Amazon recently released a version of its wi-fi Kindle e-reader for $114, $25 less than the regular price -- but the tradeoff is that the "Kindle with Special Offers" displays advertising on its home page and as a screensaver when the device is not in use. Amazon officials say the ads will not appear when you're actually reading a book and won't disrupt your reading process. Amazon said the ads would include occasional deep discount offers, such as buying an Amazon gift card for half its face value.
You've also still got the option of paying the regular price for the ad-free wi-fi Kindle. The 3G Kindle, which is $50 more than the wi-fi version, doesn't yet have an ad-supported option.
The announcement of the ad-supported Kindle generated comments and discussions online. Is $25 enough of a discount between the ad-supported and ad-free versions? What are you worth to advertisers as a consumer? Would Amazon have been bettter off getting the price down to $99, for example, for the psychological advantage of a double-digit price?
Some months back, I heard a tech writer predict, in all seriousness, that Amazon would eventually give away some Kindles for free, either to members of its Amazon Prime shipping plan or perhaps through a book club format that would require the customer to buy a certain number of e-books each year. This could be a first step in that direction.
It will be interesting to see how the e-reader market competes with the growing tablet market over the next few years. A tablet, like the iPad, is much more versatile, running a wide variety of applications and including features like cameras and touchscreens. But they're also much more expensive, costing hundreds of dollars, and require you to sign up for a monthly data plan from a cell phone provider if you want 3G access.
E-readers like the Kindle and the black-and-white version of Barnes & Noble's Nook are much less expensive, and their available-light displays are supposed to be much easier on the eyes, but their primary focus is reading text -- making them, in practical terms, single-task devices.
So buyers have to decide whether to spend $114 (or $139 or $189) on a single-purpose Kindle or $499 (or $599 or $699) for a multi-purpose iPad, or one of the competitors for either device.
Nook is splitting the difference by offering a color, backlit e-reader for $249, somewhat more colorful and versatile than its black-and-white cousins and yet less expensive than a full-featured tablet.
Kindle, meanwhile, is hedging its bets by positioning itself as a service, not just a device. Kindle apps are available for phones and iPads and PCs, so you can still use the Kindle store to buy books for your iPad. If you own both a Kindle and and iPad, or maybe if you upgrade from one to the other, all the books you bought for your Kindle are part of your Kindle account, and you can read them on your iPad (or many other devices) just by installing the appropriate Kindle app. Nook is now moving in the same direction.
As I wrote here a few weeks back, I've been seeing more iPads and Kindles and Nooks out in the community, and their owners seem so far to be very happy with them. It's going to be interesting to see how this market develops, and how it changes the way we consume books, newspapers, magazines and web sites.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.