Special offers?!? That sounds awesome! Where do I sign up? I wonder what the special offers are? And why is the Kindle that includes special offers less expensive than the same Kindle that doesn't have any special offers at all?
In what is likely to be one of the most questionable advertising campaigns of this holiday season — and one that might tarnish what looks to have been an otherwise flawless roll-out of the Kindle Fire color Android tablet — Amazon has rolled out an aggressive marketing strategy that includes various Kindle markets priced at very attractive points for the Christmas holidays.
The Kindle 3G (as a line and as a specific Kindle) offers one singular advantage — the ability to download a book over a free 3G "whisphernet" connection anywhere you can get a 3G signal, which is pretty cool. This $189 device also has an experimental browser, but honestly, browsing on a Kindle browser with an e-Ink display, even with free 3G, isn't a great pleasure. The 3G connection may be snappy, but the e-Ink refresh is pretty intolerably slow for web pages. Arguably, I think the 3G line will only appeal to people who really want to be able to download a new book, whenever and wherever they are, without having to find a local McDonald's, Starbuck's, or other Wi-Fi hotspot.
Next, we have the Kindle Wi-Fi. This device is $139, and it offers all of the same features as the more expensive 3G version. The only difference, as mentioned above, is that you have to find a Wi-Fi hotspot to download a new book. The only place I really see this being a hassle is if you're out camping in a very remote location and you decide at the last minute that you've got to read the latest NY Times #1 Best Seller. Heck, even in a case like that, what are the odds that you'll be able to get a 3G signal, anyhow? For $50 difference, I just can't see a lot of people making the 3G choice for an eReader with only a few basic tablet functions.
But then we've got the NEW Kindle Wi-Fi with special offers, which is priced at $114. What are these special offers? Does it come with free books? Maybe I get some free music downloads from the Amazon MP3 store or a premium streaming subscription from Pandora. How can they bundle special offers and yet sell the device for even less than the regular Wi-Fi Kindle? It sounds too good to be true.Because it is. These "special offers" that are included in the less expensive version of the Kindle Wi-Fi are advertisements. But the circular advertisements that are hyping the Kindle in anticipation of the coming Christmas shopping rush are ambiguous at best in making this clear and potentially unethically vague at worst.
There has already been a lot of discussion about the general concept of including advertisements in a subsidized Kindle, and the general consensus is that the way Amazon is approaching this isn't very attractive. You're saving about $25 on the initial purchase, and in return, you're agreeing to have a device that inserts "non-invasive and non-disruptive" advertising. It seems like you can opt-out later, and Kindle will disable the advertising and then charge you the difference.
I suppose the idea that you could buy the device, see if you can live with the advertisements, and later disable them (if not) makes sense. Why not save $25 in that case? There isn't any real risk. If you dislike the ads, turn them off and pay the difference between the ad-supported version and the normal $139 dollar version.
I'm not as put off by the general idea. I just think Amazon is handling the advertising and presentation of this proposal in a bad way. I think it may possibly blow up in their face and create something of a scandal. I think that it's all in their choice of wording. Really, why word it that way? It's sneaky, under-handed, and a little slimy. I can see less tech-saavy buyers purchasing this unit thinking that the special offers are some sort of "value-add" bonus. You know, a special offer is,
"Buy a Chevy Suburban today, and get a free microwave, TV, Minifridge, or iPad."
"Order before midnight tonight, and we'll double your order to two USB cupholders for the price of one — plus the sham-wow is yours to keep, even if you decide to return the cupholders."
"Buy this device and agree to get advertising delivered to it, and we'll charge you $25 less than the version that doesn't include ads."
The idea to insert advertising into the Kindle is already somewhat controversial. Amazon has gone to great pains to explain that the ads will not disrupt the actually reading experience — books won't have commercial interruptions. It's hard to imagine how Amazon managed to navigate all that trouble without realizing just what a potential powder-keg ad-subsidized devices are. You would think they would have learned from this and made sure that their advertising campaigns were clear and descriptive with little or no chance for consumers to misunderstand.
I'd think that based on these things, if I had been in the Amazon marketing group responsible for the Kindle, I would have probably called it "Advertising subsidized Kindle Wi-Fi" and explained it with some copy like,
"The new Advertising subsidized Kindle Wi-Fi has non-invasive advertisements from vendors and partners delivered to your device. In return for agreeing to have advertising delivered by use to your Kindle, we are able to lower the price of your Kindle hardware."
Maybe that's why I'm not in marketing. Every ad I've seen says,
"NEW Kindle Wi-Fi (with special offers)" with no further description of just exactly what "special offers" mean.
Let me know what you think. Is this simply a case of caveat emptor, or is this a case of a vendor being purposefully vague in a way that's probably going to come back to haunt them?
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.