Over the past week, readers have sent me a lot of comments and questions related to a trio of products: the Amazon Kindle, Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, and the Wii Virtual Console. Though none of these is itself worth writing about, taken as a whole they make an interesting combination. They represent part of a paradigm shift, a move toward on-demand digital entertainment.

Amazon Kindle
Earlier today, Jeff Bezos announced the Amazon Kindle, the latest attempt to persuade us that E-books are the wave of the future. I’m not convinced. I want to like the Kindle, but despite its promise to replace the paperback, not because of it.

The Kindle is a $400 electronic device full of whiz-bang technology. It wirelessly connects to the Amazon store, where users can choose from nearly 100,000 different books (priced at $10 or below). It can also download newspapers, magazines, and websites. It lets users annotate books, lets them search the text, lets them alter the font size. In a way, it’s like an iPod for the printed word.

These things are all keen, but I’m not inclined to buy one. I’m a bibliophile. I love books. But I don’t want to purchase another gadget to carry around, especially one that restricts the way I read. I know from reading books on a computer that it’s very difficult to jump from chapter one to chapter twelve and then back to chapter six to cross-reference something. I can’t put sticky notes on the pages inside a Kindle. (Annotations are nice, but not quite the same thing.) Other advantages for books:

  • I can read a book in the bathtub.
  • If I drop a book — which I sometimes do — it’s not going to break.
  • My books don’t run out of power.
  • When I’m finished with my books, I can loan them to friends. Or sell them.

I’m not saying the Kindle is a bad thing, or even that it’s going to flop. But I’m wary of it. For more information on this new toy, read Stephen Levy’s article in Newsweek. (And be sure to watch the video embedded in the article — it does a great job of conveying how the Kindle works.)

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited
I collect comic books. When Marvel Comics unveiled its new digital subscription service last week, I received a flood of reader e-mails asking me what I thought it. As with the Kindle, I’m ambivalent. As with the Kindle, I have no plans to sign up just yet.

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited offers subscribers access to thousands of web-based comics for only $5/month. Though the site’s selection is limited at the moment, it is sure to grow. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see nearly every Marvel comic ever produced integrated into the site.

Sounds like a comic geek’s dream, right?

Well, not quite. I admit that the $5/month price tag is very generous. For about the cost of two comic books, users have access to an assortment of back issues. What’s not to like?

  • The comics are available via web access only. This is extremely limiting.
  • Users don’t actually own the comics — the monthly fee allows them to browse a virtual library of sorts, a library where they have access to all the content. But when the service is cancelled, that access goes away.
  • Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited suffers from the Netflix effect. You have to use it to get value from it. If I subscribe, read a bunch of comics for a week or two, and then forget about it, I’m going to get dinged $5 every month.

I’m not opposed to reading comics on a computer. But for now, I’m going to continue acquiring DVD-based material. Web-based comics just aren’t my thing.

Wii Virtual Console
The Nintendo Wii offers a service called the Virtual Console, which allows users to download old video games for a nominal fee. You might, for example, pay $5 for the original Super Mario Brothers from 1985.

Justin wrote to ask: “I was curious what you think of the Virtual Console from a frugality standpoint. One one hand it encourages money spending, but on the other hand, it allows you to buy cheap, older games, as opposed to new, expensive Wii games.”

I love the Virtual Console. I love that it’s not subscription based. I love that you own the game once you’ve downloaded it. I love the cheap prices. $5 for Super Mario Brothers? Count me in. $10 for Mario Kart 64? That’s a bargain, and will tide me over while I wait for Mario Kart Wii.

As Justin suggests, however, the danger with something like the Wii Virtual Console is that you’ll pay to download games that you’ll never use. My solution? I only download games I know I will play. I don’t download games just to have them — they’ll always be there later if I change my mind.

If used responsibly, the Virtual Console provides tremendous value. It can help save you money by eliminating the urge to buy expensive new games. But if you simply download a whole bunch of games and never play them, then it’s a waste.

Final thoughts
There was a time in the not-too-distant-past when I would have been all over every one of these services. I would have been happy to pay $400 for the Kindle or $5/month for unlimited comics.

But lately I’m much more cautious about expenses like these. I try to imagine how the things I purchase will fit into my life. Will I use them? Will I derive value from them commensurate with the cost? Or would I be wasting my money? Of the three services I’ve explored here, I believe the Wii Virtual Console is the only thing that’s going to give me my money’s worth. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kindle is a runaway bestseller.

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