Cory Doctorow, writer, entrepreneur, Boing Boing blogger and copyright activist, offers an interesting insight into the economics of supply and demand in “Put Not Your Faith in Ebook Readers,” Locus Magazine Online. Discussing the Wii and Kindle holiday shortages Doctorow makes the point that that no matter how strong the demand for these items (especially the Wii), China’s factories are so busy making everything else Nintendo and Amazon simply couldn’t get it done.
You can bet that even as the Wiis were disappearing from the shelves, frantic buyers from Nintendo were camping out in the factory cities of Guanzhou and Shenzen, cajoling, threatening and begging for more capacity to make more devices before the Wii’s moment in the sun passed, eclipsed by the next surprise-hit console.
As, no doubt, were the Kindle’s masters — wheedling to get more units out the door in time to meet the Christmas rush, to ride the PR wave the Kindle caught from its (expensively promoted) launch.
It’s telling that neither of the companies could outbid enough competitors to get units out the door in time. Not surprising, but telling. After all, getting good manufacturing out of a Chinese factory requires great care in your sourcing — neither Nintendo nor Amazon wanted to flood the market with defective, rushed units with crummy build-quality that would give the products a hard-to-shake reputation as a lemon.
China has experienced the largest migration in human history — 160,000,000 people moved from the inland farms to the coastal manufacturing cities — but it is not endless. Most of the world has shut down most of its factories, shuttering domestic manufacturing capacity in favor of the cheap labor, poor working conditions and environmental controls of China’s factory cities. When you go to China to get your Kindle or your Wii produced, you’re competing for space among the factories that produce socket wrenches, Happy Meal toys, laptop computers, prison cafeteria trays, decorative tin planters, vinyl action figures, keychain flashlights and cheap handguns.
Is this opportunity for American manufacturers? Doctorow doesn’t think so, but he does offer that this is opportunity for the ingenious:
If you’re someone with a smarts, passion and vision, you can easily source some hackers to bang up an e-book business to run on a PC, phone, or other handheld (note that in the world of phones and handhelds, a substantial portion of the manufacturers take pains to stop you from running software on their devices, as Apple did with the iPhone, but it’s not illegal to defeat these measures and plenty of people do so).
Hackers are a commodity. Devices are a commodity. High-quality factories are not.
Doctorow’s main point is that eBook readers are not the wave of the future, however, for this rust belt blogger the main point is:
Even minority pass-times can be real business and real culture — does it really matter that only mumble-mumble percent of Americans read a book last year if the total number of book sales still topped mumble billions? If you’re a writer whose take-home slice of those sales was enough to cover the mortgage and food for the cat, there’s nothing at all wrong with living in the niche.
So, at this month’s PTA meeting I will be asking the question – will you teach my child to hack?