By BRETT ARENDS
As many as a million people are expected to stand in line to pay $500 or more for Apple (AAPL)'s
I didn't want to spend $500 for one of these gadgets. I didn't even want to spend $400 for last year's model.
So instead I went online and bought a brand-new tablet for a bit less.
The cost? Less than $200 ... and about 20 minutes of my time.
It's hardly a perfect comparison more on this below but the tablet is perfect for what I want. I'm not talking about one of those junk tablets from a Chinese website, either.
I bought a Barnes & Noble (BKS)
I wasn't really expecting it to work. I tried it as an experiment. But the results were remarkable.
The Nook Color, which was designed mainly for reading books and magazines, is about half the size of an iPad or a Xoom. It weighs about 30% less. It runs on WiFi, but not 3G. It has an absolutely superb screen. And, once you've unlocked the software, it runs most Android applications, from email to news readers to TweetDeck to, yes, Angry Birds.
It even, ironically, runs the Kindle app from Barnes & Noble's rival Amazon.com (AMZN)
Be aware that you perform this software hack entirely at your own risk. Barnes & Noble says it invalidates your warranty. The process ran smoothly for me, but when I read the Internet chat rooms, I found at least a few people had had problems. If it goes wrong, you're on your own.
Of course, it's hardly the same as an iPad or a Xoom or a Galaxy. It doesn't have any cameras. It has a slower processor. It's not for power users. The video support is pretty limited. And dedicated gamers will doubtless find it frustrating.
But as a basic tablet, it's absolutely fine for me and, I suspect, a lot of people. Indeed, I happen to prefer it to bigger rivals, because it actually slips into ny overcoat pocket. (I hate having to carry things around.)
All this leads to three financial thoughts.
The first is that Barnes & Noble needs to get the lead out and let people run these applications on the Nook Color without having to jail-break it. Obviously they want to block Amazon's Kindle app, because they want customers to buy books from BarnesandNoble.com. But why block everything else? Why should I have to invalidate the warranty in order to make their product more attractive?
They'd sell a lot more of these babies if customers could run email and Facebook and so on out of the box. (The minute I catch myself playing games on this thing, it goes on eBay (EBAY)
Barnes & Noble currently offers just a few applications, such as Pandora, the Internet music service. The company promises a full app store in due course. But it's been saying that since the product went on sale last fall. A company spokeswoman would only say yesterday that it is still "in the works."
Huh? Time is not this company's friend. It should be seizing the moment while it can. Barnes & Noble stock, which was north of $40 five years ago, closed Tuesday at $11.67, a 14-year low. Not even the travails of arch-rival Borders Group (BGP),
The second observation is that these tablets are going to become cheap, near-commodity items, and probably sooner than you think.
Think about this. Barnes & Noble a company that is, ahem, hardly in the forefront of technological innovation has managed to put together a pretty good Android tablet from scratch in short order, and is selling it for $250 (and even less if, like me, you catch a promotion). It's not a top-of-the-range model, but it does include a superb screen and analysts will tell you that's typically one of the most expensive parts of a tablet.
Investors in Apple, Motorola Mobility (MMI),
Count me as deeply Missourian about the long-term profits likely to come from this entire industry. In the short run, there may be fantastic money to be made. In the long term, tablets will be a dime a dozen. Every platform will have all the apps you need. Any brand or model is going to have a tough challenge maintaining a competitive advantage over another. Someday we're going to look back and laugh at the day when people thought tablets or smartphones were exciting and profitable businesses to be in.
If Barnes & Noble can do it, anyone can.
The third financial thought? This tablet saved me $200 compared to the cheapest of its competitors. No, it's not a king's ransom. And it was mainly just an experiment. But this is real money nonetheless. And, critically, it's worth more than many people think.
How easily we overlook the math. Money I save today will compound enormously by the time I actually need it, which will be when I retire. We are likely to spend 20 to 30 years in retirement, and as we all know the entitlements system is struggling with rocketing costs.
If investments earn an average return of about 5% above inflation over the next 30 to 35 years, that $200 I saved will grow by a factor of five. I'll have an extra $1,000 or so, in today's dollars, in my 70s.