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May 18 2012

Why I haven't caught ereader fever

iPad 2 illustrationO'Reilly GM and publisher Joe Wikert (@jwikert) wrote recently about how he can't shake his ereader. I read his story with interest, as I can't seem to justify buying one. I was gifted a second-generation Kindle a while back, and it lived down to all my low expectations. The limitations were primarily the clumsy navigation and single-purpose functionality. I loaned it to a friend; she fell in love, so my Kindle found a new home.

At this point, I do all my ereading on my iPad 2: books, textbooks, magazines, news, short form, long form ... all of it. I will admit, I found the new Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight that Wikert acquired somewhat tempting. The technology is much improved over the second generation Kindle, and though I haven't yet played with one in the store, I bet the execution is much more enjoyable. Still, my original hang-ups prevail.

First, I don't want to be locked in to one retailer. On my iPad, I have apps that allow me to read books bought from anywhere I choose. I can buy books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and other smaller retailers, and they will all work on my iPad. True, this spreads my library around in a less-than-ideal organization, but the ability to buy books from anywhere is more important to me.

Also, I'm not so sure ebooks and ereaders will have a place down the road, making the value proposition of the investment that much less appealing. Much like the music journey from records to MP3s, digital reading technology is advancing, and perhaps at a much faster pace than its music counterpart. Jani Patokallio, publishing platform architect at Lonely Planet, recently predicted the obsolescence of ebooks and ereaders within five years, suggesting the web and HTML5 will become the global format for content delivery and consumption. And publications such as the Financial Times and MIT's Technology Review already are dropping their iOS and Android apps in favor of the web and HTML5.

I doubt my iPad will become obsolete any time soon. I look forward to the day books are URLs (or something similar) and we can read them anywhere on any device — and that day may not be too far off. I think I'm so attached to the iPad experience because it simulates this freedom to the best of its ability.

Ereader shortcomings also are likely to present a rich content hindrance, even before a shift to a web/HTML5 format gets underway. In a separate blog post, Wikert talked about a baseball book that missed its opportunity by not curating video links. He wrote: "The video links I'm talking about would have been useless on either device [his Kindle or Nook], but if they were integrated with the ebook I would have gladly read it with the Kindle app on my tablet." As publishers start realizing content opportunities afforded by digital, I think my iPad will serve me better than a single-purpose ereader.

Another hang-up I have, and this is likely to do with my general aversion to change, is the form factor. Most ereaders are somewhere around mass-market-paperback size, and the Nook Simple Touch and Simple Touch with GlowLight are nearly square. I prefer hardcover or trade paperback size — about the size and shape of my iPad. I might be able to get past this particular issue, but given the others I've mentioned, I just can't justify trying.

I will have to surrender to Wikert on the battery life and weight points — the one thing I really liked about the Kindle was its feather-light weight and the fact that during its short stay with me, I never had to charge the battery. I expect the surrender to be temporary, however. I have faith in our engineering friends — two years ago, a research team at MIT was using carbon nanotubes to improve the battery-power-to-weight ratio ... I can't imagine it will be too much longer before life catches up to research. In the meantime, I expect to remain happily connected at the hip to my iPad.

The future of publishing has a busy schedule.
Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at oreilly.com/toc.

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May 04 2012

Publishing News: Nook gets Microsoft, and soon NFC

Here are a few stories from the publishing space that caught my eye this week.

Microsoft enters the battle of the publishing tech giants

NookLogo.pngAfter hinting in January that something might be in the works for the Nook, a deal between Microsoft and Barnes & Noble was announced this week. Reuters reports:

"Microsoft Corp will invest $300 million in Barnes & Noble Inc's digital and college businesses ... Microsoft will get a 17.6 percent stake in the new unit, while Barnes & Noble will own about 82.4 percent ... The business, whose name has not yet been decided, will have an ongoing relationship with Barnes & Noble's retail stores."

Much discussion is flurrying about.

Felix Salmon has an interesting analysis at Wired, writing that "the news does mean that Barnes & Noble won't need to constantly find enormous amounts of money to keep up in the arms race with Amazon. That's largely Microsoft's job, now." He also points out that the real winners here are readers: "... we finally have a real three-way fight on our hands in the e-book space, between three giants of tech: Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. And that can only be good for consumers."

Publisher Thad McIlroy offers an initial analysis of the deal, likening the "marriage" to "two losers stumbling to the altar without bridesmaids or witnesses," and a subsequent in-depth look at just what the $300 million exchange means to both sides:

"I know that Microsoft gained in part because the press release states that the two companies 'settled their patent litigation.' To merely settle patent litigation gives you no idea of who the winner is; the settlement can take myriad forms.

However, the sentence in the press release continues, 'moving forward, Barnes & Noble and Newco will have a royalty-bearing license under Microsoft's patents.' That means Barnes & Noble has agreed to pay Microsoft for some or all of its previously disputed patents via this new company (currently called 'Newco'). And that means Microsoft managed to gain the upper hand in these negotiations." [Link added.]

Microsoft analyst Mary Jo Foley over at ZDNet took a look at what the partnership could mean for future devices: a Windows-powered e-reader, perhaps? She reports that during a press/analyst call, "[Microsoft President Andy Lees] mentioned a few times that Microsoft is positioning Windows as key to the future of reading."

O'Reilly GM and publisher Joe Wikert argues this isn't about ebooks at all, suggesting that "Microsoft should instead use this as an opportunity to create an end-to-end consumer experience that rivals Apple's and has the advertising income potential to make Google jealous." He also wonders if Microsoft might influence B&N to deeply discount Nook prices with a two-year content purchase requirement, similar to what the company just did with the Xbox.

In any case, it looks like Wikert's wish for an end-to-end UX might already be in the works. In an interview about the Microsoft deal at CNN Fortune, Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch says plans are underway to improve offline-online integration to bring a richer experience to customers:

"We're going to start embedding NFC chips into our Nooks. We can work with the publishers so they would ship a copy of each hardcover with an NFC chip embedded with all the editorial reviews they can get on BN.com. And if you had your Nook, you can walk up to any of our pictures, any our aisles, any of our bestseller lists, and just touch the book, and get information on that physical book on your Nook and have some frictionless purchase experience. That's coming, and we could lead in that area."

In response to whether NFC functionality will roll out this year, Lynch said, "Maybe ..."

The future of publishing has a busy schedule.
Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at oreilly.com/toc.

Amazon loses shelf space

Target decided this week that it would cease carrying the Kindle and its accessories. The Verge reports that "the company is going to stop carrying the line of products due to a 'conflict of interest'" and that "[c]ertain accessories will remain in stock, but shipments of Kindles themselves will cease as of May 13th." Exactly why this decision was made remains a bit unclear, though speculations are being bandied about.

The LA Times quotes a Target spokeswoman with the official benign company line: "Target continually evaluates its product assortment to deliver the best quality and prices for our guests," but then points to a New York Times story with a much more telling tidbit:

"'What we aren't willing to do is let online-only retailers use our brick-and-mortar stores as a showroom for their products and undercut our prices,' Target executives wrote in a letter to vendors, asking them to think of new pricing and inventory strategies, according to a note that Deborah Weinswig, a Citi analyst, sent to clients."

Laura Hazard Owen at GigaOm covers a couple possible reasons for Kindle eviction. Given the note quoted in the New York Times, the most likely seems to be that Amazon tried to negotiate new terms that Target just couldn't accept, or vice versa. Owen notes a couple of other important points to consider: Target will continue carrying other brands of ereaders and accessories, including the Nook, and that Apple is set to begin a mini-store test program with Target.

Also notable: Thus far, I haven't seen Amazon comment on the situation.

Is the end of ereaders and ebooks nigh?

The battle for King of the Ereaders may soon come to an end — not because one of tech giants wins the war, but because ebook formats lose out to the web and HTML5. So argues Jani Patokallio, publishing platform architect at Lonely Planet, in a blog post.

He says it all boils down to publishing rights and publishers opting "to circle wagons, stick their fingers in their ears and pretend digital is print." He argues that "in the print publishing industry, publishing rights for different countries and languages are both standard practice and a big deal," but these same agreements don't make sense for digital publishing. They are, in fact, hindering the customers' ability to purchase and read books:

"Customers today are expected to buy into a format that locks down their content into a silo, limits their purchasing choices based on where their credit card happens to have been registered, is designed to work best on devices that are rapidly becoming obsolete, and support only a tiny subset of the functionality available on any modern website. Nonetheless, publishers are seeing their e-book sales skyrocket and congratulating themselves on a job well done."

Patokallio says that "[o]n the Web, the very idea that the right to read a website would vary from country to country seems patently absurd," and that ebooks have an obvious replacement:

"The same medium that already killed off the encyclopedia, the telephone directory and the atlas: the Web. For your regular linear fiction novel, or even readable tomes of non-fiction, a no-frills PDF does the job just fine and Lonely Planet has been selling its travel guidebooks and phrasebooks a chapter at a time, no DRM or other silliness, as PDFs for years now. For more complicated, interactive, Web-like stuff, throw away the artificial shackles of ePub and embrace the full scope of HTML5, already supported by all major browsers and usable right now by several billion people."

Patokallio's post is a must-read, and there were a couple indications this week that he might be on to something. First, "[t]he Financial Times is preparing to kill off its iPad and iPhone app for good, signalling its final conversion from executable-app to web-app publishing." Second, in a post at Wired regarding the Microsoft deal with B&N, Felix Salmon says: "... over the long term, we're not going to be buying Kindles or Nooks to read books. Just as people stopped buying cameras because they're now just part of their phones, eventually people will just read books on their mobile device, whether it's running Windows or iOS or something else."

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November 30 2011

Web-first workflows let publishers focus on the stuff that really matters

Book production workflows are on the minds of most publishers today, as the balance in producing books in both print and digital formats continues to be elusive. At the recent Books in Browsers conference, Hugh McGuire (@hughmcguire), founder of PressBooks (which officially launched last week), addressed workflow issues in his keynote address, "The Beauty of Web-first Workflows." McGuire said two separate workflows shouldn't be necessary and that "the beauty of a web-first book production flow is that we can spend a lot more time on the stuff that really matters and less time on the mechanics of getting a book out the door."

Highlights from the keynote video (below) include:

  • "Ebooks are just a special kind of website, designed to be read in a special kind of browser." [Discussed at the 1:30 mark.]
  • The browser wars have been dealt with in terms of websites pretty well, but we're not there yet with books. [Discussed at 2:30.]
  • Paper now is becoming a bigger problem than digital. "Is paper the IE6 of bookmaking in 2011?" Two separate workflows for print and digital shouldn't be necessary. [Discussed at 8:30.]
  • In a world where anyone can design a beautiful template-based website (ala Wordpress, et al.), anyone should be able to produce an ebook or a paper book as easily. This is where book production needs to go, and HTML may be the key. [Discussed at 9:50.]

You can view the entire keynote in the following video.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

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October 05 2011

Content is a social creature

The upcoming Books in Browsers conference will focus on books as "networked, distributed sets of interactions," as opposed to content containers. I've asked several of the event's participants to address the larger concepts surrounding books in browsers. We'll be publishing these interviews over the coming weeks.

In the brief interview below, Bob Stein, founder and co-director of The Institute for the Future of the Book, addresses a three-part question on content and social engagement. The concept isn't new, Stein says, but the best is yet to come — when content is specifically designed for social engagement.

Is reading destined to become a social activity, or has it always been so?

Bob Stein: Reading and writing have always been social. Authors read the work of others and discuss their ideas with colleagues; readers talk to each other about what they've read. But the reification of ideas into mass-printed objects has obscured the social aspect, which doesn't "appear" to be part of the book itself.

How can content be developed to enhance social engagement without detracting from the content itself?

Bob Stein: Perhaps the conversation (social engagement in your parlance) is a key component of the content; it needn't detract — it can add.

Does all content lend itself to social engagement?

Bob Stein: All content doesn't lend equally well to social engagement, but all content can, if handled properly, gain from explicit social engagement. Most interesting in coming decades will be the creation of new content, designed from scratch to make the most of social engagement.

This interview was edited and condensed.

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR

Photo on home and category pages: Networking People by ZyXEL America, on Flickr

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September 19 2011

At its best, digital design is choreography

The upcoming Books in Browsers conference will focus on books as "networked, distributed sets of interactions," as opposed to content containers. I've asked several of the event's participants to address the larger concepts surrounding books in browsers. We'll be publishing these interviews over the coming weeks.

Below, Liza Daly (@liza), owner of Threepress Consulting and developer of Bookworm, ePub Zen Garden and Ibis Reader, addresses a question about tackling browser display issues.

What kinds of formatting and display issues do browsers need to overcome to handle the various forms of book content — 3D, game-like narratives, immersive texts and the like?

liza_daly_mug.jpgLiza Daly: There is, of course, an art to formatting fixed text beautifully. We call this process "laying out" a design, which brings to mind the pre-digital method of physically laying down type or visual elements in collage to produce a unified final page. The challenge for ebook designers and developers is to think less about "layout" and more about "choreography."

Text can be fluid and responsive — it can reshuffle itself due to display size, orientation, or user interaction. Our job is not to dictate where words on a virtual page must be, but instead to guide them to where they should be. It is not enough to overload a digital page with clickable doo-dads, overlays, and animation: all the elements must move together in concert and, above all, not impair the basic reading experience or enjoyment of the work. This implies a close relationship between an author, a visual artist and a developer — all three must work together to create compelling, adaptive, interactive texts.

This interview was edited and condensed.

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR


Related:


  • Digital publishing should put design above file conversion
  • If you're a content designer, the web browser will be your canvas
  • What if a book is just a URL?

  • September 12 2011

    If you're a content designer, the web browser will be your canvas

    Blank browser windowThe upcoming Books in Browsers conference will focus on books as "networked, distributed sets of interactions," as opposed to content containers. I've asked several of the event's participants to address the larger concepts surrounding books in browsers. We'll be publishing these interviews over the coming weeks.

    First up is Peter Brantley (@naypinya), director of the BookServer Project at the Internet Archive and co-founder of the Open Book Alliance. Brantley, who also is a co-organizer of the Books in Browsers conference, tackled a question about how content publishers should regard the browser.

    Have browsers already become our default mechanism for content consumption? And if that's the case, do content industries need to think "browser first" rather than "digital first"?

    PeterBrantleyMug.jpgPeter Brantley: I think the browser — or more specifically, the browser rendering engine, e.g., WebKit — has been the dominant rendering mechanism for digital content since the advent of the web. Although computer text interfaces were dominant for several decades, non-browser graphical implementations, such as those available on Xterms, were quickly relegated to niche applications once the HTTP protocol was widely implemented.

    The network offers a low-barrier distribution mechanism, and the browser provides for a relatively coherent set of standards over content presentation and behavior. This set of more or less open standards is growing in sophistication through the addition of support for sensor and geolocational awareness as well as more transparent media inclusion and user feedback. Designing for the browser will be what designing content means.

    There's one new issue that browser-based design propels forward: We are just now beginning to grapple with how we learn from, and use, complex media.

    Text has been a persistently desirable format because it offers a low threshold for cognitive processing and conceptual understanding. Creative arts will have to acquire an understanding of when and how we can mentally take advantage of the technologies that are beginning to emerge: e.g., when should their affordances be made visible — and when transparent — to the user. Even more importantly, we will have to make sure the user can control the experiences that they are increasingly helping to craft, and not be unwilling victims of them.

    How we tell stories to each other will remain a challenge at the nexus of our technology, intuition, and empathy.

    This interview was edited and condensed.

    TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

    Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR


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