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.

How Ubuntu (Linux) Changed My Life Thursday, Dec 24 2009 

Ubuntu changed my life!  I’m smarter, cooler, and more ethical.

Sound too good to be true?  Well, it isn’t.

I began using Linux about 2 years ago.  Before that, I was a long time Windows user.  (And before that, an Apple user.)  Until my Linux days, I was a pretty typical PC user.  I would word-process documents, play a few games, and later, check email and surf the net.  I really didn’t care about how things worked; I just wanted them to work.  And hence, my Windows days were nothing pioneering or interesting.

In general, I would consider myself to be a pretty inquisitive person. I have always been interested in how things worked, but for some reason, probably because I saw them as too complex, I did not take an interest in knowing how computers worked.  The movie War Games probably had something to do with this too.  I didn’t need or want the FBI knocking down my door.

But I did take a few computing classes growing up, so I knew some of the basics.  But by the time I was in high school, I was more interested in getting my essays word-processed than understanding computer programming.  I figured the computer geeks could worry about that stuff.  Anyway, by that time, my dreams of being a computer scientist were already dashed by complicated math.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how important technology, specifically the personal computer, had become. Aside from the obvious advantages of having a word-processor and other applications that made the production and editing of documents much easier, technology was linking disciplines and essentially changing them. The expectations of what people could produce quickly grew as documents became more sophisticated in appearance.

But even though I realized this importance, I accepted that technology had passed me by, and I would be destined to be a casual end user.  So I did the safe thing: I used Windows.  I knew the interface, it did the job most of the time, and it was available in all of the computer labs on campus.  There were a few times when I considered going back to Apple, but once I figured out what it would cost, I decided to stick with the PC platform.  Besides, I had already begun to dabble in open source applications, so I knew there was plenty of free software out there for Windows users.

It wasn’t until that fateful day I came across a Laptop magazine reference to Ubuntu Linux and its growing popularity.  I began to do some research on Linux and Ubuntu.  I talked with the head of our IT department on campus and asked him what he thought about Linux.  Of course, many of his servers were already running Red Hat, so he suggested I give it a try, but warned me to expect some hitches.

So I did.  My first distro was Ubuntu Feisty Fawn (7.04) and Gutsy soon after that.  I then tried Open SUSE (10.3, I think) and eventually SUSE SLED 10, which was preinstalled on a new Thinkpad I bought.  After some testing and trial in the classroom and work environment, I decided to go with Ubuntu.  I really liked SUSE; however, didn’t feel comfortable with the Novell and Microsoft “agreement.” I figured if I was going open source, I would go with a cleaner and unencumbered distro.  (See, I told you I became more ethical!)

So how did Linux, Ubuntu in my case, make me smarter?  I began to tinker with my computer again.  I had to figure out what I needed it to do, and how to get it to do it.  The one nice thing about Ubuntu is that its default install is very usable “out of the box.”  I think most casual users would need to change very little.

For me, I was pretty apprehensive to change anything at first.  But as time went on, I gained more confidence, and soon was making some small ones. In fact, some of them weren’t voluntary.  I’ll admit; what my campus IT guru told me came to fruition.  There were some hitches along the way.  I had to edit configuration files and learn how to use the command line to effectively solve some problems.  But all of these hitches and changes forced me to get more intimate with my computer.  When I used Windows, everything was veiled behind a GUI (and I suppose in many ways Ubuntu is guilty of this too), and so I didn’t need to understand what I was doing when I made changes; rather, I just needed to know how to execute them. Easier, right? Quicker, right? Well, not always. How do you fix something you don’t understand? And believe me, there was plenty that vexed me about Windows.

But if we take James Taylor’s advice and “[enjoy] the passage of time,” I think we could and would learn so much more.  I understand why many would find what I’m suggesting abhorrent.  Why bother trying to understand your computer when you have better things to do?

But I’m not talking about major time commitments here. I don’t think it’s necessary to understand every intricacy of the OS. And as a matter of fact, I want to suggest quite the opposite.  I think we should invest just enough time so we can understand the larger concepts of computing. These concepts will help us better understand how to solve problems that arise.  And I’m not talking about Linux problems, Windows problems, or Mac problems exclusively.  But in general.  If you understand how WebDav works, then the chances of you setting it up properly increases immensely, regardless of the OS that you’re using.  It’s like cooking.  If you understand the basic concept of stewing, you can probably produce a pretty good beef stew no matter whose kitchen you’re cooking in as long as the basic supplies and comparable ingredients are available.

How has Linux made me cooler.  Simple.  It is not the same old expected stuff.  The interface is different and in many ways more intuitive.  People are amazed with Compiz and the 3-D effects that I use.  And besides, when everybody is panicking about the latest major security hole in Internet Explorer, I can smugly smile and say, “I use Linux.”

Why am I more ethical?  Easy.  I don’t support they guys who are trying to control the way we interact with technology.  I stay away from products that are platform restricted. Also, I really embrace the FOSS philosophy because it levels the playing field.  I remember in the past, you had to buy a commercial word processing program to produce decent documents.  Today, thanks to a slew of community supported office apps, this in no longer the case.

It’s not that I’m necessarily against people getting compensated for their work, and, in fact, think every FOSS end user has some responsibility to “pay” for what they use.  The payment doesn’t necessarily need to be in monetary form though.  One could pay by donating time to test updates or new versions of apps. Or by being a part of a community. Maybe report bugs or issues that come up in daily usage. Or they could take an active role in promoting what they use. I’m sure there are numerous ways that end users could help open source developers. (Developers, if you’re reading this, go ahead and suggest some.)

So how has Ubuntu changed my life?  I’m taller, skinnier, and better looking.  Okay, maybe not.  I do feel that I have become closer to my PC though.  I understand it and the concepts that make my computing experience better and more successful.  And I know not to blame technology, but instead, the ones who wield it. Am I cooler? I don’t know, but using Linux has a sort of geek chic that suits me.  And in terms of ethics, I can sleep a little better at night knowing I haven’t made Bill and Steve any richer.  So has Linux changed me? Yes, I think so. And to the distro that figures out a way to make me taller, skinnier, and better looking, I promise to be your biggest fanboy ever!

Happy Holidays!

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…