Columns > Published on November 28th, 2011

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 Amazon.com 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...

About the author

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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