Amazon's Kindle Fire and the golden age of gadgets

Netflix, Apple, Google, Facebook: You're all on notice. Jeff Bezos is not messing around. Just ask Jane Austen

By Andrew Leonard

Published September 28, 2011 10:29PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
(Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

You would think, this deep into the 21st century, I would be used to the feeling, but it still grates: Barely a week after I gave my daughter a Kindle for her 17th birthday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent the consumer technology world into a tizzy by announcing a handful of new Kindle-related products -- including a rock-bottom-priced version of the flagship Kindle ($79!) and, even more intriguingly, an entry into the tablet space: the Kindle Fire. As I write these words, my daughter isn't even home from school yet, so she probably doesn't know she's already obsolete. I feel like a bad parent.

The oohs and ahhs on Twitter all morning have been deafening. With a seven-inch color screen, the Fire is designed to showcase Amazon's books, music, and rapidly expanding movie and TV offerings for a list price of only $199 -- about half of what an iPad costs. You can be sure that Netflix is looking over its shoulder with some consternation. First, Amazon announces a deal to stream Fox content, and then, unveils a gadget to do the streaming. Apple, for its part, suddenly has a competitor. Jeff Bezos: Genius, again!

Actually, I have no idea whether the Fire will be a hit or a dud, whether it will deal a death blow to a stumbling Netflix or have any impact at all on the amazing Apple. The only thing that is clear to me is that an astounding amount of innovation and rapid-fire product development is going on right now in the space where consumers intersect with digital entertainment. Music, movies, books -- when you want them, where you want them, at ever lower prices.

Even with unemployment over 9 percent, while those who have jobs are scrambling harder than ever just to keep them, the panoply of content-consumption options just continues to widen. Facebook's new deal with the music-streaming service Spotify means that I am now constantly exposed to what my friends are listening to on a realtime basis. Steve Jobs will announce the iPhone 5 next week. Google and Apple both appear to be following a strategy that will end up with us all storing everything we might possibly want in the "cloud," ready for us to summon with a snap of our fingers on our phones or tablets or tvs or toasters, no matter what we're doing. The pace is exceptional. Yesterday's marvel is today's also-ran. The world, in general, is plagued by sluggish economic growth, massive debt and infinite partisan idiocy, but by golly, it's the golden age of gadgets.

It's easy to cry overkill, to wonder if we really need all this convenience. Was it so horrible to go to the video rental store, or thumb through the pages of an actual paperback?

But then I recall my daughter's first download on her new Kindle. She was stunned to discover that the complete works of Jane Austen were available via Amazon for just 99 cents. Before breakfast, the morning after her birthday, she was snuggled up under her covers reading "Emma."

Jane Austen was born in 1775, the same year that James Watt perfected the first reliable steam engine -- the locomotive that propelled the world into the Industrial Revolution. Austen probably might have had a hard time wrapping her head around the mundane daily details of my daughter's life -- the texting, the DVR'ed episodes of Glee, the Skype chats and the (now archaic) iPod Nano playlists. But my daughter has absolutely no problem connecting with Austen's arch and delicious capturing of the human condition, despite two centuries of distance.

The import of Amazon's announcement on Wednesday is that it'll be cheaper and easier than ever to listen and read and watch whatever our heart desires. Now we just have to figure out the other part -- making sure that enough Austens bloom to fill up those devices with something worth consuming.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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