What is Amazon thinking with its crazy-expensive e-reader?

By Hayley Tsukayama

Kindle Oasis. Photo / Amazon
Kindle Oasis. Photo / Amazon

Amazon's Kindle Oasis, released Wednesday, has a US$290 price tag -- and, at least to me, offers some interesting cues about how the company's hardware strategy has evolved.

Amazon justifies Oasis' price tag by noting its high-end industrial design and the leather charging case, which doubles as an extra battery. It's the luxury level of the e-reader, the digital equivalent to the leather-bound, hardcover edition of a book that you could buy in paperback for $5. It's up for pre-order now and is set to ship in "coming weeks." Amazon's product page says it should be out on April 27.

But who will buy it?

It's a hefty price for an e-reader, to be sure. Amazon does not disclose sales figures for its Kindle readers, but chances are the Oasis won't become Amazon's best-selling model anytime soon. Still, the marketing around the device is telling. In addition to using the top buzzwords to sell devices today -- thin and light -- Amazon has also put up a video of apparently average book lovers testing out the Oasis.

They heap high praise, calling the Oasis "insanely thin and light" and, in fact, proclaiming it to be "magic." I can't believe those words were chosen randomly. After all, does that vocabulary sound like the way ordinary consumers talk?

What the marketing indicates is that the Kindle Oasis is the device for which Amazon is finally ready to go full-on Apple: unapologetically stylish, premium and, yes, expensive.

Amazon doesn't often go for the high end when it releases hardware. In fact, e-readers may be the only product line where the company can make a luxury play, given that it essentially dominates the space.

Even with its latest ground-breaking product, the home voice assistant known as the Amazon Echo, the company has already figured out a way to make that technology cheaper (and therefore more accessible) to the average customer by introducing lower-priced products.

Other plays for the luxury market, or even the affordable luxury market, have produced mediocre results for Amazon at best (see its high-end Fire tablets that tried to go toe-to-toe with the iPad) or downright disasters (the Fire Phone).

In most other product categories, Amazon has gone back to the middle of the market, or even to the lower end -- think of the six-pack of Fire tablets it introduced last fall -- and kept to a strategy of making money off the content it sells through devices -- such as movies, music and other books -- rather than off the hardware itself.

The Oasis tries to distinguish itself from its less expensive siblings by its metallic construction, its lightweight design and an extremely long battery life.

The Kindle, however, has been the exception to that rule. While most of the e-readers do little more than just offer a great screen and a long battery life for reading books -- the cheapest one, at $79, barely offers a way to surf the Web -- the simple devices have proven popular. And, notably, Amazon has steadily introduced higher-priced models over time.

The Oasis tries to distinguish itself from its less expensive siblings by its metallic construction, its lightweight design and an extremely long battery life (the Oasis can go months without a charge). The display is bright -- it has Amazon's Paperwhite technology -- and makes reading on a screen easy on the eyes. It's also weighted so that it feels like you are holding an actual book with a spine in your hands, rather than a tablet. In other words, it should feel comfortable to hold and read for a long period.

But beyond these features, the Oasis shows perhaps more than any other piece of hardware that Amazon hasn't quite given up on trying to be a company admired as much for its devices themselves as for what those devices allow us to do.

- Washington Post

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