Amazon Kindle Oasis: E-reader for the one percent

At nearly $300 to start, Amazon's flagship ebook reader device is no bargain. But that isn't why it exists. This is how $30 e-readers are made. Rich people and early adopters take the price hit for the rest of us.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
The author, at his Florida Oasis.

In the last two weeks, I've flown back and forth between Florida and the Pacific Northwest, with the Kindle Oasis as my main source of in-flight entertainment.

That kind of travel is enough to knock the hell out of you. Not surprisingly, it did. So I spent a few days convalescing in an Orlando hotel room with one of the worst colds I've ever had. A lot of bed rest, and in-between, a lot of reading. I'm still trying to recover from it.

With that many hours spent between sitting on your rear in a cramped aircraft (no first class upgrades for me this trip, unfortunately) and lying on your side feeling sorry for yourself, you begin to appreciate the amount of thought and design considerations Amazon put into this device.

I've already written at length about the target demographic Amazon chose to design a reader for at a $290+ price point. Duh, it's people with lots of disposable income. But why?

I mean, why design a product for such a limited target audience? Are there that many C-seats that want a $290+ executive Kindle? Does it justify the development cost and everything else that comes with it to bring a product like that to market?

Why not just improve the existing Voyage? Isn't $200 already outrageous enough for a single-tasking device?

Nobody needs an ultra-lightweight, ultra-compact, ultra-long battery life and ultra-reduced eyestrain Kindle. But if you're a serious reader, believe me, you want one.

Sure, the Paperwhite is more than good enough. The Voyage is that much better. No executive sitting next to you on an airplane is going to think you're riff-raff in Business Class for using one of those.

That goes even if you're reading a crappy pulp Sci-Fi novel from Kindle Unlimited instead of some heady business tome written by a Wall Street or real estate tycoon. Nobody can tell, believe me.

But man, if they see you with an Oasis? You must be somebody important. You are a dude with means. With gravitas. People are going to ask you about it, and who you are. And they do.

And I think that is the true purpose of the Kindle Oasis. It's an e-reader to be seen using just as much as it is to be the ultimate e-reader to use.

CNET Review: Kindle Oasis is best e-reader ever, but the sky-high price hurts its appeal

I don't see this as any different from owning some exclusive, limited edition sports car or a high-end ultralight laptop, or a super-expensive tablet computer when a less expensive model would suffice.

Do most people really use the full capabilities of those things? Nope. Are they super-prestigious to own? Yes they are.

Now let's think about that for a moment. "Prestige" and "Kindle" are two words that really aren't frequently associated with each other. Neither is "Prestige" and "Amazon". Sure, you think about Amazon as being highly customer-focused, perhaps innovative, a master of logistics even, but prestigious?

Look, you spend enough time in Bellevue, Washington, and you get to understand the psychology and environment that creates these Pacific Northwest, greater Seattle-area technology types.

I've been to the Shops at The Bravern and seen the Microsoft and Amazon people who visit the high-end stores and eat at the local fine dining restaurants.

These people have some serious disposable income. I think I saw more Tesla Model S P90Ds and Porsche 911 GT3 RSes than I did in my entire life last week.

Given Amazon's maturity and its wealth, and the environment in which these people exist, it's natural that the company wants to evolve and create products that fit that lifestyle.

It's the exact type of environment that fosters the stuff that gets made at Apple -- except instead of beautiful sunny Silicon Valley weather, Seattle is gloomy and miserable but has better coffee.

And when the weather is crappy, as it often is nine months out of the year -- as someone with that kind of disposable income, when you have free time, you visit coffee shops, buy $5 lattes, and sit down and read books on your $300 Kindle.

There is more to just vanity in the Kindle Oasis, though. It's a way for Amazon to take some risks with technology at reduced production volume and capture a loyal high-end market, while at the same time using it as a test-bed for lower-end products coming down the pike.

Technology adoption is just that. Test-beds. Your early adopters are the ones that are going to take the price hit. It was the same for the original Kindle that came out in 2007 that cost $400.

In 2007 the Kindle was frivolously expensive technology. It made no sense. It was stupid. I said as much, many times over the last eight years or so.

But the economics of volume production of the technology eventually won out, and now you can buy a reader device from Amazon for $79.99, sometimes even less when they are running promotions.

If you want the same 300dpi backlit screen technology that is in the Oasis, you can get it for $119 with the Kindle Paperwhite, which is probably the best value in e-reader devices right now. I've seen it on-sale periodically for as cheap as $99.

No, these devices aren't the Oasis. They aren't as light, they aren't as compact, they don't have as much battery life and the screen illumination isn't as perfectly even. But my point is that without early adopters to spend money on devices like that, those innovations don't trickle down to the average consumer.

This is also how Apple works, and this is how all technology innovation works, ultimately.

So the same people who can afford to drive the $120,000 Teslas, who shop at the Gucci store at The Bravern, and who eat $70 steaks at Daniel's Broiler -- these people are buying the $300 Kindles. And that's OK.

Because that's how $20,000 electric cars and $30 e-readers are made. Let the rich people take the hit first.

Is Amazon's innovation cycle financed by the one percent? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Editorial standards