The Kindle’s assault on academia

Column: Amazon wants to corner the textbook market. But don't think it's gonna be easy.

Mark Lennihan/AP
The Kindle DX

Textbooks. The bane of a college student’s existence. Not only are they so expensive that one wonders why they aren’t printed in gold leaf, but the darn suckers weigh a ton. (This actually starts in earlier grades -- there are days when my kids’ middle school backpacks feel like they’ve stuffed an elephant or something in there.)

Well, wants to offer a souped-up version of its Kindle e-book reader as a solution.

Wednesday morning, Amazon CEO and wunderkind Jeff Bezos took to a stage at Pace University in Manhattan with Case Western University President Barbara Snyder to unveil the Kindle DX.

The DX will have a larger screen -- 9.7 inches as opposed to the 6 inches of the current model (the better to see charts and graphs with, my dear) and “a long-requested built-in PDF reader, and the ability to add annotations in addition to notes and highlights,” reports Engadget.

The device will sell for $489, as opposed to the $359 for the regular Kindle.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why Amazon wants to move in this direction. Student textbooks sales amount to $5.4 billion a year. Moving away from crushed ink on dead trees will help cut the costs of the tomes (by about a third, according to some experts) but we’re still talking about a large piece of a several billion dollar yearly market here.

Amazon also believes that the Kindle will encourage people to subscribe to newspapers in a digital form. The New York Times, Boston Globe [I’m alive! I’m alive!] and The Washington Post will offer the DX at a reduced price to readers where home delivery of those newspapers is not available.

I like the Kindle. But to quote Goliath the dog from an old TV show that I watched as a kid, “I don’t know, Davey.”

There has not exactly been an iPhone- or iPod-like frenzy over the Kindle since its inception. The reading device has sold well, but it’s not going to set any records. Its $359 price tag is a bit much for a device that basically does one thing. (For instance, my iPhone, which my wife got me for Christmas, cost $199. I use it to listen to Red Sox games, to my music, surf the web, as a news device, a game console, watch YouTube videos -- I can even access Kindle books on the iPhone.)

Now, imagine for a moment that you’re the parent of a college student. You’ve already shelled out $600 for a laptop and maybe an extra $200 for an iPhone. Are you really going to hand over another $489 for a Kindle?

That’s the problem Kindle faces. But it has to be said that Bezos is approaching it intelligently. Remember, people make the same “it’s too expensive” comments about pretty much every Apple product. The company went gangbusters into the education market and got a generation hooked on Macs and iPods. The rest is, well, the story of Steve Jobs’ bank account.

Along with Case Western, five other universities -- Pace, Princeton, Reed, Arizona State, and the University of Virginia -- have signed a deal with Amazon and the Kindle DX.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that some students “will be given large-screen Kindles with textbooks for chemistry, computer science, and a freshman seminar already installed, said Lev Gonick, the school's chief information officer.” The school will then compare the experiences of these Kindle students with those using traditional textbooks.

Even if the Kindle carries the day against textbooks, it still might not win the market. Competitors are already planning their own assaults on the ivy-covered walls of academia. Hearst, publisher of several newspapers, is working with a start-up that’s developing an e-reader. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. looks like it will invest in a Kindle competitor. Electronics display company Plastic Logic is also in the running.

Meanwhile, many think that the 800-pound gorilla of the mobile-device business, Apple, will have an Internet-ready e-reading device this summer.

Getting its foot in the door first is a good move by Amazon. But in the end, it will come to down price and convenience. And to be blunt about it, $489 is too much to pay for a Kindle, even if it means toting around fewer textbooks. I might one day buy my kids Kindles instead of printed textbooks, if the price is right. Right now it’s not. Let’s see what Amazon does about that before we give it an A in the education field.

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