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28 April, 2011 - Source: McCann Manchester

Jim Rothnie, New Business Director, asks  ‘Is The Convergent Generation Disconnecting For Me-Time?’

  • Jim Rothnie
    Jim Rothnie
A recent survey by Silver Poll showed that it is the over 55s who are adopting e-reader technologies like Kindle. Six percent of over 55s own an e-book reader compared with five percent of 18-24 year olds. You may think this is an obvious development and argue that a) the numbers are still pretty small, b)the over 55s are more likely to read regularly and c) they have the time to do so.

Closer examination of the sales data shows this boom in the over 55s is part of a wider adoption across the population. Mintel estimates around 6.5M UK adults now have some form of e-reader and the Kindle is the most popular device with around one quarter of those downloading an e-book using the Amazon device. So the e-book looks like it is here to stay and will only gather more critical mass as time passes.

But if like me, you’ve spoken to any Kindle users recently, you might have spotted a potentially more interesting and less obvious technology trend and it looks like they’re taking a leaf out of the baby boomers book and re-working the sixties festival mantra to their own e-reader rallying cry “ tune out, turn off and drop out.

I’m afraid that the rather clunky phrase I’ve come up with to describe this trend is convergent disconnection, so let me explain in a little more detail.

Over the past fifteen years the consumer electronics industry has focused on bringing together information, communication and entertainment onto a single device, meaning we can access everything we want from something not much larger than a packet of cigarettes. In doing this technology manufacturers have ensured the term “convergence” has entered the everyday language of business and marketing.

Brands have been built, fortunes have been made and consumers have chased the next technology dream in a bid to have everything at their fingertips on a single piece of hardware.

Inevitably there have been some compromises along the way, and if like me you have numerous friends who are members of the geek fraternity, you will probably have been subjected to conversations like – “device x is great for email and as a phone, but no use for surfing the Internet and device y is fab for watching YouTube videos but does not have enough memory for holding all the photos I’ve taken.”

But recent years have seen many of the shortcomings ironed out and hardware like iPads are pretty damned good at doing everything from email to e-reading and it is in this latter area that things start to get interesting (albeit I accept they fall short on the phone front).

I happened to mention to one of our technology specialists that a number of friends (who were all significantly under fifty five) have recently acquired a Kindle e-reader.

The immediate reaction of my tech colleague was one of bemused horror and he enquired, “What did they do that for and why on earth didn’t they buy an iPad instead?” before subjecting me to sales pitch that would have put even the most ardent Apple brand evangelist to shame. So I went and spoke to my mini-focus group of Kindlers and I found some interesting stuff. So much so I’ve gone and rooted out a few more Kindle users because I think I’ve stumbled on something interesting in this convergent, always-on, always available society in which we live….

Pretty much everyone I spoke to who had bought a Kindle, admitted to really wanting an iPad and that price was not an issue. They also admitted it was beautifully designed and did all the stuff they’d want it to do and they even said they’d heard it was pretty good as an e-reader, citing things like the great screen etc. Admittedly most said the Kindle was lighter, but it looks like the recent unveiling of the iPad 2 with its mantra of thinner, faster, lighter may have headed off the one advantage the Kindlers could list in favour of the Kindle. So why the hell hadn’t they just bought the iPad?
The answer lies in the fact that despite listing all the benefits of the iPad they didn’t want to be always on, converged and connected.

If anything, they regard time with a book as time away from it all, time to lose themselves in a great read and time to avoid the distractions of email and consuming a multiplicity of content from different sources. And even though they’d chosen an e-reader, they still see the act of reading, even on an electronic device as time for disconnecting from the bustle of daily life

And it is for this reason that the Kindle won through and they all said they were worried they would succumb to temptation and struggle to switch off properly if they knew the device they were using was capable of accessing email, social networks etc.

That said, if you google web access for Kindle, you’ll discover it is possible, but according to most reviews it is not a great experience. So after years of chasing a convergent utopia, are consumers finally choosing to disconnect to spend some time away from the always on lifestyles we live?

If they are, and assuming my sample size is not a case of happy co-incidence, it opens up some interesting questions for technologists and marketers alike. If the success of e-readers and particularly the Kindle continues, the makers of these devices face some interesting choices about how they develop their products in future and what functionality they choose to add.

Equally if the act of convergent disconnection is a conscious decision by consumers, is this their way of telling technology companies and brands not to intervene in their personal space and if this is the case, how will technology companies and brands respond to this – will they respect the decision, or look to get round it in various ways?

And finally is this a form of information protest by consumers who are tiring of having all their data in the public domain (even though ironically Amazon captures a fair bit of data simply to allow you to use a Kindle)? At this stage I can’t give you a definitive answer, but I do think we’ll see a growing number of examples of consumers consciously switching off and going off grid in a bid to escape the daily pressures of everyday life. One example where this is already happening is mobile phone ownership. According to a variety of sources, around 40% of UK mobile users own multiple SIMs/ handsets which would suggest a growing number of people have business and personal mobiles.

It will be interesting to see where this might go because this is one of those cases where you think you might have spotted something – maybe the start of a trend. And if you’ve spotted similar trends I’d love to hear from you - and yes you can email me, but if I’m reading my Kindle I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to respond.
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