The price of an ad-free digital experience

Amazon offers several different Kindle devices, including a $79 model that has built-in ads.

Story highlights

  • Author: We have to decide whether we're willing to pay for what we now get for free
  • He must choose between a $109 Kindle and a $79 model with built-in ads
  • Ads sometimes follow him online, based on his search history
I've never had a choice like this before.
I was doing some holiday shopping online earlier this month. On the left of my screen was a basic Kindle e-reader for the modest price of $79. On the right was the identical Kindle e-reader for the higher price of $109.
Same screen. Same buttons. Same functions. One difference. And Amazon is very transparent about this.
The $79 Kindle comes with what Amazon calls "Special Offers & Sponsored Screensavers," which appear as screensavers and at the bottom of the home screen. "They do not interrupt reading," Amazon says.
The $109 version, on the other hand, is ad-free.
Which one would you choose? How much extra would you pay to keep out the ads?
The ad that follows me
We all know what's at stake here. I'm not paranoid. A paranoid person is someone who thinks he's being followed. I KNOW I'm being followed.
The other day I visited a website to check out a piece of jewelry for my wife. I liked one particular product so I found my way to that link. But I wasn't really sure about it. So I didn't buy it.
A couple of minutes later, I logged on to my Yahoo e-mail account. And there, on the right side of the screen, was a little advertisement for the product I had just visited and the link to take me there.
I am being followed by a piece of jewelry.
I'm told the company that sells the jewelry doesn't know my name. To them, I'm just a series of computer codes which allow a piece of software to follow me.
That same ad popped up on a number of occasions for the next day or so. I think the jewelry seller has given up now.
But I've had the same experience with other online searches, followed by the very same links popping up on my computer.
I don't think these companies are doing anything wrong to try to reach me. They're not saying: "Buy this -- we know where you live." Although they do know where I live online.
They're just saying -- well, they're saying what a shopkeeper once said to me 26 years ago in the souk of Old Jerusalem.
'Don't think'
The year was 1985. I had stopped by this man's open-air shop and casually admired a Turkish coffee set he had for sale.
He immediately named a price. I really did not want to buy the coffee set. I was simply admiring it.
He quickly lowered his price. I said, sincerely, I really wasn't interested.
He asked me to name a price. I said let me think.
Please, he said, name a price. I said, I'm thinking.
After another exchange like this, I quickly walked away.
Ten seconds later a boy tapped me on the back. Pointing to the shopkeeper, he relayed this message: "He said to tell you, 'Don't think.' "
That's all that's happening now. Some shopkeeper is following me from link to link -- following my electronic footprints.
My Kindle tradeoff
So fast forward 26 years, and here I was at this computer in my office, looking at Kindles. Yes, I was shopping at work (it was a short break).
That Kindle shopping excursion forced me to think about what I value. In this case, it's what I value for my son, who's in elementary school. He's the one who would be receiving the Kindle for the holidays.
And the last thing I want for him is to get "The Call of the Salesman" before he reads "The Call of the Wild."
I could afford the extra $30 to give him that pure experience of picking up a great book with no distractions. So I paid the premium for a Kindle without ads.
I don't begrudge the advertisers. Their dollars ultimately pay my salary, and maybe yours too.
But each of us has to figure out whether we're willing to pay for what we now get for free. The e-mail services. The search services. The social-networking tools. All paid for by giving advertisers direct access to us.
It's a tradeoff. And the Kindle is forcing us to evaluate that tradeoff and put a price tag on it.
Whatever happens, there will always be someone there to tap us on the back and tell us: "Don't think." Everyone has to make a living.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Schulder.