Category Archives: Gadgets

Kindle 2 for $89 on Black Friday

I posted this first over at Perpetual Beta, but I felt the need to repost here.

Amazon announced today via Facebook and Twitter that one of their Black Friday deals was going to be blowing out their inventory of the Kindle 2 (the last generation of Kindle) for $89. These are new units, not refurbs, and include 3G access with the device.

This deal is going to get pounded, and who knows how many they have left in stock. If you want to try and grab one, the deal starts 11/26 at 9 am PST.

While I feel that one-day sale prices don’t quite get me where I thought we’d be when I made my < $100 eReader prediction back at ALA Midwinter 2009 as a part of the LITA Top Tech Trends panel, I’d like to think I could take this as partial validation of the prediction.

Why mobile phones are one key to the digital divide

Bobbi Newman tweeted a few days ago:

I whole heartedly, unequivocally disagree with this! Mobile access helps agencies break past digital divide http://bit.ly/bHTYGg

I responded by saying that I thought she was wrong, and that mobile was an effective way to bridge the gap. After a little back and forth on twitter, we decided to just duel it out here on our respective blogs, and she launched the first post just today, Why Mobile Phones are Not the Key to the Digital Divide.

Here’s the crux of what I see as her argument, from her blog post:

I agree with Jason, mobile technology is improving at a rapid pace. However, it is not on par with a computer with a high-speed internet connection. There are many things you still can not do with a mobile phone, even a smart phone. Are we really willing to say that this less robust point of access is acceptable for minorities and the economically challenged?

We must acknowledge that, while mobile access is better than no access, it is still not the equivalent of high-speed access from a computer. It is not acceptable for privileged, economically sound, techno savvy people to state that these two forms of access are the same.

The first thing I think is questionable is the assumption that mobile access isn’t (or rather, won’t be) just as good as that associated with a more traditional “computer” and broadband. What advantage does a computer give that a mobile doesn’t?

  • Connection speed? That’s coming…LTE gives 100+ meg connections via cell signal.
  • Interface (keyboard + screen)? That’s just a bias based on tradition…has nothing to do with actual use. In fact, I will argue that mobile interfaces are actually BETTER than keyboard/mouse for many, many, many things, as the last 3 years of touchscreen UI has shown us.
  • Processing power? While desktops provide a bit better operation-per-dollar valuation, no one except  real geeks buy their systems based on that. Modern mobiles are many times more powerful than the desktops of just a few years ago…they easily handle 99% of the computing tasks that people actually do (word processing, browsing the web, etc). Hell, the iPhone4 does video editing!

I believe strongly that the idea that a desktop is somehow superior to a mobile phone for Internet access is an accident of the time in which we live and the historical nature of the rise of computing. One can easily imagine that 10 years from now the then-digital-natives will look aghast at the desktops of the past. “What do you mean, you had to sit at a desk to use a computer? You pushed actual buttons? What’s a mouse?” I think Douglas Adams said it best (in this, among other things):

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

There are examples, even today, of people who prefer mobile access to the Internet to using a desktop: the entire country of Japan, for instance. Many of them could easily afford desktops, but overwhelmingly they choose mobile phones as the mechanism they use for accessing the Internet.

So unless there are some actual things that can be pointed out as to why Mobile access is second-class (and I swear, if someone says Flash, I quit)….I’m calling this cultural and historic bias.

eBooks, filetype, and DRM

This morning I got a tweet from Bobbi Newman that said:

librarianbyday

Can someone explain to me the tech reasons Kindle doesn’t work with library ebooks, know its DRM, want more specific plz & thnx @griffey

More than you ever wanted to know about filetypes, DRM, and eBooks…here we go.

There are two different things going on when someone tries to open an eBook file on an eReader. One is filetype…how the file itself is organized internally, how the information contained within is encoded. This is analogous to the difference between a Word file saved as a .doc file, a Word file saved as a .docx file, and an Powerpoint file (.ppt). All are different filetypes…the program involved in the creation, editing, and display of those files describes the information contained inside. Right now, there are two main filetypes being used to describe eBook files: the Amazon eBook standard, or .amz file, and the ePub file (.epub) that is used by just about every other eBook vendor.

Amazon  purchased Mobipocket (an early ebook vendor/distributor) way back in 2005, and used their format as the basis for their current proprietary .amz filetype. ePub, on the other hand, is an open, XML based eBook standard, and is used by a huge number of eBook vendors…indeed, it’s easily the standard for current ebook publishing.

But filetype is only half the battle. In addition to the way the file is organized/structured internally, there is also Digital Rights Management to deal with. Think of DRM on an eBook as a lock, with your eReader having the key to open the lock and display the file. Without the lock, the eReader can’t open the file at all…can’t even see what it is. And if it has the key, but can’t read the filetype, that’s no good either…in that case, you can view the contents of the file, but will have no idea how to render it on the screen properly.

Amazon, in addition to using a proprietary filetype, also uses a proprietary DRM mechanism. This means in order to read an Amazon-purchased eBook, you have to have an eReader with the right key, as well as the right interpreter for the file. So far, that means that you have to be using a Kindle, or alternatively, using the Kindle software provided for any number of other devices (Windows, Mac, iOS devices, Android devices). This doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be. Amazon could choose, tomorrow, to remove all DRM from their files. This would mean that you’d still need a program to interpret the .amz, but you wouldn’t need the key anymore. Conversely, Amazon could license their DRM to other eReaders, in effect handing them the key…but it would still be up to the eReader itself to be able to display the .amz file.

Vendors that use the ePub format have chosen different sorts of DRM to lock up their content. Apple and their iBook app use the ePub format, but wrap it up with their Apple-specific Fairplay DRM. This means that while the file itself would be readable by any device that can interpret an .epub file, without that particular key on their keyring, the eReader can’t do anything. Sony, Barnes & Noble, Overdrive, and other eBook vendors have chosen a shared DRM solution. They license their DRM from Adobe, and run Adobe Content servers that provide the keys to epub files that they sell. This means that if an eReader has the key to one of those stores, it has the key to all of them…think of it as a shared master key for any Adobe DRM’d file.

This illustrates why, although both Apple and B&N use epub as their filetype, you can’t buy a book from the B&N store and then move it over to your iBook app on your iPad. Conversely, you can’t buy something on the iBook store, and then move it to your Nook. Same filetype, different lock.

Overdrive, in supporting Adobe DRM’d epub files, work with Sony eReaders as well as the B&N Nook…same filetype, same DRM key to unlock them.

With all that said: any eReader that will read a given filetype will read said filetype if the file doesn’t have any DRM. So if you convert an existing document to an epub using software like Calibre, Sigil, or InDesign, that file will able to be read on a Nook, Sony Reader, AND the Apple iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch. If you have some text and you convert it to, say, a Mobipocket file (.mobi or .pdb) then it would be readable on the Kindle AND the Apple iBooks app…but not on the Nook. For a complete list of eReaders and their corresponding filetypes, there is no better place than Wikipedia’s Comparison of eBook Formats article.

While a DRM free eBook ecosystem would clearly be the best for the consumer (choice of device, free movement of files from device to device, etc), the second best option is an ecosystem where the DRM is ubiquitous and the patron doesn’t even realize it’s there. This was the case with Apple and the early battles for music sales on the ‘net…they had the store and the distribution network (iTunes) as well as the device used to access the content (iPod). All of the content was, originally, DRM’d, but largely no one noticed since it was completely invisible for the average user.

The biggest issue with eReaders and library patrons is that this chain isn’t seamless. The content providers and their DRM servers are huge headaches for the average eReader user. My hope is that publishing goes the same way that music did, we we find both a common filetype and lose the DRM. But it took digital music years and years to get there…so I’m not holding my breath.

I hope that helped, but if it didn’t and you still have specific questions about your situation with eReaders/eBooks, ask away in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.

iPad Horror

Two days ago, I noticed some odd flickering on the lower fifth of my iPad screen, and shortly thereafter I got some very odd banding/video artifacts in the same area. It didn’t seem to have any obvious cause that I could recreate, and last night, this happened:

Needless to say, today I called Apple, and as always they were awesome about getting it fixed. There is a new iPad on its way to me even as I type, and I’ll throw this one in the box and send it back.

This looks like a faulty display or video cable to me…somewhere, a connection is shorting out. Can’t really troubleshoot a hardware issue on this sort of thing, so back it goes…and I’m actually just fine with that. Because of the iTunes syncing, I’ll be able to plug the new one in and restore it, and go right on about my business.

The week of waiting

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I’m almost unnaturally excited about the iPad launching this week. There’s a lot that I’m excited about, but a short list would be:

  • iBooks
  • Digital comics
  • Games
  • Web-browsing
  • Video on the huge screen

The most exciting things are the ones that emerge as a result of the new form-factor combined with multi-touch. I’m maybe most looking forward to the apps and web experiences that I would have never thought of before…like this one, called iMockup:

Seriously, that looks awesome for quick and dirty UI work. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve gone to Caitlin’s office and been like “Give me a sheet of paper and tell me what you think about this…” This total fits that creative space in my head, and puts it into a digital form that I can reuse.

Is this new on the iPhone?

I’ve been testing a new Google Reader app over the last few days called Reeder, and noticed a UI piece that I hadn’t seen before on the iPhone. Check these pics:

Reeder Reeder

On the first one, check the small dot in the upper right. If you swipe it, it folds to the left and shows the text on the second pic. Swipe back, and it goes back to the standard connectivity/time message. This is the first time I’ve ever seen an app take over the title bar…some make it go away, but this is the first I’ve seen with this behavior.

Are there any others that do something similar? It says something about the tyranny of the Apple UI guidelines that this shocked me so much.

Drowning in eReaders

I’m in the middle of writing an issue of Library Technology Reports on Gadgets in your Library, focusing on personal electronics (eReaders, personal media players, cameras, audio recorders, etc). I’ve been drowning in electronic readers lately, starting with the Barnes & Noble Nook finally shipping and going all the way through a myriad of hardware vendors that are jumping into the eReader space. A few of the eReaders that might not be on everyone’s radar: