Archive for May, 2008|Monthly archive page

Kindle on fire (?) part 2

Reports are in that Jeff Bezos, in a conversation with Walt Mossberg at the All Things D conference stated that kindle represents 6% of sales of titles at Amazon. Which seems pretty remarkable. But as usual with kindle stats, there’s a lack of detail that raises more questions than it answers. Here’s the quote:

8:25 Mossberg: I liked the seamlessness of buying books, even though I had hardware reservations. How many have you sold?
Bezos: We haven’t shared this number before so maybe it qualifies as news for you…Kindle sales are 6% of books on the 125k titles available on Kindle. (via Gizmodo)

Let’s take apart the actual sentence: There are 125,000 titles available for the kindle. Of those 125,000 titles, 6% of sales are for kindle, 94% are for print. Still impressive, but skewed in all sorts of ways. For example, kindle owners need to read something and can only buy what’s available – which will push up the kindle vs print numbers on any particular title. (Case in point – I have a copy of Larry Lessig’s Free Culture on my iphone – partly because it’s one of the few books I want to read that’s easily available via the installer.app.) As well, we don’t know what the sales figures for those particular 125,000 titles – it could be 6% of not very much at all.

Without getting actual sales figures, it’s *still* impossible to tell how well kindle is doing. Come on Jeff, spill 🙂

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Flash Borders

The holy grail of online commerce was once to replicate the bricks and mortar experience online. Whilst online shopping moved beyond that to a largely search-driven mode, other interface ideas still try to create digital experiences that evoke a visceral response. Witness Apple’s cover flow and Delicious Library. Now Borders has revamped their US website with a flash-driven magic bookshelf, designed to rekindle (sorry ) the joy of serendipitous discovery. A fair try, but at first blush the contents of the magic bookshelf are pretty shallow – and don’t provide sufficient depth to make the Borders online experience better, or even different. Much like the real world version I guess.

Microsoft Leaves Town

A couple of years ago, google book search got all the attention (and drew the flak and the lawsuits). At that time, Microsoft had also embarked on a book search program, working with a number of partner libraries on a product that went head to head with google. Both companies were busy scanning the world’s printed book collections – but Microsoft was less provocative than google, working only with permission (as opposed to google’s opt-out approach). From an infoworld article:

[Microsoft] will shut down the Live Search Books and Live Search Academic Web sites and stop scanning library and copyright books, Satya Nadella, senior vice president of search, portal and advertising for Microsoft…

The company will give its scanning equipment to its library and digitization partners and encourage them to continue to scan books.

It appears that the scanned archives (numbering over 750,000 books) will be available for public searching and indexing – which hopefully means that rather than have two competing silos of ebooks, everything will be available to everyone. Over to you google…

Nice, but is it vaporware?

The OLPC(one laptop per child)  people have been touting their next device which, with its two touch screens, looks just like a twenty-first century book. From the press release:

Enhanced Book Experience – Dual-touch sensitive displays will be used to enhance the e-book experience, with a dual-mode display similar to the current XO laptop. The design provides a right and left page in vertical format, a hinged laptop in horizontal format, and a flat two-screen wide continuous surface that can be used in tablet mode. 

Of course, some have already suggested that the OLPC project makes an ideal ebook reading device. But these preliminary ideas for OLPC2 suggest that its next incarnation might fit that ideal even better. of course, it’s easy to render up a couple of fancy images and tell us it’s coming soon. I’ll believe this one when I see it.

OK, I’m hooked…

Finished ‘down and out’ on the iphone yesterday – pretty much in one hit and it was fun. A little eyestrain, but I’m not putting that down to reading on the iphone just yet!! Anyhow, I’ve discovered (and I suspect I’m just slow here) that manybooks.net has iphone installer sources for its entire library 🙂

iPhone as ebook reader revisited (Part 3)

My iphone was hacked in September last year, and because it worked fine, I saw no need to upgrade the firmware – the few tweaks that Apple provided didn’t seem sufficiently compelling to risk bricking the thing. But my mate John took the plunge to 1.14 about a month ago. And lo and behold, one of the things that was pretty annoying was fixed – that being a problem with short sms messages which meant that voicemail notifications weren’t getting through. So, in the spirit of new toys, I did the deed yesterday (re-virginizing and using iplus 2) and apart from a couple of hiccups (first go had to be aborted due to a missing file and a remaining issue with ftp access) and a couple of hours entering star-trek like commands into a terminal window, it’s all good to go.

And it confirmed to me a couple of things. Firstly, those who dismiss the iphone because it can’t do x or y are really missing the point. The iphone is not a phone, but a platform. At the moment it’s incomplete and awaiting the imprimatur of the Fruit Company Mothership. But the difference between the iphone and the rest of them is that the iphone really *is* a computer in your pocket. I had a Treo 650 for 2 years and whilst I installed a bunch of third party hacks, Palm never gave me a worthwhile upgrade to the OS, and never provided a way to make it easy to do. So, in essence the Treo never progressed. In less than a year, the iphone has had a few firmware upgrades – all of which have added significantly to the user experience – and all of which were no-brainers for legitimate users to do. 

But I digress. The firmware update made extra applications far more accessible, so as a result I’ve been installing a bunch of toys. One of which is the books.app, which I had so far neglected. And it pretty well addresses all the issues I’ve had with the iphone as an ebook reader. At first blush, it’s pretty damn good. 

For a start, the books are stored locally, so you don’t have to be online to read, nor deal with the instability of filemarks. Then, the interface works a treat. Touching the bottom of the screen pages down; touching the top pages up. Touching the middle provides a bunch of navigation options (next chapter, a scrollbar) that just make sense – as well as easy font resizing. And you can set the default font. All in all it seems to make reading much more accessible. But I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve read a complete book – I’ve just started Cory Doctorow’s “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” and will post a note when I’ve read it. 

The only problems are the obvious ones – it’s a hack – so a certain geekiness is required to get it to work (jaikbroken iphones and ipod touches only); there’s a lack of titles in the appropriate format (although a kind soul has provided a properly formatted repository of the Baen Free Library); and there’s hurdles to jump through to get books the way you need them.

But the Books.app has restored my faith in the iphone as ebook reader – and suggests that once the official SDK is released and some publishers see the potential (4 million iphones so far, millions more ipod touches – compare that to kindle or sony reader), there may be some real good times ahead!!

Maybe the Kindle *is* on fire…

A Techcrunch post links to some Citigroup analysis which suggests that kindle is actually doing really well (edited extract here):

How Is Kindle Doing So Far In The Marketplace?

Our ability to answer this question is very limited. Amazon is the sole retailer of the Kindle and it has disclosed no information about its sales other than to say that it sold out in the first 5 1⁄2 hours. But we have pieced together four different clues to gain a sense of Kindle’s traction.

First, we note that Kindle has consistently been ranked among Amazon’s Bestsellers in its Electronics category…

Second, we note that the Kindle has received a very large number of customer reviews… 

Third, we see that the quality/tone of the customer reviews the Kindle is receiving is relatively positive…

 

And fourth, we note that the most reviewed Customer Review of Kindle (“Why and how the Kindle changes everything” by Steve “eBook Lover” Gibson) has been reviewed by at least 27,000 people…

We believe that this helps provide something of a proxy for how many Kindles have likely been sold. We’d peg the number as somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 Kindles sold to date.

The analyst then compares that with the 129,000 ipods sold in its first three months – and extrapolates the data (with some pessimistic discounting) to suggest that the kindle might have legs too. Now there’s all sorts of flaws with that kind of direct comparison, both up and down  – not the least of which is that there was a point when the ipod sales took off and the device became a mainstream phenomenon instead of a geek toy. Which has not happened to the kindle yet. That’s not to say that a parallel trajectory is impossible, but there’s nothing to suggest it’s inevitable.

But what do I know, I’m not a highly paid consultant for a big investment firm 🙂

Deja Vu?

Apropos my recent laments for the state of the ebook reader, a more positive reflection. It seems that every day brings news of another ebook reader of some flavour, each following the same kind of basic formula – e-ink screen, minimal interface, slightly geeky options and design that only a mother could love. Those of us who were around and watching the emergence of mp3 players very early this century will feel a sense of deja vu. Back then, a whole bunch of music players, each following the same kind of basic formula – LCD screen, minimal interface, slightly geeky options and design only a mother could love. Even recognised brand names such as RCA, Microsoft and Thompson couldn’t find the magic formula. It wasn’t until the introduction of the ipod in late 2001 that things shifted. And that introduction was, itself, merely the first step in a journey that took several years – which included the debut of the itunes store in 2003.

To me, ebooks 2008 feels like mp3 2000. Nothing has yet hit the sweet spot – and many are waiting for Apple to repeat its ipod trick. Of course, we need to be cautious about drawing direct parallels– there are distinct differences between books and music that can’t be dismissed too easily. At the same time, the ipod has proven that users are perfectly happy to use (and buy) digital ‘non-objects’; we’re not nearly as wedded to things as we think. So when I say that in ten years (give or take), downloading and reading ‘books’ on electronic devices will seem as natural as breathing, don’t laugh too loud. Just remember how funny the same statement would have sounded ten years ago if applied to music…

 

MacMillan goes Digital

Susan Wyndham’s Undercover blog tells us that Macmillan down under is launching its digital publishing program:

Including authors such as Matthew Reilly, Di Morrissey, Helen Garner and Andy Griffiths, Macmillan has about 400 books from its backlist in three ebook formats – Adobe eReader, Microsoft Reader and Mobipocket – and an online version.

Just as a test, I went to the Macmillan online bookstore. Here’s some thoughts. The range is small, but there were a few titles that I would be happy to buy. But the value equation is still not there – an electronic version of The Book Thief is listed at $18.14 – for $19.95 (inc GST) I found a paperback edition of the same book at a bricks and mortar shop. Like I said, for e to be convincing, it has to be better than p. And,for most of us, better means cheaper.

Update: I’ve just come across a press release  (pdf link) from Dymocks which suggests that Dymocks has a 6 month excllusive on Macmillan digital titles (and numbers those titles at 750). Which is a little confusing seeing as it appeared that I could buy directly from the MacMillan online store (although I didn’t actually purchase anything, so it may not be possible). Instinctively, I’m not a big fan of exclusive distribution deals – but if that’s what it takes for Australian publishers to embrace ebooks, then so be it…

Slashdot Redux – or more thoughts on ebook readers

You can tell that no progress has *really* been made in changing cultural expectations when the same arguments that were trotted out a decade ago continue to be pursued. A slashdot thread reprises the same debates about e-books that we’ve been having for ever…. “prefer real books”, “turning pages is nic”e, “price of ebooks is too high”, “nothing compares to paper”, “but free ebooks are cool”, “I read on my palm V etc etc”

And these are the geeks. Mind you they are the geeks that dismissed the first ipod as “lame” so the combined slashdot judgement is far from infallible. 

I guess my point is that if the arguments about e-readers have not really moved on, then they haven’t *really* been addressed by the new generation of devices like Kindle. Or if they have been addressed (by technical improvements in display technology etc), then the perception – and the culture – of those who read has not been shifted by their availability. At least not on a scale that matters. 

It merely re-emphasises the fact that cultural change is much more difficult than technical change, and I’m convinced that it will take more than just a killer device *by itself* to shift the culture. It will be driven by increased pleasure (convenience, new abilities, better access to more titles) or decreased cost. Or both. Sorry to say it, but to suceed, an ebook can’t be “as good” as a pbook. It probably has to be better.