When will tablets be given away for free? Perhaps before the end of this year


When we launched our Newspaper Extinction Timeline I noted that tablets similar to the iPad of today will cost less than $10 and given away for free by the end of the decade, a prediction that interviewers have frequently questioned me on since. 

I have since realized that tablets are likely to be given away far earlier than this, probably first bundled with content subscriptions. However it is not just publishers who would consider subsidizing the cost of a free tablet. Marketers may find it less expensive than traditional advertising to reach the right audience by giving them tablets which embed carefully presented messages. Consumer services companies such as banks could provide handy interfaces within tablets to embed and broaden relationships with select customers.

The following chart comes from John Walkenbach’s blog via Kevin Kelly, suggesting that Kindles will be given away for free by November 2011.

Source: John Walkenbach

Kevin writes:

I’ve mentioned this forecast to all kinds of folks. In August, 2010 I had the chance to point it out to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. He merely smiled and said, “Oh, you noticed that!” And then smiled again.

Kevin goes on to quote an old TechCrunch post which suggests that Amazon will give a free Kindle to all Amazon Prime subscribers, who pay $79 a year for a variety of benefits, and says:

I don’t know if this is Amazon’s plan, but it should be. It brilliantly feeds into Bezo’s long-term strategy of nurturing extreme customer satisfaction. What could be more satisfying that a free Kindle, free movies, and free 2-day shipping for $80 a year? If the past is any indication of future events, expect an as-if-free Kindle this fall in time for the holidays. Brilliant indeed!

A comment in the post points to an excellent article by John Lanchester in London Review of books titled Let Us Pay which says:

New York Times, if it stopped printing a physical edition of the paper, could afford to give every subscriber a free Kindle. Not the bog-standard Kindle, but the one with free global data access. And not just one Kindle, but four Kindles. And not just once, but every year. And that’s using the low estimate for the costs of printing.

At some point, the economic logic of this is going to become irresistible. To my certain knowledge, some newspapers have been discussing moves along these lines.

I think we can confidently predict that Amazon and perhaps others will before long offer free Kindles bundled with a subscription of some kind. It might take a little longer for that to happen with iPads, but I certainly wouldn’t exclude it happening somewhere in the world this year.

Of course where it gets more interesting is when tablets are given away to consumers without any ongoing commitment to pay, with the value to the giver provided by bundling some of the offerings mentioned above. That will take a little longer, but it’s a pretty safe prediction that it will happen by the middle of the decade – 2015 – rather than the end of the decade.