eBook Pricing Post iPad Tuesday, Feb 16 2010 

A colleague sent me an article from the New York Times last week discussing the likelihood of eBooks prices going up.  Ever since the fabled iPad was rumored, I wondered what would happen to the eBook market.  I was greedily hoping the announcement would bring prices down like it did for music when Apple first opened the iTunes store.  (Of course, we all know what happened to iTune prices once Apple established a strong customer base.)

Considering much of the clamor for the iPad was lauding its ability to be a multimedia device and e-reader in one, many believed the device would do to eBooks what the iPod did to music.  In other words, make book buying a cheaper and more convenient online experience.  After all, who buys CDs these days?

The interesting thing here is that Apple, in Jobs’ attempt to gain a sense of exclusivity, capitulated to publishers’ desire to set their own prices for their book catalog on the iPad.  The deal quickly had ramifications outside of Cupertino, and Amazon was also agreeing to McMillan’s demand to raise prices of bestsellers from $9.99 to up to $14.99 a download.

Since Apple was a second (well actually more like a third or fourth) comer, they couldn’t strong-arm publishers to give them special pricing to entice customers.  Amazon had that racket nailed down already.  So instead of strong-arming the publishers, they did the opposite.  They allowed publishers to dictate the prices to them in an attempt to garner enough support to build a viable and attractive catalog for their iBooks store.

So how is Jobs going to justify higher device and media costs?  Wow factor.

If you saw Jobs announcement for the iPad, you noticed that many of the things he focused on was about the interface.  Like the Nook, you can peruse the bookstore by seeing cover shots of books in the library.  Apple, of course, upped the ante a bit by putting the books on a virtual bookshelf that leads to a secret entrance into the bookstore.  I gotta admit, cool looking.  But would it make me go out and replace my Nook for an iPad?

He also showed how a finger swipe turns the page and how the other functions work–bookmarking and the like.  Again, all interface.  I wonder how the reading experience is outside in sunlight?  Or, how long you can read before your eyes get fatigued?

Of course, he also talked about embedded videos and other mixed-media elements the iPad would be able to support because it is, well, a computer.  Sounds interesting, and it is a feature that could possibly change the way people write books (like graphic novels).  But what kinds of videos are going to be embedded in books initially?  Commercials, maybe?

So let’s review the reasons why the iPad is good for eBooks: a cooler interface, video ads, and, oh yeah, higher book prices.  And don’t forget you do have to buy the device first.  That will set you back anywhere from $500-$700 dollars, and if want to be able to use your device away from WiFi hotspots, another $30 for use of AT&T’s already overtaxed (thanks, iPhone) 3G network.  How could anyone pass up this deal?

Well, obviously, I’m not convinced that the iPad will be as well received as many think.  I’m skeptical that there is a need for such a device.

Do you know why I love my Nook?  Because it’s convenient to carry and use, and it does its job very well.  Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to hold a 10 inch device to read my paper while I have my lunch.  I want instant on and an easy-on-the-eyes reading experience.  If I want to browse the web and check email, I can power up any of my PCs to do that; they all run Ubuntu, so they load rather quickly.  Besides, they all have the conveniences that make surfing the Net fun and enjoyable–a physical keyboard, stereo speakers, etc.  Okay, I admit, being able to navigate to any place on a page by pointing with my finger is a cool feature.  However, the iPad, as I see (granted I haven’t seen one in person), lacks one major factor that makes e-readers cool (and a viable replacement for printed books), the ability to mimic the reading experience of an actual book.  Books don’t interrupt your reading with an email alert, or try to distract you from the words by embedding videos, and they won’t even allow you to surf the Net.

In terms of book pricing, don’t get me wrong; I am all for writers getting paid for their craft.  After all, without them, there would be no books to speak of.  I believe that everyone should get compensated (if they so choose) for their time and effort should they provide a valuable service or product.  However, what I don’t agree with is how publishers use the poor author as an excuse to raise prices.  If the publishers are so concerned about the author, why not take a smaller cut and give more to the author?

Why raise prices anyway?  One astute person who was interviewed in the aforementioned Times article suggested that since there is no printing, shipping, and storage costs with eBooks, it seemed absurd that publishers could justify raising prices.  Seems logical; however, the counter-argument the publishers make is that printing and handling of physical books is only a small portion of the overall publishing cost.

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the publishing industry to say if this is a valid argument.  All I know is that the old lesson of economics will come into play here–supply and demand.  I’m certain the publishers who inked deals with Apple are banking that the iBooks store makes eBooks as ubiquitous as music bought from the iTunes store (and hence, driving up demand).  The problem I see is that people are reading less today than before.  The eBook, I felt, would be one way to get people reading again.  Unfortunately, I’m concerned that the new price-point is going to alienate would-be readers.  Instead of reading, they’ll spend the $15 dollars on the DVD version of Kite Runner instead of Khaled Hosseini’s, much better in my opinion, written narrative.

I don’t want to come off as some maniacal anti-Apple/Jobs Linux fanboy, but we have to realize that Apple is rebuilding what Microsoft was forced to break down–a restrictive market.  At least Gates didn’t require you to buy a Microsoft computer to run his software.  Jobs got his groove back and is willing to take on all comers.  But at what price?  You can’t use Flash on the iPad because Jobs feels Adobe is lazy.  Whether he’s right, isn’t the issue.  It is the fact that you, as the end-user, CANNOT decide this on your own.

For me, the cost is more direct; I’ll have to pay more for eBooks thanks to him.

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The Nook with Ubuntu Cont. Friday, Feb 5 2010 

Lee Seigel of the New York Observer likens Steve Jobs’ presentation of the iPad to Moses presenting the Ten Commandments to the Jews.  He says:

On Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments written on twin “tablets,” then climbed back down into the desert wilderness and explained the new law to the Jewish people. Clutching his own “tablet,” Steve Jobs orchestrated his appearance before the world press last Wednesday along Mosaic lines, presenting his device as if it heralded the dawn of a new age. Not only that, but the hyperventilating media went on and on about Mr. Jobs’ talent for “shrouding” his announcements of new gadgets in secrecy. The Tablet. The Shroud. Who says that technology is any less mystifying than religion?

So now that Steve Jobs brought the iPad down the mount the world can begin turning again.  I’m a little concerned how the iPad will affect prices for eBooks.  Hopefully, all of Jobs back-room dealings with publishers doesn’t drive the prices up too much.  We’ll have to see.  I did see a recent article that suggested that Amazon will soon be raising their prices because of new deals with publishers that are asking to set their own prices (seems that the iBook store has given them more leverage, and they’re beginning to assert it).  Regardless of what happens, I’m not giving up my Nook just yet.

I wanted to follow up and talk about my month-long experience using the Nook.  So far, I love it!  I haven’t found anything that has shaken my confidence in the device.  Just so that people don’t think I’m some crazed Barnes and Noble shareholder or hardcore fanboy, I will admit that I had a couple of incidences of freezing.  I did hard restarts both times, and everything worked fine afterwards.  The freezes occurred when I was opening a new eBook.  While it was formatting, it seemed to freeze.  Of course, maybe I was just being impatient.

Regarding some earlier complaints that the OS was slow and buggy.  I’m not sure if the new version of the software fixed many of those issues or not; however, I’m pretty satisfied with the speed and response of the device.  It’s not setting any new speed records; however, in terms of what it needs to do, it seems just fine.  When books or documents are first opened, the Nook does need to format them to whatever parameters the reader sets, so that may take a few seconds to do.  But come on, how fast does it need to be?  The act of reading should be an enjoyable and relaxing activity.  The few seconds the Nook takes to format a book gives me an opportunity to sip my coffee.  Just because it’s an electronic device doesn’t mean the cold numbers of diagnostic tests should determine it’s worth.  The quality of the experience is more important when assessing a device like this.  Take NASCAR for example, the fastest car in qualifying isn’t always the best car in the race because of numerous factors–like handling, how the car reacts in traffic, etc.  Same here.  I’m not editing or ripping videos–speed isn’t that big of an issue…unless, of course, it’s freezing.

I also wanted to clarify something I mentioned in my earlier post.  I stated that although I was able to copy some PDF files to my Nook, they did not render properly when I opened them.  I am happy to say that I can retract that statement.  I reopened my PDF documents and changed the font to “extra small,” and guess what?  It rendered perfectly–exactly as it looks when printed.

I also promised to check the audio player, so I converted some of my OGG and WAV music files to Mp3s and transferred them to my Nook.  The files played without a hitch.  The nice thing is that you can play the files while you’re reading.  Although I wouldn’t suggest people do any hardcore reading while listening to music, it is nice to be able to play some background music while perusing the newspaper.

In terms of material available, so far, I’m happy.  I like that I can download a lot of free content.  Many of the classics are available as downloads through B&N’s bookstore.  I also bought a few books and am currently doing a 14-Day trial with the San Jose Mercury News.  I wanted to get a NY Times subscription, but decided that $10 a month is a little too pricey.  I can look at the Times online for free.  The SJMN subscription price on the other hand is quite reasonable at $5 a month.  I do like the paper because they are based in Silicon Valley, so have a lot to say about the tech industry.  The Bay Area is also much closer in terms of region to me, so many of the articles have a little more relevance too.  I will more than likely keep the subscription even after the trial period ends.

Lastly, and most importantly, synchronization and managing my book/music library has worked very well.  As I said before, Ubuntu and my Nook work fine together.  Since Ubuntu mounts the Nook and the installed SD card as mass storage devices, moving files is easy and painless–drag and drop to the file browser windows.  So far, I haven’t had any issues working with my Nook in Ubuntu–I wonder if Moses’ iPad can claim that.

The Nook E-Book Reader with Ubuntu Saturday, Jan 16 2010 

Hello blogosphere.  It feels good to be back.  I got caught up in a new semester and all the work that goes along with it and haven’t been able to write.  I have good news though; my Nook e-book reader arrived yesterday.  I was quite surprised.  It wasn’t even supposed to ship until the 15th.  Imagine my happiness when it arrived at my door instead.

I had been neglecting my family recently because of semester preparations, so I couldn’t open the package right away.  Instead, I put it on my desk and waited a few hours.  When they went they went for a walk, I tore in.  It was kind of anti-climatic when I did.  When I got the shipping box open, I was happy to find everything inside.  It comes in really pretty packaging; however, that same packaging, like the ones they love to use these days (think toys…they come in that heat sealed plastic with wire twist ties, and plastic zip ties), is horrendous. It took me almost 20 minutes to cajole my Nook out of its package.  First you have to fight through the hermetically sealed plastic, then the lexan-like box, and finally the plastic tray the Nook is cradled in.  It really is pretty; however, overkill considering what it takes to get the Nook out.  Once I did though….

The Nook is beautiful.  It has a sleek look, rounded corners, beveled bezel with a continuous smooth look (even where the page advance buttons are), and don’t forget the color touch screen at the bottom.  Once I put it into the green Italian leather cover I bought…forget about it!

First things first, I chose the Nook over the KIndle for a few reasons I discussed here.  To save you the trip, I’ll briefly review them.  First, I liked that the Nook allows users to expand the memory by installing micro-SD cards.  (You can go up 16GB.) I assumed the Nook engineers were smart enough to put the card slot in a highly accessible place like at the bottom of the unit or on the side.  Unfortunately, I quickly found out after I ordered mine, that the card slot is actually located under the back cover where the battery is located.  I was greatly disappointed with this because I was planning to save documents onto SD cards and them plug them into the Nook to read at my convenience (mostly for student essays and other written work–after all, the Nook supports PDFs natively–see reason two).  But putting the card slot under the back cover put that plan to rest.  I am not going to remove the back cover every few days to get my SD card out.  Ultimately, the back cover isn’t designed to be taken off regularly and takes some effort to do so.

The second reason I chose the Nook, was because it supported PDF, ePUB, and MP3 formats natively.  Unlike the Kindle, you don’t need third-party software to convert files to make them render or play on the Nook.  This was important because I did not want to be forced to buy all my books exclusively from B&N.  I like having choices.  In fact, and this leads into my last reason for choosing the Nook, my initial plan was to read and reread many of the classics (and other texts) that can be found on Google Books and in the public domain free of charge; a service that comes with the Nook.  I guess choosing Android gave them access to Google’s collection.  Don’t get my wrong though, I’m not against buying books and probably will purchase my share.  However, I do plan to read what’s free most often.

The Nook has gotten mixed reviews so far.  Many find the touch-screen interface laggy and slow.  I’m not much of a touch-screen kind of guy, so I’m almost certain the lagginess won’t bother me too much.  As long as I can use the interface, download books, and read them, I’ll be happy.  So far, so good.  I have already downloaded five books and am about 70 pages into one of my favorites, Don Quixote, already.

The one thing I was most concerned about up until this morning was the Nook’s ability to connect and be managed by Ubuntu.  Because my original plan to swap SD cards regularly was dashed by the placement of the card slot, I had to bank on the Nook working with my Linux boxes.  B&N has software downloads for MS and Mac that allow both systems to download, render, and mange eBooks from B&N.  Unfortunately, they don’t offer similar software for Linux users.  I was a little concerned that the Nook would need such software to allow management from a computer terminal.  Luckily though, I can confirm that I connected my Nook to my Thinkpad this morning and Ubuntu recognized it as a mass storage device.  A file manager dialog opened as soon as I plugged in the USB cable.  I could see the individual folders on my Nook.  I was able to move two PDF files from my hard drive to my Nook without a hitch.  One file had a lot of pictures and the other was basically a text file I created in OpenOffice and converted to PDF.

The first file opened; however the formatting was not correct.  The captions under the pictures moved and the alignment of the photos changed.  The pictures rendered, and they looked like photos in a black and white newspaper–nothing spectacular, but acceptable.  The second file also opened without a problem; however the formatting also changed a bit too.  Text that was center aligned on the original file moved to the left, and the numerals in the header did not render at all.  Although many would be disappointed by this, I wasn’t.  The main reason I would be opening a PDF on my Nook would be to read a student essay during times I was not sitting at a terminal.  My plan was never to do a lot of editing and commenting while on my Nook.  When I grade student essays, I like to read them at least a couple of times.  Being able to convert them to PDFs and render them on my Nook will allow me to read them while I wait for my kids or wife in the car or while I commute to work in the morning.  I will be able to do a lot of my first reads during these times, thus allowing me to do the more involved readings sooner.

I did not move any music files, but when I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.  Unfortunately, many of my favorite music files are in OGG format, so I’ll have to convert them to MP3 first before they have any hope of working on my Nook.

I feel fairly confident that I’ll be happy with my purchase even after the fabled iTablet is released in the next couple of months. My electronic arsenal will still be free of panes of glass and forbidden fruits!

By the way, I received another cool product recently; in fact, I’m using it right now.  I’ll be writing about my impressions of it soon.  (I’ll give you a hint; my Lenovo multimedia keyboard began failing about four weeks ago, and I went old school!)  Happy new year!

The Children are the Future…for Linux Wednesday, Dec 16 2009 

Whenever I read articles or hear discussions about Linux’s ability to take over the desktop market, Whitney Houston’s song “The Greatest Love of All” comes to mind (actually, I think of Arsenio Hall’s–aka The Sexual Chocolates–rendition in the movie Coming to America).  “Why?” You may ask. Because the children are the future in so many ways, but especially for Linux.

I’m certain you’re all familiar with that old cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  Although this is not the case for every old dog (OD) (after all, I get my technology butt handed to me on a regular basis by some pretty old dogs), it is true for many who don’t have interests in technology.  ODs like this yearn for familiarity.  They don’t like change–not even from one version of MS Office to another.  “Why did they move that thingy from here to over there?”  “I don’t understand why they changed that.  Everything was working fine until now.”  “Why would I want to give up this big, shiny tower that takes up almost half of my desk for that tiny little laptop.  Bigger is better, right?”  All right,  you get the idea.  Enough geriatric bashing; I’m not getting any younger and will probably be just as stubborn and more cantankerous in my golden years.

Back to my point.  To truly understand where I’m going with this, I need to redefine what I mean when I say old dog.  An old dog isn’t someone who is merely old, in fact, many of them are fairly young; rather, they are people who are stuck in their ways–the ones who will sacrifice faster, more efficient,  and secure technology for what is familiar because it simply works for their needs.  After all, no one wants to relearn how to do the everyday typical task. I know, I know.  I said in a former post that intuitiveness and qualitative measures of what is good or better is intrinsically linked to familiarity, and what is most intuitive, a lot of the time, is the one that is most familiar.  This is true; however, the true measure of intuitiveness is the ability to make changes while staying familiar.  How users adapt to the changes is a good measure–the quicker they adapt, the more intuitive the technology is.

Again, I digress.  Back to old dogs.  The problem with old dogs is that you can’t force them to change.  You have to let them think that they are dictating change.  That’s why it’s better to roll out changes slowly, so that the learning curve is flatter.  The less painful it is, the more welcoming ODs become.  But yanking the entire OS from under their feet is not a good idea.  Too much change.  Too steep a learning curve.  But why bother?  Why force ODs to change?  If Deepak Chopra’s Fourth Spiritual Law, “the Law of Least Effort,” is accurate, it makes little sense to force ODs to do so.  Too much effort.  Besides, it goes against nature’s flow.  Introduce new technology to them, show them how it works, and then, let them decide if they want to take the leap.

But the kids!  Ah yes, the kids.  They are the answer.  Today’s children have grown up with technology all around them.  Nintendos, X-Boxes, Playstations, iPods, iPhones, and so on and so forth.  At their age, they aren’t frightened of change.  They are just beginning life’s journey and are eager to learn new things.  These two factors combine to create the perfect storm for learning new technology. Today, children figure out new technology quickly without much trial and tribulation.  I’ll give you a personal example.  It took me three boot cycles to teach my 5-year-old son how to load Puppy Linux from the Grub menu, launch Firefox, find the bookmark for his favorite Spongebob game, launch the game, and how to shut everything down when he was done.  Three boot cycles…that’s it.  I know some adults who can’t even check their voicemail on their cell phones, or how to program the favorites button on their TV remotes after numerous attempts.

If the Linux community wants to see their market share increase, they need to go after the children.  I know that sounds insidious, but believe me, exposure to Linux is safer and more beneficial than McDonald’s, Barbie, and GI Joe.  Steve Jobs and his marketing team figured this out a while ago.  They don’t necessarily target young children; however, they have used a concentrated marketing strategy, and have gone after young adults and teenagers with great success.  Look around.  How many young people do you see carrying iThings?  iPods?  iTouches? and iPhones?  And now, rumor says that Apple will be releasing their first iTablet next spring.  (Sounds suspiciously like a bigger iTouch to me.)  I’m guessing it will be very intuitive and will be all the rage if the price is right.  Why has Apple become so ubiquitous?  Because they figured out which market required the least effort on their part.

Canonical has at least made an effort to reach the children with their Edubuntu spin.  It’s a good idea, and a nice starting point; however, it needs much more development.  Development in two ways.  One that creates apps that are more exciting, appealing, and educational for children.  And the other that creates apps for educators–e.g. gradebooks (like GradeL) and class management software.  A concentrated effort like this will help get Edubuntu in more classrooms, and hence, more exposure.

There are other distros and interface tweaks that seem to be targeting a younger and more mobile crowd.  Android, seems to be making some headway.  And although I’m skeptical of Google’s motives, I think their influence and marketing savvy will bring Android to more and more devices.  If the multi-touch tablet takes off, I’m sure the heavyweight distros will begin developing for this platform.

I once read a comment on some blog that stated that Linux needn’t worry about Windows, but instead, should set their sights on Apple.  I didn’t think too much about the statement at the time; however, in retrospect, that person was right.  Why worry about Windows?  Linux has overtaken Windows in so many ways, that the point of which is better between the two is moot.  But Apple on the other hand, is leading a revolution.  They have flooded the market with sophisticated and innovative peripheral devices that aren’t in direct competition with the desktop computer.  Slowly but surely, many of these device holders are more and more interested in Mac computing.  The iTablet will be another stepping stone to the promise land.

Do I think Apple is on the brink of world domination?  No, I don’t.  But I have to say, they are surely working towards it.  What does Linux have to do?  Focus on the children.  The more young people who are raised on Linux and Linux devices the better it will be in the long run.  Build it fast, beautiful, and easy to use…and they will come.

I believe the children are our future.  Teach them well and let them lead the way…