Why I chose a crappy Kindle over the iPad for my kid

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on January 5, 2013

From The News Desk

I call my nine-year-old daughter "my entertainment on demand girl."

She, like her equally media-savvy six-year-old sister, was born into a media world vastly different from the one I knew. When I was a kid, the first shows I watched were in black and white. (When I told my daughter that she said, “That’s sad.”) I was teenager before we got color TV and didn’t dare jump around when we played music otherwise the record might skip. If I missed a show or movie on one of the seven broadcast channels we had in the early 70s, I was out of luck. There were no movie rentals, no streaming, no iTunes, no cable TV and its hundreds of channels, on demand movies and shows and the like. It was an 8-track tape world, baby!

Since then it’s as if everything has sped up. Now, between our cable company’s video on-demand, Netflix, Hulu and ordering DVDs from Amazon, we rarely have to wait. Streaming music through MOG or Spotify and our iPods mean we listen to our favorite songs wherever and whenever we want. Snap a picture or shoot a video and they can barely wait to review the footage through the viewfinder. On those rare occasions we watch broadcast TV, they’ll beg me to fast-forward through the commercials. Snail mail has become an anachronism.

For Christmas you might think I would have splurged on an iPad Mini for my daughter. After all, she and her sister love to play games like Angry Birds and Temple Run on the family iPad, or do puzzles, watch videos on Youtube, or visit the American Girl website. Instead, I bought her an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite.

These are not, of course, synonymous products. I’m used to the bigger, more expensive iPad, with the splashy graphics and video it supports, its zippy performance, its Swiss Army Knife versatility. In contrast the Kindle Paperwhite reminds me of a Palm Pilot or Mac laptop circa 1995. The screen is cramped, the pages turn oddly (there’s a quick fade in and out), the graphics practically prehistoric. The Kindle Paperwhite seems two-dimensional from a usability perspective while functionality-wise it’s one-dimensional. That’s fine, though, even for my cutting-edge offspring.

My daughter is a voracious reader. She’ll plow through a chapter book in a day, and they sure do pile up. What’s wonderful about the Kindle and its backlit screen is that my daughter can read in bed at night with the light off so she doesn’t bother her sister, and we can order books anywhere, anytime, and they don’t take up room. I synced her new account with mine (I read ebooks via the Kindle app on my iPad) and she has access to my family-inspired trove of Judy Blume, the Cam Jansen mystery series featuring a nine-year-old sleuth, and loads of other kids’ books.

But the real lure of the Kindle Paperwhite – at least for me as a parent ­– is that it is so mono-dimensional. No apps, no games, no music. I don’t worry about her encountering objectionable material on the web or viewing YouTube videos that could freak her out. Because all she can do on this particular Kindle is read. I didn’t want a Swiss Arm Knife. I wanted a simpler tool. This, however, means I’m going against the consumer grain. This past year e-reader sales dove 36%, according to IHS iSuppli, while iPad and other tablets continue to sell briskly. Not many of us, I suppose, are seeking single-function tablets.

I’m also aware that I have introduced my daughter to Amazon’s vast ecosystem. Our childhood experiences shape our expectations later in life, and my daughter’s generation is growing up with the expectation that entertainment should be available whenever they want it, wherever they are. As for me, I’m still surprised every time I can turn on the TV and find a movie to watch on demand.

Today, she is an Amazon user but I don’t worry that I’ve signed a lifelong commitment on her behalf. You see, music, which always seems to be a decade ahead of the book industry, has been moving away from per unit pricing to a subscription model. Once iTunes dominated my music purchases, but nowadays I, like millions of others, pay a monthly subscription fee (in my case to MOG). This could bust the iPod/iTunes cartel that has prospered for a decade (and why Apple might be planning its own music subscription service).

I wonder if one day Amazon’s book and ebook model could also find itself under similar attack. What if, say, Google or some other web giant decided to offer book subscriptions: subscribe and gain access to millions of books. Don’t worry about Amazon if that happens, by the way. Jeff Bezos has plenty of other stuff he can sell on his site.

As a mass consumer item ereaders are destined to join netbooks, those unloved, underpowered laptop imitators on the scrap heap, but for now I’m grateful there’s one niche they serve: parents like me.