Playing With Fire

I’ve had the Kindle Fire for a few days now and here are my impressions:

  1. The software layer that Amazon built on top of Android is smart and efficient. Not only does the interface hide the icon laden desktop that default Android features, but it serves the higher function goal of nicely integrating Amazon services and the various stores (e.g. apps, books, video).
  2. Battery life isn’t as good as I expected but my expectations were pretty high based on my previous Kindle experience. In retrospect, getting 7-8 hours with the screen lit and wifi on isn’t anything to shrug about, turning wifi off and backlighting down, which is ideal for book reading and game playing, drives battery life back up to Kindle expectations.
  3. Apps are aplenty. The limited device capabilities, e.g. no GPS, means some applications are handicapped but all things considered the fact that they launched with a rich market of applications is a big positive.
  4. The form factor is surprisingly comfortable. The rubberized back coating gives you a firm handhold and the device is pretty solid in terms of heft. I was also pleased to discover how comfortable this device is to type on, in portrait and landscape mode.
  5. Display is good enough for a range of activities from reading to watching videos. Bright and crisp.
  6. Performance is speedy and it’s worth pointing out that this is increasingly one of the attributes that you only pay attention to when it is deficient.
  7. The Silk web browser got a lot of attention when this device was announced. I really don’t get what the distinction between this and Chrome is. It works fine, I just don’t understand, based on my usage, why I am supposed to care about this as a unique feature.
  8. Wifi only is a plus for me, I use this mostly at home but when I am truly mobile I can use the tethering capability through my mobile phone. I explicitly don’t want a tablet that has integrated 3/4G with the additional monthly pricing plan attached to it.
  9. No camera… don’t care. Maybe some day I’ll do video VoIP but at this point in my life I can honestly say this has not been something that excites me. Take pictures? Why would I do that with a tablet?
  10. Complaints… yes, the power button is on the bottom and I have repeatedly hit it accidentally. The power button should be on the top of the device, like the iPad.

I have been using this tablet for just a couple of days but based on what I have seen thus far Amazon has a winner just in time for Christmas.

HTML5 – A Wonder Drug

I was reading up on some of the commentary surrounding Amazon’s release of an HTML5 reader, one of the best comes from Constellation’s Charles Brett:

Amazon’s announcement of its Kindle Cloud Reader, based around HTML 5, is a wonder of irony. Apple has successfully been taking 30% of purchases made via anything bought through an app that was installed through the iTunes Store. In parallel it has denigrated Adobe’s Flash (albeit with some justice) as being insufficient for purpose while establishing a pro-HTML5 position as the ‘best’ way to move forwards. Many have been irritated by this ‘Apple knows best’ approach – but that is hardly new.

Looking beyond the immediate benefit for publishers of iOS apps as a result of Apple’s steep 30% cut of the action, HTML5 brings real and sustained benefits to anyone providing a consumer or business application.

  1. A single presentation layer that delivers mobile and web experiences… in other words, unification of the codebase which greatly simplifies application development and the capability to deliver a highly tuned user experience which is great for consumers.
  2. The “real estate” problem is satisfied through evolution of the “home screen web app” feature in iOS that will surely show up in Android. The two primary benefits of a downloadable app are the platform specific UX and the placement of an icon on the mobile desktop… HTML5 delivers the former while mobile platform enhancements are delivering the latter.
  3. The benefits for subscription businesses are evident, you don’t have to give Apple or anyone else their 30 pieces of silver, but for applications like Get Satisfaction that are a network of sites (we host over 60k communities) HTML5 is really the only practical way to deliver a mobile experience… otherwise we would face the impossible task of publishing thousand of mobile apps to support communities that demand a mobile experience.
  4. Hardware acceleration for media playback without having a wrapper plugin as a requirement.
  5. A bunch of other stuff opens up, like geolocation and local data storage, plus the code is cleaner because div codes are replaced with new structural elements and the spec has improved semantics which improves the ability for machine access.

There are disadvantages but most of those are a function of the language being a spec subject to ongoing development, and for media publishers the lack of a DRM framework imposes additional burden and media licensing issues forces compression in many formats to support multiple browsers.

I guess we should thank Apple for forcing the Flash vs. HTML5 issue and then imposing a punitive licensing scheme on their app store… both of which have conspired to catapult HTML5 into the foreground for developments of applications which have web and mobile experiences.

Why You Shouldn’t Buy an iPad

I’ve already voiced my belief that the iPad will ultimately be a disappointment. It’s certain that Apple will sell millions of the devices to technophile early adopters but the prospects for the broader market are mixed and considering that Jobs has declared the iPad the “most important thing I’ve ever done” well I can’t help but recall that pride cometh before the fall.

I admit to having mixed feelings about this myself, thinking that having a giant iPod Touch would actually be really cool in spite of the cost of acquisition and cost of operating it (assuming you believe 3G is essential for a portable device like this). Then there are the add-on charges that app developers believe they are entitled to… some are certainly justified but for publishers charging 2 and 3x for iPad apps vs their iPhone apps, I feel repulsed.

Publishers are approaching the iPad like a holy grail that gives them the superpowers to avoid having to reinvent their businesses. It won’t do that and if Time Magazine really believes their iPad version is worth $5 an issue then the only explanation is that they are taking all their leftover print mags and rolling something up in them and smoking it.

The whole notion of having “an issue” really underscores how publishers still don’t understand what is going on with digital content. I, like most of the market, don’t want to read a compilation of content like I had to do with print. I want digitally connected content that brings together many sources topically or theme

Cory Doctorow wrote something today that goes far beyond the iPad specific issues and speaks to the broader trends with devices like this (and the iPhone and the Kindle and many more) that ultimately prove themselves to be hostile to consumers. Take for example the proliferation of DRM that prevents legitimate sharing of content:

And let’s look at the iStore. For a company whose CEO professes a hatred of DRM, Apple sure has made DRM its alpha and omega. Having gotten into business with the two industries that most believe that you shouldn’t be able to modify your hardware, load your own software on it, write software for it, override instructions given to it by the mothership (the entertainment industry and the phone companies), Apple has defined its business around these principles. It uses DRM to control what can run on your devices, which means that Apple’s customers can’t take their “iContent” with them to competing devices, and Apple developers can’t sell on their own terms.

[From Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either) - Boing Boing]

Not only are we passively accepting the locking down of content that otherwise could be legally shared but publishers are using this pacifism to pressure channels to mimic physical goods pricing with digital products that have nowhere near the cost of production and distribution that physical goods have.

The arrival of the iPad, another locked down device, resulted in an unwelcome surprise from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony, which is that publishers will now set pricing on these digital content networks rather than risk having valuable content held back in favor of Apple. It is somewhat ironic that Apple is the catalyst for this move having launched the iPod with a controversial one size fits all pricing model that content owners, then and still now, gripe about but the arrival of the iPad and another dedicated content network highlights how when interoperability of content is not allowed the content owners end up being the ones with real power because they can play the devices off each other.

Doctorow also goes on to criticize Apple, and everyone else if you accept his argument, for offering a sealed hardware device that can only be extended via software applications that the very access to is controlled by Apple. There is a valid point here that abstracting the hardware layer and making it physically inaccessible gives great power to the manufacturer.

Apple’s model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of “that’s too complicated for my mom” (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn’t too complicated for their poor old mothers).

This trend was not started by Apple, it has pervaded consumer goods for decades as our society has embraced disposability over repair and durability. I doubt it will change and in many ways cannot fault Apple for sealing the device but I still cringe when my iPhone battery is on red and I can’t swap in a freshly charged battery… this is where convenience for Apple results in inconvenience for the consumer.

BTW, if we could do away with the tired “even my mother could do it” metaphor we would all be better off… not only is it sexist but it rarely holds up these days… moms are not genetically disadvantaged when it comes to tech.

Like I said at the top of this post, Apple will sell millions of these devices but I don’t believe it will achieve the lofty dreams of the hardcore apple fanboys. It’s not a laptop replacement… and you still need a computer to interact with it so it’s not a new computing model. It’s not even a new computing paradigm because tablets have existed for years and we’ll all been having fun with the iPod and iPhone for a while now. App developers and publishers are wildly enthusiastic about this device but jeez what do you expect them to be… downbeat?

It’s not a phone and it should not be one either… why would you want another number and another service (like Google Voice) to manage the call routing with? I’m reminded of Zoolander with the micro cell phone, only in this picture it’s a supersized iPhone that still doesn’t have the benefits of integrated voice telephony and data… because the carriers aren’t doing that. Maybe Apple (and AT&T) will allow for the tethering of iPads and iPhones… but maybe not… either way it’s not something they talk about now so even though it’s an obvious benefit for users why should we believe they will do it?

This gets to the last point, which is the one that I believe Doctorow is trying to make, which is that you, as a company, have to decide what side you are going to fight for, consumers or partners. You can’t have it both ways and in Apple’s case they went from standing up for clear benefits for customers with the original iPod to now benefiting telcos and content owners, as well as themselves. Amazon is guilty of this as well, rarely has a business been more pro-consumer than Amazon yet by caving to publishers they are saying that their growth aspirations for their Kindle business are more important than standing up for consumers.

Relying on incumbents to produce your revolutions is not a good strategy. They’re apt to take all the stuff that makes their products great and try to use technology to charge you extra for it, or prohibit it altogether.

Cloud Computing and the Morning After

I just read a very interesting op-ed about the opportunities and hazards of cloud computing and it resonated with me on several levels.

Some are in plain view. If you entrust your data to others, they can let you down or outright betray you. For example, if your favorite music is rented or authorized from an online subscription service rather than freely in your custody as a compact disc or an MP3 file on your hard drive, you can lose your music if you fall behind on your payments — or if the vendor goes bankrupt or loses interest in the service. Last week Amazon apparently conveyed a publisher’s change-of-heart to owners of its Kindle e-book reader: some purchasers of Orwell’s “1984” found it removed from their devices, with nothing to show for their purchase other than a refund. (Orwell would be amused.)

Worse, data stored online has less privacy protection both in practice and under the law. A hacker recently guessed the password to the personal e-mail account of a Twitter employee, and was thus able to extract the employee’s Google password. That in turn compromised a trove of Twitter’s corporate documents stored too conveniently in the cloud. Before, the bad guys usually needed to get their hands on people’s computers to see their secrets; in today’s cloud all you need is a password.

Thanks in part to the Patriot Act, the federal government has been able to demand some details of your online activities from service providers — and not to tell you about it. There have been thousands of such requests lodged since the law was passed, and the F.B.I.’s own audits have shown that there can be plenty of overreach — perhaps wholly inadvertent — in requests like these.

[From Op-Ed Contributor - Lost in the Cloud - NYTimes.com]

In recent weeks we have seen the downside of relying on third party hosted application services and having devices tethered to a remote service provider, but these recent incidents are really nothing new. Apple has over the years faced some pretty intense criticism for the control they exert over iTunes and the lengths to which they will go to restrict access by third parties, whether it be the restrictive DRM on iTunes content or their continued skirmishes with iPhone jailbreakers.

The recent case of Amazon deleting books their customers purchased that they were not authorized to sell is particularly egregious and despite their mea culpa and promise to never do it again, consumers are right to be concerned about intrusions onto their personal property by remote service providers. It is something I am increasingly concerned about, not because of bad intentions but simply because this new frontier is increasingly hostile to something that forms the very foundation of the American way of life, property rights.

Imagine the consequences if Best Buy broke into your home to search for pirated DVDs that you were playing on a device you purchased from them, these consequences would be criminal and beyond debate. Now imagine what would happen if Amazon deleted ebooks that were not authorized for digital distribution and hacked onto a Kindle (because you can’t get Kindle content legitimately anywhere but Amazon, indeed their DRM scheme is proprietary) or Apple deleted songs that were not downloaded from iTunes or Google cancelled your Gmail account because of a terms of service violation and didn’t give you your email? What would happen… bubkus because the only consequence would be public outcry and some bad PR.

Meanwhile, the Federal government wants to be a repository for my personal medical records, while also aspiring to be my insurance providers, several states are considering a vehicle tax tied to actual mileage that would be recorded through an in-vehicle transmitter, California is pushing to mandate pay-as-you-go insurance and registration fees which would again rely on forced transmitting of miles driven, and utilities are mandating smart-grid meters for electricity and gas usage that monitor in real time what you are consuming.

All of this is more than a little unsettling and while we are seeing tremendous innovations I can’t help but feel that we are getting ahead of our ability to adjust our regulatory and law enforcement framework to deal with the universal issue of my data, who can see it, and under what protocols. The privacy pendulum has in recent years swung wide in one direction as consumers increasingly express little concern about companies having our data and accessing our devices, the question remains whether that pendulum will swing back violently in the other direction or simply adjust periodically.

Kindle 2 Far

When the Kindle achieves the size of a netbook computer at the same price point but does just one thing… a legitimate question to ask is “what’s the point?”.

The device, called the Kindle DX (for Deluxe), has a screen that is two and a half times the size of the screens on the two older versions of the Kindle, which were primarily aimed at displaying books. The price tag is also larger: the DX will sell for $489, or $130 more than the previous model, the Kindle 2, and will go on sale this summer.

[From Amazon Introduces Big-Screen Kindle - NYTimes.com]

The Kindle 2 is brilliant, my wife is a true addict, but making it bigger is not an improvement. What would make the Kindle 2 better?

1) color screen

2) ability to handle video

3) a workaround for the DRM so you can share content

4) an improved battery technology so that color and video processing doesn’t result in a 2 hour device.

IMDb’s vision: Offer streaming for every title

You kinda have to wonder why this took so long given the obvious fit in terms of strategy. They have a huge audience, already offer a rich media experience, and owned by Amazon which gives them not only marketplace weight but also a streaming download service to deliver this service component through. Lastly, at some point the Kindle will do video…

IMDb founder Col Needham said the massively popular movie database has set as its major goal for the future to add one-button streaming for all of the 1.3 million titles it indexes.

[From IMDb's vision: Offer streaming for every title | Digital Media - CNET News]

Stacey’s Bookstore Closing, Hand Wringing to Commence

When Kepler’s in Menlo Park announced they were closing there was an uproar and eventually a white knight saved them, and when DeLauer’s in Oakland announced they were closing there was media coverage and eventually a white knight. Today it is Stacey’s in San Francisco and right on schedule, uproar and “how could this happen!”. No white knight yet but I would not be surprised.

Like other independent book sellers, Stacey’s had been hurt over the past decade by the rise of national chains, like Barnes & Noble, and Web-based booksellers, such as Amazon.com. The store’s general manager, Tom Allen, said sales had dropped 50 percent since March 2001.

[From Stacey's Bookstore closing down in S.F.]

The usual arguments are “fabric of a community” and how we are all dumber as a consequence of Amazon and WalMart, along with teary eyed nostalgia for the Victorian quaintness of the corner bookstore. All of it is more than I can bear.

The only reason I go to a bookstore today is for children’s books. The notion of browsing for books is really over-rated, given that I’ve found more interesting books on Amazon using their tools than I ever did walking the aisles. Amazon hasn’t been growing because of cheap prices, it’s their customer experience and shear breadth of product that wins the day.

Lastly, speaking of books, I’ve been meaning to write about Chegg for a while now but just haven’t had the time to dig into it. In a sentence, Chegg is Netflix for textbooks.

PS3 Sinks Lower

Santa was not kind to Sony, who not only suffered body blows in cameras and television product categories, but was hit hard on the PS3 as Nintendo and Microsoft saw gains. At this point the market is essentially Nintendo and Microsoft, there is no compelling reason to consider a PS3.

But early results from this holiday season aren’t promising. U.S. sales of the PS3 fell 19% last month from a year earlier, while sales doubled for the Wii console and rose 8% for the Xbox 360, according to research firm NPD. Analysts say they expect PS3 sales for this month to be flat or lower than last year, while sales for its rivals are likely to rise. And Sony may not reach its goal of selling 10 million PS3 consoles in the fiscal year through March, analysts say.

[From PS3 Sags in Battle Again Xbox 360, Wii - WSJ.com]

I’ve written a lot about this over the last couple of years because it’s a fascinating case study on how misplaced product to market trends, pricing, and the inclusion of an orthogonal product (Blu-ray) dictated aspects of product and price to great detriment.

For Sony to move forward and rescue a very expensive mistake they should consider the following steps: 1) cut the price dramatically to be price competitive with Xbox360, 2) buy exclusivity for hot game titles, 3) bundle content from Sony Pictures and integrate video title content in a streamlined online service, and package the product for family gaming instead of power gaming.

Blu-ray is stillborn, they won a war that simply wasn’t worth winning. Sony would do well to invest minimally in Blu-ray while investing heavily in online content distribution capabilities that become the iTunes for gaming consoles. Lastly, partner up with Netflix or Amazon to integrate their download services with the PS3.

Electronic Device Stirs Unease at BookExpo

The Kindle has publishers worried that Amazon will use the popularity of the device to drive down prices. I, on the other hand, don’t share that concern. Also, good data in this article pointing to real growth in the electronic book segment of the industry.

Nearly all publishers say their sales of electronic books are growing exponentially. Carolyn K. Reidy, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster, said its sales of electronic books will more than double this year compared to last year, after growing 40 percent in 2007 from 2006. David Shanks, the chief executive of Penguin Group USA, said his company sold more electronic books in the first four months of 2008 than in all of last year.

[From Electronic Device Stirs Unease at BookExpo - NYTimes.com]

Amazon Kindle or Bezos’ Windmill?

Amazon is highlighting the fact that Kindles are available for immediate shipment following long delays following unprecedented early demand. That Amazon is devoting the choicest real estate on their site to the Kindle, as well as publishing their shareholder letter, underscore the commitment that Amazon is making to this device.

I’ve been watching the Kindle with a high degree of curiosity, fully aware that no electronic book reader has ever gone mass market despite some impressive technology achievements. It has not been lost on me that the reason why the Kindle is different is that Amazon is not a consumer electronics company, they are a retailer that has an enormous amount of clout in the content side of publishing and that is exactly what is required to drive success in electronic books.

It’s clear that Bezos sees a day when any and all content can be delivered to a Kindle and not only won’t Amazon have to store inventory, they also won’t have to ship anything but the Kindle itself to support their book business. In that light, the Kindle totally fits and is an impressive disruptive strategy to boot. Having said that, we have 550 years of mechanical printing to overcome and in terms of simplicity and cost, it’s hard to beat a hardcopy book.

I’m still skeptical that in the next 10 years we will be able to displace print but in many categories not only will this be success but it could be transformative as well. Can you imagine the capabilities that would be made available in classrooms if textbooks were available electronically for the Kindle and then integrated with social network capabilities? Take magazines and other periodicals as another example of a category that could be transformed with electronic delivery.

Still, even though I’ve had one on backorder for my wife, I think I’ll hold out for a little while.

200804281448.jpg