can do is impart the hard-earned bitterness of the recovering early adopter, exhort you to base your own decisions on as much research and personal reflection as you have time for... and advise you to be philosophical when you find yourself saddled with a two-year-old tech turkey. There are no one-size-fits-all answers; as the late and much-missed Doctor Thompson said, “buy the ticket, take the ride”... and accept that you won’t always end up where you’d hoped to be.

What I can do is tell you what works for me, and how I came to make those choices. But we’ll save that for next time.

PostScript: Well, it's CyberMonday, and Amazon's busily patting itself on the back: "best Black Friday ever" for the Kindle family, apparently, and the Fire itself has been the bestselling item at for the last two months. However, as TechCrunch points out, if you're waiting on some hard sales metrics, you'll be sorely disappointed; Amazon never gives out actual numbers. The reason as to why that might be the case is left as an exercise for the reader...

Paul Graham Raven

Column by Paul Graham Raven

Paul Graham Raven writes fiction and non-fiction, and leaves it to his editors to decide which is which; he'll be studying for a Master's in Creative Writing at Middlesex University from the autumn of 2011. He's also editor in chief of the SF/futurist webzine Futurismic, a reviewer of books and music, a cack-handed post-rock guitarist, and in need of a proper haircut."

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Karina's picture
Karina from UK/Hong Kong is reading the usual trash November 28, 2011 - 2:24pm

One word: Calibre.  Your proprietary format worries will turn to dust.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this November 28, 2011 - 2:27pm

I had the same extact problem with my toothbrush a few weeks ago!

mavtj's picture
mavtj from London is reading Burnt Tongues / The Living Dead / way too many craft essays November 28, 2011 - 3:51pm

Q1: Did you opt for Philips electric toothbrush over over the Braun...?

Q2: Favourite post-rock band?

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. November 28, 2011 - 6:06pm

I don't mind early adopter guilt as long as it's cheap for the product (which I consider the Kindle Fire to be).  I want one soooo bad.

Jason Van Horn's picture
Jason Van Horn from North Carolina is reading A Feast For Crows November 28, 2011 - 10:24pm

I held off on buying an eReader for the longest time as I like the feeling of a book and liked to imagine owning a library one day stocked with books. But it came to the point where the price had gone down so much and the ease at which you could buy a book was a big selling point too. Books like 1Q84 I can either buy at the local Barnes and Noble at a high price or get it on Amazon and wait for it to be sent. With the Kindle Fire I don't have that issue. I thought about not getting the Fire because I didn't think I'd use it for anything but its books, but I like dabbling with its game apps, doing a quick look on the web, and watching some videos too (have the free month of Amazon Prime to fool with).

But I've noticed some things too that I didn't expect going into the purchase:

1) I like being able to sample chapters to get a taste for what a book might read like

2) I like being able to easily see the definition of a word instead of just having to read it and pass over it with no idea what that meant

3) I find the act of reading less daunting when you're looking at a single page at a time and you're not holding a massive Under The Dome size book and all you can see is all those pages to come. It's stupid to say, but I read more for the moment than the future

So I'm very pleased with my Kindle Fire and surprisingly so.

Nathan's picture
Nathan from Louisiana (South of New Orleans) is reading Re-reading The Soul Consortium by Simon West-Bulford November 28, 2011 - 11:06pm

Kindle Fire's good for what it is, but if you want one for Reading -I'd say go with the new Kindle Touch 3G or the Kindle DX. 

That's speaking to E-Readers only. I was in the fortunuate position of being able to test out the two (Kindle Touch 3G vs. Kindle Fire), and Fire is black lit vs. the e ink screens that make the novels so cool to read on a Kindle. Granted, the black lit screen is not as bad on the eyes as everyone thought it would be, but it's still not as good -especially if you read for hours and hours. That's the thing.

Also speaking to reading for hours, Kindle Fire has a low battery life, not even 10 hours whereas with Kindle 3G, you can go a week to 2 on your couch through books without a care.

Fire doesn't look the best in bright sunlight, either, and that may not be a concern to those who don't read in the sun, but you don't have that problem whatsover with Kindle 3G. 

Color and Magazines seems to be the big thing with Fire, and yeah while it's kind of cool, it's kind of not if you've tried reading one. 

I'm not saying Kindle Fire is a bad device -but for an E-Reader, the new Kindle 3G Touch is superior and built specifically for that purpose.

I'm also thinking Fire is the first of many different, cooler devices to come -where next year you'll have a Kindle Fire 3G, or a Kindle Fire 3G that can switch between black lit to e-ink somehow. If you want apps, color, and games, or a cheap tablet -Fire's good. If you're getting it just for reading novels, go with the new Touch 3G or DX. 

Nathan's picture
Nathan from Louisiana (South of New Orleans) is reading Re-reading The Soul Consortium by Simon West-Bulford November 28, 2011 - 11:12pm

Some say Kindle 3G Keyboard is the best of all, but I've never used that and I think these companies are all trying to phase out the keyboards on these devices. 

Paul's picture
Paul from Velcro City, UK is reading as much of his Masters course reading list as he can cram into the day November 29, 2011 - 8:38am


One word: Calibre.

Oh, I know Calibre... and if converting a format is going to be *that* much hard work, I'll stick with the dead-tree version! And while that may fix (or rather "kludge a way around") the proprietary format issue, it doesn't fix the walled garden issue...


Q1: Did you opt for Philips electric toothbrush over over the Braun...?

Braun Sonic, which - as far as I can tell - must have been discontinued. Can't find heads anywhere. *shrug*

Q2: Favourite post-rock band?

That's a bit like "who's your favourite author"; changes depending on what mood you're in, doesn't it? :) Been listening to If These Trees Could Talk and Don't Mess With Texas a fair bit in the last week, though; good music to ride the Tube to.


I don't mind early adopter guilt as long as it's cheap for the product (which I consider the Kindle Fire to be).

This is true, and like I say, if they were available on this side of the pond I'd have probably ordered one by now - it'd make managing the reading list for my Masters a damned sight easier, that's for sure!

But low price is a warning sign, also; means they're very confident (to the extent of betting the farm on it) that the walled garden is going to recoup the loss they've taken on the hardware. Plus there's the need to get a big enough population into the walled garden, so that it picks up sufficient momentum to make it pay its own way; Amazon's learned a lot from watching the success of the iTunes set-up, and -- for me at least -- anything modelled on the way Apple does things is potentially toxic and to be avoided. Your mileage, of course, may vary. :)

@Jason, @Nathan:

Yeah, plenty of good points there, especially re: e-ink vs. back-lit. What worries me about "pure" ereaders is that convergence is a given over the long term. Give it five years, and the tablet, ereader, laptop and cellphone markets will have overlapped to a significant degree, menaing a standalone one-function piece of hardware will be obsolete... and once a walled-garden device goes obsolete, you can kiss goodbye to any lasting support for it. (Hey kids, can you spell "Zune"?)

So convergence is the reason the Fire is the first ereader I'd consider buying, because it's a portal to a whole range of cloud content (not just books but movies and music), and - being an Android device - can presumably run the handful of apps I'd need a tablet to run in order for it to become my complete reading solution (mostly notetaking stuff like Evernote; if I have to keep using a pen and a notebook alongside my reading hardware, well, I haven't gained much over the old set-up).

So, yeah - in a nutshell, bitter old bastard with burned fingers, right here. :)

Thanks for the comments, folks.

Nathan's picture
Nathan from Louisiana (South of New Orleans) is reading Re-reading The Soul Consortium by Simon West-Bulford November 29, 2011 - 2:16pm

@Paul -Hence, the newer iphones -Yeah, I'm glad you brought up convergence because that's right on. You definitely can't dispute the fact that all these devices are headed in one direction toward an end result that allows you access your e-reader, your music player, your phone and your internet from the palm of your hand. It's exciting, but for me in the mean time, that be end be all device has to be superior to what the individual devices are still offering. If my Fire is an inferior e-reader to latest e-ink device or if my Fire craps out on me after 6 to 7 hours of travel between flights whereas my Touch 3G will last me my whole round trip, then as a reader, I'm more attracted to quality and convenience. I think 3G is also a thing for me. I like the idea of being able to buy and download a book from wherever I am at anytime vs. having to wait and locate a wi-fi location. I imagine if they release a Fire 3G, with decent battery life that can compete with the e-ink devices, on top of the "color" magazine aspect being a little smoother, then you're talking -"Fire" type devices will start to take over. It's inevitable. And for music too -right now Fire is only 8G vs. ipod Classic with 160GB, but like you're pointing out -"Cloud" technology will start to take care of those storage issues. It just has to be proven in the consumer's mind -But it's only a matter of time and for apps and other purposes, Fire's definitely a good tablet.