, a journal of politics and culture.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

E-Books: Amazon Versus Barnes and Noble

I've been complaining quite a lot about Amazon's e-book service. My basic complaint is that, because of Amazon's proprietary software, Amazon e-books will only play on devices supported by Amazon's reader software. Presently that excludes my Mac, which means that the only way I could buy Amazon e-books was to also buy Amazon's Kindle (or an iPhone or Touch, which runs the software).

I don't want to buy a Kindle because it does way more than what I want it to do, and as a result it is quite overpriced for my budget and needs.

Thankfully, I have friends who tend to be early adopters of new technology. One of these friends (Diana Hsieh) lent me her Kindle for a few days so that I could check it out. This was quite helpful, because, as Amazon has no physical store front, it is otherwise impossible to pick up and play around with the Kindle before buying it.

I also purchased Karen Armstrong's The Case for God from Barnes and Noble (BN), because it will read on my computer (with the BN reader) and I wanted to try it out. I'm contemplating buying several more books through BN but I worry that they won't read on the e-reader I may ultimately buy and that I won't be able to integrate my purchases from different suppliers. (The word is that Apple is also getting into the e-book game, which could change the industry dramatically.)

BN's Nook is not yet available for purchase, so I cannot directly compare the two services. I'm reading the God book on my Mac screen and comparing that with text on the Kindle. But that's what I have to work with.

I'll begin with the BN e-book. It was easy to buy (once I set up my account), and the BN e-reading software installed and functioned flawlessly. The text looks fabulous on my great Mac screen, and it is easy to increase the font size and resize the window for a narrower column of text.

There is a huge disadvantage with the BN e-book and a minor one. The huge disadvantage is that the e-book will only read with the BN e-reader software, which bugs the living hell out of me. What is the point of having universal formats like pdf and HTML if e-book sellers refuse to use those formats? By contrast, an mp3 song you buy from any vendor will play on any device on the standard software. You don't buy mp3s from Amazon that play only on the Amazon music reader. (Apple-formatted songs will only play on iTunes, but, as I've noted, Apple can get away with this because the company is so great at making players.)

Incidentally, today I spent $63.10 at the Cato Institute's store to purchase seven e-books. These were straight pdf downloads, so I don't have to worry about the compatibility issues of DRM. I do think that publishers should sell both pdf and HTML formats so that users can select the format best adapted to the reading device.

The minor disadvantage is that the BN e-book has no standardized page numbers. Instead, the pagination adjusts to the window and text. The problem is that BN e-books are useless for citation purposes, unless we've gotten to the point where nobody cares about page references because books are so easily searchable. If I do a review of the book, I'll look up the page numbers, ironically, with Amazon's "look inside" feature. Perhaps that should give Amazon the idea that its business model in this area sucks.

There are some advantages to reading an e-book on a computer screen that I did not anticipate. For note-taking, I can easily open a text window next door. The BN e-book allows the reader to cut-and-paste short passages, which is awesome. I also love the way the endnotes work. Click on the endnote to move to that note at the end of the document; click the number again to go back to that point in the text. That beats the hell out of flipping back and forth in a paper copy.

What about the Kindle? Previously I had indicated that I didn't much like the Kindle's design, whereas the Sony e-reader looked more appealing. I have since visited a Sony e-reader in a Target store, and I now think it completely sucks. What I didn't notice before is that the Sony device features ten menu buttons on the right-hand side, which screams poor design. The Target model didn't even work right, which didn't fill me with confidence. It seemed a lot more like a toy than a serious reader.

The Kindle, by contrast, is an elegant machine. The screen looks marvelous, and, while I have not yet spent hours reading from it, I have no doubt that will prove no problem. The Kindle's controls are a lot more intuitive than I thought they would be. One key control is a miniature joystick, which works fabulously. (I'm used to operating a similar control on my Canon video camera.)

The Kindle, then, is great at what it does. The problem is that it does way too much for my needs, and therefore costs way too much for my budget. The Kindle is like a Hummer, when all I'm looking for is an economical and reliable little Honda. Because I don't want to buy a Kindle, and because Amazon e-books will not yet read on my Mac, I am simply not going to buy any Amazon e-books. (Again Amazon might consider the fact that its business model is completely stupid, though at least the company is working on more readers.)

The main thing that the Kindle has that I absolutely do not want in an e-reader (for the money) is wireless technology. What I want is a cheap little USB cable through which I can load e-books from my computer library onto my reader. The ability to buy books on the road is of practically no value to me.

I didn't realize you can browse the internet on a Kindle, which is cool, but again the coolness is not nearly worth the money. Of course I loaded up my own web page. The browser was tracking the loading progress -- I kid you not -- in kilobytes, with a "k." I finally got irritated by the wait and hit the stop button, at which point (at least part of) my web page displayed, and quite nicely. But, seriously, who wants to browse the internet s-l-o-w-l-y in black and white? If I want to browse the internet on the go, I'll buy an iPhone or Touch. I'd much rather carry two devices that do what they're supposed to do than one device that sucks at most of its functions.

Speaking of suckage, I tried the Kindle's audio reader software. Painful. If I were blind, I imagine I could get used to it. But it would be a real struggle. Think of the challenge of getting past Keanu's acting to enjoy the Matrix, then multiply that by a thousand.

The Kindle has a built-in speaker and audio-processing software, so it will play mp3s and audio books. That's cool, but I'd much rather buy a less-expensive e-reader plus a $59 iShuffle. Just sell me the reader. That's all I want it to do.

As an e-reader, the Kindle works great. If I could just buy the e-reader part of the Kindle at a lower price, I'm pretty sure I'd do it. The dictionary is very cool. You just push the joystick until the cursor is in front of the word of interest, and the definition pops up at the bottom.

It is possible to take notes and record them with a Kindle document. Again push the joystick until the cursor is where you want it, then start "typing" your note. The keyboard, as I anticipated, is horrible. I mean, if you were a sentient ferret or something, it would probably be the perfect size. Maybe it's okay for the "texting" generation. But I absolutely hate it. I'd much rather scribble down a few notes on a piece of paper. So, Kindle minus wireless minus the keyboard minus the high price is a device I'd love to buy.

At least the Kindle has standardized "locations" (rather than "pages"), but these don't match the paper version. They are also listed as ranges (such as "locations 14-19"), which is strange. Will publications allow Kindle-specific citations, or will Kindle buyers need to check the page references against the paper versions? I don't know why publishers don't simply insert a page counter into the text itself matching the hard-copy page counts. This is trivially easy to do, though it would be a minor distraction while reading the text. Granted, some older books already have many different paginations. But there's no reason for new books not to feature the same page references for the hardback, softcover, and e-book versions.

The Kindle will run pdf files fine. You can even upload them via USB. But to run files like Word and HTML, a user must send the file to a Kindle-specific e-mail, then Amazon "will convert the document to Kindle format." So, in other words, to get an HTML file from my computer to my Kindle sitting right next to it, I need to send the HTML file half-way around the world to wherever Amazon keeps its computers, where Amazon will convert this already-standard-format file to the completely-non-standard Amazon format, then send the file back to my Kindle wirelessly. Did I mention that Amazon's business model for the Kindle is completely ridiculous? I mean, God forbid that I'm able to send an HTML file via a USB cable and read it with my $259 e-reader. I mean, Amazon can install software that will (sort of) read the text out loud, but it can't figure out how to let me read HTML files directly?

I only had one minor problem while using the Kindle: at one point, when I was trying to jump to a linked table-of-contents entry, the Kindle thought I was trying to highlight some vast portion of the document. But I soon figured out how to cancel out of that mode, and with a little jiggling got the joystick to do what I wanted it to do. (Much of this tinkering I was doing while reading Amazon's tutorial, which is a pretty good document.)

If my income were more upper-middle-class than lower-middle-class, I'd gladly buy the Kindle, despite the risk of betting on an e-book reader that turns out to be the equivalent of Beta or HD DVD. But, given that the Kindle does way too much and therefore costs a lot, I'll wait to buy a reader until the market has settled down a bit, the formatting issues have been resolved, and I can buy a nice low-end reader for $150 or less. At this point I will either wait to buy e-books or buy BN e-books that at least will read on my Mac.

It was a fun date, but the Kindle is not yet marriage material.

December 23 Update: I just had a thought: why doesn't Amazon allow e-book purchasers to view the books in a web browser with password protection? Then Amazon wouldn't even need to release additional readers. Any device with a browser would suffice. Also, I sincerely hope that Apple makes an economy-model reader, as I imagine the Tablet will be priced well outside my budget.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Going Digital

What is extraordinary about my lifetime is that I will have witnessed the birth of the home computer industry and (if things go well) the complete conversion of all relevant media forms to digital formats separate from any particular physical "carrier" medium.

In recent days I have written about the still-problematic e-book industry as well as the move toward online video content. Fittingly, today I found an article by Matt Buchanan covering both these stories in the context of Apple's business innovations. Before getting to that story, though, I thought this is a good time to step back and gaze at the landscape.

The basic art forms are these: music, painting, sculpture, literature, dance, theater, film, and architecture. There are certain hybrids, like opera (musical theater) and illustrated fiction.

Art presented as a structure (sculpture, architecture) may be photographed and filmed, and only in these derivative forms digitized. (One may view a photograph of the Parthenon, but obviously viewing the photo is not at all the same experience as visiting the place.) Performance art may be recorded in audio or on film, and the recorded presentations may be digitized. Going to hear a symphony is a different experience than listening to a recording of a symphony, though the audio quality might be very similar.

Paintings obviously may be digitized, and the similarity of the digitized piece to the original, while generally fairly close, varies significantly by art work. The School of Athens is fantastic on a modern computer screen, but it simply does not compare with the real thing, whereas the Mona Lisa is nearly as impressive digitally (I write as I duck the stones).

Literature is readily digitized, for the same reasons that literature can be translated and read aloud. Literature is the most purely conceptual form of art, and its mode is language, and language is inherently separable from any particular medium (which is not to discount the qualities of a musty old book).

Film inherently converts a performance to a two-dimensional image, so the digitization process is perfectly natural. Some modern "films" may begin with hand drawings but develop primarily digital animation.

For our purposes, the upshot is that film, music, and literature are the most-easily digitized art forms, with paintings following behind. Regardless of how we categorize photography in terms of art, obviously it has joined film in making the natural jump to digital formats. (General retail outlets don't even sell film cameras any more.)

The basic modes of mass communication are text, photographs, speaking, and video (I'll say rather than film, which is now mostly outdated).

The above facts indicate that the modes of digitizing the fine arts match up pretty will with the modes of digitizing mass communication. Whether we are talking about fine arts or mass communication, in the digital world we are basically talking about text, still images, audio, and video. Any digital content basically combines those four sorts of presentation. Basically, if you can see it or hear it, where the seeing or hearing is the point of the thing, it can be digitized. (Whether the sense of touch can be effectively digitized remains to be seen, but a world where more than a few would want such a thing would be a very different world from our own.)

Music has essentially gone digital now. My first album was a record, as in a disc of plastic etched to stimulate a needle. (Genesis, baby, as in the band.) Interestingly, I've never actually looked up the term "analog" until just now: "of or pertaining to a mechanism that represents data by measurement of a continuous physical variable, as voltage or pressure." Anyway, within my lifetime music has gone from entirely analog to almost entirely digital.

Moreover, music has largely made the break from a particular, dedicated medium. While the music CD remains popular, increasingly people buy music online and save it to a hard drive or flash drive.

Video similarly has largely gone digital. Due to its increased file size it remains more tied to the DVD, though this is rapidly changing. My step-dad had one of those VHS video recorders you had to rest on your shoulder to operate. I own a digital video camera that records directly to flash memory. YouTube allows pretty much anybody to upload any video that's under ten minutes, while a variety of services display movies and "television" shows online.

Obviously photography has gone digital. While 35 millimeter film was the standard consumer-grade film in my childhood, today I can't name anybody I know who owns a film camera.

Strangely, text, while far more easily digitized than audio, photos, or video, remains largely bound to ink and pulp. They still print newspapers and books in large quantities. The stickiness in converting text to digital formats is funny given that the analog formats are created from digital source files. Word processors were among the first computer applications.

My mother used a real typewriter in college. I mean, you hit the key, and it caused a metal arm to strike the paper through an inked ribbon. No electricity! When I was in high school, I learned how to type on an electric typewriter; the metal arms were replaced by a rotating ball, but the mark was still made by a metal form striking the paper. Now I don't know anybody who uses anything other than a computer to generate polished text. (Well, I've met two people who still write by hand, a novelist and a philosopher, but they lie well outside the norm. Of course somebody then transforms their scribbles to digital text.)

So why is it that practically everyone generates text digitally but then many still convert it to ink on pulp? There are two main reasons, one involving technology and the other business organization. The technological problem is that reading text on computer screens tends to create eye strain (as I am already experiencing in the writing of this post). It's a lot easier to sit down for several hours and read an ink-on-paper book than it is to read a digital display of the same text. But the new eye-friendly e-readers seem to be on the road to solving this problem.

The second problem is that nobody has yet figured out a great way to sell e-books or profitably publish news online. I think it extremely likely that some combination of business leaders will solve all of these problems within the next few years. I think that, within the next decade or so, printed newspapers will be mostly gone and that the paper-on-ink book industry will look a lot like today's record industry.

Whether we look at video, audio, still images, or text, the trend is the same: people will no longer buy a physical good, they will buy a digital file online and store it on some sort of data drive.

Today I went to Target and spent just over $15 to purchase a four gigabyte "thumb" drive. I loaded it with videos, photos, audio files, database files, and text files, then dropped the device into my pocket. We no longer need dedicated physical objects to store these things. We buy them via an energy stream, then we store them on a universal storage device and enjoy them via some software program running on a gizmo.

I know that techies have already rolled their eyes and closed this page in annoyance, but I stand in awe of the digital revolution that has occurred in just a few years. These simple, obvious, and mundane facts all around us mark a turning point for our species.

As for Buchanan, he reports that Apple appears to be gearing up to expand its online video market and its small-sized computer market. As Philip Elmer-DeWitt indicates for Money, Apple's "Tablet" and associated deals may revolutionize the e-book industry.

Very soon digital content via the internet will be the norm, and records, tapes, CDs, DVDs, newsprint, and pulp books will become quaint (and even eccentric) throwbacks to an earlier age.

Update: I was just poking around at the Cato Institute's web page, and I noticed that the outfit is selling Tom Palmer's new book as an e-book for $14. This is available through Kindle for $9.99. However, I called Cato and was assured their digital books are straight pdfs, and to me that is well worth the extra four bucks.)

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