Archive for the ‘ Gadgets ’ Category

Apple is making headlines again. I am sure you have heard the buzz that Apple this week rejected Sony’s eBook reader application for the iPhone. Yeah, quite the bummer, I know.

Instantly after it became known that Apple rejected the app people began to discuss the ramifications of that move. It would seem at this point that Apple rejected the app in an attempt to curb in competition for their own iBookstore. It does go a little deeper, however. The issue in question here is that Apple does not want distribution channels to cut them out of the revenue stream. When readers buy books through the Kindle app on the iPhone for example, they buy them directly from Amazon and Apple is seeing not a cent of that transaction.

Apple, with a bit of a sore loser attitude here, wants to change that and the rejection of the Sony reader was based on that issue. Somehow, Sony will have to find a way to channel sales through their reader app through iTunes to make sure Apple will make some money also. They become a middle-man all of a sudden. A quantity no one had counted on, and it certainly won’t make them popular among the distributors or the publishers, especially when this procedure will trickle down to Amazon’s Kindle reader software also — and it will, there I have no doubt.

As an author I am paying Amazon already to sell my book, now I will have to pay Apple on top of it if a reader buys a book through the iOS Kindle reader. Not a very pleasant prospect. If you take a 99 cent book, for example, Apple will take 30% off the top of that, leaving 70 cents for Amazon. Amazon then takes a whopping 70% off the top of that, leaving a ridiculous 20 cents to be paid to authors.

If you take a $2.99 eBook, for example, the monies paid to authors will be a mere $1.46, instead of the $2.10 they would otherwise receive. Notice, how in all these transactions Apple would be to make more money than Amazon, actually, given current royalty structures.

Like I said, Apple is not going to make a lot of friends with this, I guarantee it. And hey, why stop there? An eBook reader is nothing more than a specialized web browser – eBooks are based on on HTML formats – and as such, the purchases themselves are nothing more than web transactions. So, why stop here? Why not force all web transactions to pay its dues to Apple? Imagine how much money you could make if you would skim of monies on top of every transaction initiated through an iOS device… or, what the heck, every Mac even? Yeah, corporate greed is a glorious thing…

A move like the one Apple just initiated is not entirely surprising, however. In their own way, Apple completely botched the iBooks launch, and now comes the knee-jerk reaction to keep stockholders happy. It doesn’t happen very often that the company gets things really wrong, but occasionally it happens, and while iTunes dominates music downloads, their ebook effort simply never took off.

The reasons are manifold, as you’d expect. While they got the royalty thing right — essentially forcing Amazon’s hand to match their 70% rate — the iBookstore as a whole is very publisher and reader-unfriendly.

The fact that you need special software to upload an industry-standard ebook to the store is highly detrimental to the process, especially since it requires an Apple computer. Being a Mac user, for me that is not a problem at all, but I have many author friends who do not take kindly to it — and I can certainly sympathize.

The approval process could be called tedious at best, and it can easily take four weeks for a book to finally show up in the iBookstore. Compare that to Amazon’s, Barnes&Noble’s or Kobo’s 24-hour turn-around and you can easily see that Apple is simply not playing in the same league here.

The same is true for the user experience. In Amazon and Barnes&Noble you can search for books based on a wild range of criteria. In fact, Amazon in particular, has a search engine that compares favorably to Google. With such powerful tools at consumers’ hands, people will always find what they are looking for. And should you be out of luck, you will always stumble across countless other exciting books.

In the iBookstore you are shit out of luck of you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Apple’s search engine does not even allow you to search for partial titles the last time I checked and all too often a search will come up with zero results. Can you imagine all the lost upsell potential that authors are missing here? Or, to put it differently, Apple makes the discovery of authors impossible. For a reader looking for something to read that means that the odds are you won’t find anything, unless you knew what you were looking for going in.

Another major drawback is the fact that Apple has no way to browse books and search for titles on a desktop computer. The iBookstore is strangely isolated, restricted to access from an iOS device. I honestly do not understand the logic of it, as it extends even further. What looked like an oversight at first has become the harsh truth of iBooks – the fact that there is not even a software reader for Macs or other desktop computers.

Sinking their teeth into the channels that DO make money might seem like a smart move at first, and I think it is only a matter of time until they will target Amazon, Barnes&Noble and Kobo with similar prejudice.

Right now, Apple is trying to flex their muscle a bit. Whether they hope for other book publishers to pull out of the iOS altogether so that Apple can sell more books through the iBookstore, or whether they simply want to cash in on other people’s success, is anyone’s guess.

I would really much rather see them put some effort behind the iBookstore and improve it on all fronts, instead of trying to put the squeeze on others, because ultimately it will hurt everyone. Going head-to-head against Amazon can easily turn into a PR nightmare for Apple, and even if it doesn’t explode in their faces, the customers will be the ones who suffer, either because they won’t have access to books or the convenience of accessing their Kindle books anywhere any long should Amazon decide or to remove the Kindle app form iOS platforms — or have it removed. The book publishers will be angry at them and potentially boycott heir iBookstore altogether, or whatnot.

At this point, I think Apple will have to tread very carefully and not rush into things. Instead of toying with the idea of restricting or penalizing competition, maybe it would actually be a better idea to improve the overall iBooks experience for both authors and readers, and try to turn it into their own money-making success instead of leeching money off others. Once the Amazon experience is no longer 500% better, I am sure more people would turn to the native implementation of the iBooks.

I always find it interesting how people talk about one thing killing off another when new gadgets are announced and released to market. How the iPad was a Kindle-killer, for example. As we all know by now, nothing could have been further from the truth, of course, and it doesn’t surprise me a bit.

I’ve never understood why our culture is set in these incredibly competitive patterns. In everything. People turn anything into a contest, as if their lives depended on it. Somehow they all forgot somewhere along the road that competition belongs into sports, and that’s about it. Pretty much anything else in this world is about coexistence.

The Kindle and the iPad are a fine example of this. There never was a need — or desire — for the iPad to make the Kindle obsolete. Why, would it? They are two entirely different things, designed for different purposes, with strengths and weaknesses that make them more interesting to some, or less interesting to others. It is dynamic, and it is fluid, evolving and not something you can declare as a one-stop Kindle-killer.

Both devices have had a good run so far — excellent, as a matter of fact — and as we can see now, they co-exist very nicely. Even more so, they nurture each other. In the fourth quarter of 2010, for example, Apple sold over 7 million iPads, and 67% of these people are reportedly reading on the device.

Awesome news for Apple’s iBookstore, right? Well, yes, and no, because as statistical data show, not even 30% of these iPad users buy their books through the iBookstore. In fact, over 40% of iPad readers bought their books from Amazon, using the Kindle application to read.

See, while the stock market jocks try to convince everyone that it is an all-or-nothing world out there, abusing claims to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory like there’s no tomorrow, the fact of the matter is, that unlike the analysts, the consumers actually have a bit of common sense and adapt. We have long stopped taking things as they are. We are shaping everything around us, as all the technologies around us empower users.

Many users, like myself, own both, a Kindle and an iPad — and why not? I use the iPad for different things than my Kindle. They coexist nicely, each in their own niche. When it comes to reading and I may not have access to my Kindle because some other family member hogged it, I might use the Kindle application on the iPad to read on that device instead. No skin off my back. If I’m traveling and don’t have the Kindle around? The iPad fits the bill just fine.

One of the smartest moves that Amazon made — and one that analysts entirely overlooked at the time — was the creation of software-based Kindle readers for every platform out there. This makes Kindle content more valuable, and the same is essentially true for the software implementations of Barnes&Noble’s Nook and their software readers.

I can understand why people won’t buy books in the iBookstore. The iBook application may be fancy and all with its animated page turns, but ultimately, it is limiting the reader to the iPad, iPhone or iPod.

Creating software-based Kindle readers was the smartest move for Amazon to ward off any competition from the likes of Apple or any of the other tablet manufacturers crowding into the market. For the longest time, people thought Amazon’s Kindle was all about selling the hardware, but as everyone in the video games industry will gladly tell you, ultimately it is all about the software — that is where the real money is.

Amazon had zero research and development costs to create the iPad or any of the Android phones and tablets, but they are cashing in on them in a really big way, and that is what I call a smart strategy! No risk, but all the glory.

A few impressions from CES

Last week I went to Las Vegas to visit CES, the Consumer Electronic Show. It is kind of an annual migration for me, to go to the show and see all the latest technical developments and gizmos that we can expect to hit the market in the next months. Interestingly, this year, the show was pretty much underwhelming on the entire front.

While TV manufacturers tried to dazzle visitors with their hot new 3D technologies, the sad fact of the matter is that the technology is simply not there for the living room yet. Not only did all displays flicker horribly but they seriously lacked real visual depth and dimensionality despite the 3D efforts, they lacked resolution and most importantly they lacked appeal. The glass-less 3D efforts were even more painfully unsatisfactory, as the 3D effect was only achieved when standing in a small sweet spot straight in front of the display, and even then, the effect was lackluster at best. Everyone else saw double-images as a result of the lenticular coating of the displays. If this is what the consumer electronic industry wants to sell to consumers, no thank you.

The other fad that was evident all over the show were tablets. They were all over, I mean, everyone and their mothers displayed they cool little tablet. Some of them were so close to the real deal — speak, the iPad — that you had to look twice, and frankly in those cases, the question immediately becomes, why would anyone want that? There is the original, and it’s perfect… Most of these tablets were powered by Android operating systems, so a solid variety of apps and tools should be available right off the bat, though their quality might be dubious at best.

That, in essence, was CES this year. Companies trying to sell us pretty bad versions of stuff we already have. Innovation was noticeably absent, as were really interesting new trends.

One thing I noticed while walking the show floor, however, was the abundance of eBook readers. Not too long ago, Amazon’s Kindle was the only kid on the block, until a few major players decided it was time to challenge Amazon’s king-of-the-hill position. They are all still struggling to catch up in terms of hardware, sales, catalog and ease of use, but they keep trying nonetheless, and rightfully so, as it is a market that will show some significant growth in the next years.

It was interesting to see how many Chinese manufacturers had eInk eBook readers on display, looking for American distribution. Some of these devices looked rather slick, but a closer look often revealed major flaws. I was not so much turned off by the fact that many of them targeted a $200 price point for a barebones wifi reader, because an American distributor will quickly set them right in their expectations by laying out the current pricing in the market for them. What I did notice, however, was a distinct lack in quality. Some readers were exceedingly clunky and bulky, others were as slow as a Kindle 1, and others yet had a user interface that would have made Steve Wozniak cry on the apple II.

I also saw some bizarre hybrids, where manufacturers created devices that featured an eInk screen on one side and an LCD screen on the opposite side. The device would then be flipped open and closed like a laptop. The problem here was that the device was about twice as thick as any laptop in the market, weighed the same as a laptop but offered significantly less functionality than a laptop. Why anyone would want to replace something clunky and heavy but versatile with something even clunkier, heavy but less versatile, I am not sure. Evidently the makers of these devices had other thoughts on the subject, so who am I to talk?

In the end, however, a trend is clearly visible. eBook readers will flood the market before long. Will they all succeed? Not likely. The reason the Kindle is so successful has mostly to do with Amazon’s marketing muscle and distribution network. At this point no one — and I mean, no one — can rival that in any way and I do not see that change in the foreseeable future.

As brick and mortar stores like Barnes & Noble or Border’s try to take a shot at Amazon and have some success stories to tell, the fact of the matter is that they will have to undergo serious corporate restructuring in the face of the eBook revolution. This will affect them on every level of their service spectrum, including digital distribution and their advertising budgets, and it will have an effect on their ability to compete with Amazon, who does not have any of these problems. Other distributors trying to break into the ebook market have stigma attached to them, like Google, where both readers and authors start to get wary whether it is a good idea to let Google do their thing, especially since Google is extremely inflexible and controversial when it comes to some of their distribution agreements.

When all these eBook readers that are being created by countless companies around the globe will hit the market, there will be a great rush, no doubt — especially on the lower priced ones. It may help distributors like Kobo to jump into the breach and carve out a really good market for them, but I still doubt that the impact will be nearly as big as people might expect.

As long as people will need to connect their eBook readers to a computer, have to potentially deal with driver problems, manually transfer books from the computer to the device, and so forth, there will be a huge barrier of entry. Even worse, the overall experience — or lack thereof — may actually turn people off and convert them back to print books. The process has to be painless and easy, the experience pleasant and enjoyable, otherwise, no dice.

There were many reasons why the iPhone was such a smashing success and among the factors playing into it was the fact that it tightly integrated into iTunes. While iTunes may not be a lot of fun for PC users — but then, what is? — on the Mac it is pure elegance and makes syncing, saving, transferring and purchasing content a breeze, integrating seamlessly into the traditional workflow. Add to it the capability to browse and purchase content straight from the device, and you know, why it took off so quickly.

It also gives you a notion, why the Kindle took off the way it did, despite its initial $300 price tag. It gets it all right and unless the upcoming import eBook readers can offer the same kind of ease of use, immediate accessibility and variety of content, I am sure the Kindle will only continue to be the guiding light for the entire industry.

Why I upgraded to a Kindle 3

Something happened this Christmas that I did not see coming. I upgraded myself to a Kindle 3. I have been a first-generation Kindle user for a long time now and have never had the feeling that my Kindle was lacking in any department. As a matter of fact, for the longest time I told myself that I do not need a new Kindle. I had been playing with the thought when first the Kindle 3 came out and news about the impressive new display made its rounds through the Internet. The temptation was there, clearly, but more from a geeky gadgeteer standpoint than from actual need.

I take quite some pride in the fact that I do have my spending habits firmly under control. I do not give in easy to little cravings or desires, and usually get to the point very quickly where I can walk away from things and tell myself that I simply do not need them. To me there is a very clear distinction between the things I want and things I need.

Yeah, well, all that changed, of course, when I first laid my eyes on the brand new Kindle 3 in person. I had bought one for my niece for Christmas. She is a real bookworm and the stacks of books she had around were always dangerously close to toppling over burying everything and everyone under them. So, my and I decided to give her a Kindle. It would cut down on her physical storage needs and would make it easier on her wallet, too, as eBooks do have a tendency to be cheaper. Many of the books she has in her library – the classics – are available for free in digital form also, making an even better proposition. But I digress.

On Christmas morning we unwrapped our presents and with gleaming eyes she took into her heart her Kindle. I could tell she immediately fell in love with it. The idea itself of having a digital book reader as well as all the benefits that come with it.

As I showed her the ropes, how to get around the Kindle, download books, open them, create bookmarks, notes and highlights, etc. I had the chance to use that latest-generation Kindle myself, of course. As I said in openings, it was the first direct contact I have had with the device, but the impression it made on me was quite profound.

The new Pearl screen is a real beauty. I always felt the original Kindle screen looked a lot like printed paper, but this new, improved display makes the old one look like it was printed on newsprint paper, while the new one is on high end matter paper without ink blotting. I do have a background in the printing industry as some of you may know, and I have a trained eye when it comes to typography, typesetting and printing, so these improvements are dramatic, and they immediately sprang to my eye.

Then I tried the text-to-speech feature, which the Kindle 1 does not offer, and thought it was a nice addition. While it still sounds like a robot trying to read with all the wrong inflections and other artifacts of text-to-speech technology, it is not all that bad and may come in handy on occasion.

Much improved is also the user interface. It took a bit getting used to for me to find certain things I had gotten very comfortable with, but I found that some thought had been put into it, making many features easier and faster to access.

And the, of course, there is the design. It is a slick little device – much slimmer and lighter than my Kindle 1 – and it feels much less bulky. So, to make a long story short, I really liked the Kindle 3 and once we had all unwrapped and explored our presents I went to my computer and ordered a Kindle 3 for myself. Needless to say that I read a lot, and it is a valid investment, but I am honest. I did not need a new Kindle – this time I wanted one.

Only this time I decided that the Wifi version would suffice. I may have bought a book from my Kindle on an occasion or two when I wasn’t within reach of a Wifi network, and the 3G connectivity came in very handy, but as I placed my order I had to ask myself if this luxury was really worth an extra outlay of $50 dollars. I mean, the end of a book doesn’t exactly sneak up on you. You see in your progress bar, how much is left, and to me that simply meant that I should be able to make sure I have the next book ready and loaded by the time I may – coincidentally – be without a Wifi connection AND the need for a new book.

So, all I have to do now is to wait for another day to find the new device on my doorstep and load all my books on it. And now I can even start categorizing them… something the original Kindle didn’t allow me to do, and I am sure there will be many more pleasant features I will come to enjoy.

Most people know me as a fan of Apple products, a real Mac-head, so to speak. The reason for that is that traditionally I can find very little flaw in the products the company offers, their approach to the user experience and the general approach to the marketplace.

That does not mean the company is beyond reproach, of course, and whenever I see flaws I will gladly point them out. And such is with the recent update of the iPad firmware, in which Apple has abandoned the orientation toggle switch. Its functionality has been instead replaced with audio mute.

I am not sure why anyone would have ever thought a mute button would be more essential in a tablet than a lock for the orientation. To me it makes no sense and why Steve Jobs would so vehemently state that the lock button will never return is beyond me.

As a writer I use Pages for the iPad a lot. I use it to edit and revise my books and even to actually write parts of my stories on occasion. The iPad’s mobility allows me to work anywhere I want to. It also means I am getting interrupted a lot and have to put the tablet down. Unfortunately this means that the tablet may change the orientation because of the movement, which wouldn’t be so bad, but it also reset the zoom factor once I rotate it back to my portrait writing position. Usually this means that my text is too small and I will have to pinch it up over and over again, which really getting tedious after the tenth time.

The orientation lock toggle solved this problem, for me. It would lock the orientation and with it my magnification setting in place.

The same is essentially true when surfing the web. So for me that toggle was a real asset.

Now as for replacing it with an audio mute instead… Off the top of my head I can’t even think of any real application for that. The iPad is not a phone that needs to be silenced quickly in various environments. So what do you need a mute switch for? Gaming, perhaps? What is there that pressing the volume down key a few times couldn’t do? I’m not sure if any mobile game is so demanding on the player that turning the volume down would destroy the experience, particularly as it something you would most likely do once when you start playing.

So, what would anyone need the audio mute for, really? Neither videos nor web browsing warrant or require a mute button, so I am truly flabbergasted at how Apple cold have come to the consensus that the orientation lock meeds to go. It is one of the few cases were usability has been sacrificed by the company that practically defines usability in the market – in the world. At the very least one would have expected to find a toggle in the system settings that let users allow what they want their toggle to do for them, but no such,luck.

You can still lock the orientation on the iPad, but it requires a bit of fiddling. First press the “Home” button twice and a menu bar will appear at the bottom of the screen. Now swipe the bar to the right and a new menu appears. In the left hand corner you will now find a soft toggle which allows you to lock and unlock the screen orientation. Why this has to be so well hidden and tedious to use, I really don’t know, when an option setting in the system preferences could have pleased everyone.