Category Archives: Technology

MSU Libraries Emerging Technology Summit 2010

Here are my slides from the Mississippi State University Libraries Emerging Technologies Summit 2010. They very graciously asked me to keynote the Summit, and I’m hoping that the talk was thought provoking and helped kick off what looks to me a really great day of programming.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’ll make sure to find the answer!

Serialized Literature makes a comeback

Way back in 2008 at the Online Information conference in London, I talked a little about where I thought we’d see writing in general go, given the technologies that were mature/maturing: eReaders (the Amazon Kindle had been for just a year at that point), blogs and blog software, and more. I predicted that we would see a revitalization of the sort of serialized long-form content that was prevalent in 19th century literature, like Dickens and Doyle. It made sense to me at the time, given that one could subscribe to an ongoing series, have it automatically delivered as written/released, enjoy it on your container of choice (eReader, mobile phone, etc).

While there have been a few attempts at serialized writing in the last few years, it’s only very recently that I think authors have hit on a model that might work well. There are two that I’m aware of that take slightly different paths but are, in the end, paving a path to an old way, but a new channel, of publishing.

The first, and most exciting to me, is The Mongoliad. From the wikipedia entry:

The Mongoliad is an experimental fiction project of the Subutai Corporation, scheduled for release in 2010. The corporation is an application company based in San Francisco and Seattle, whose chairman is speculative fiction author Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is the guiding force of the project, in which he is joined by colleagues including Greg Bear.

The work is intended to be distributed primarily as a series of applications (“apps”) for smartphones, which the Corporation views as a new model for publishing storytelling. At the project’s core is a narrative of adventure fiction following the exploits of a small group of fighters and mystics in medieval Europe around the time of the Mongol conquests. As well as speculative fiction authors Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo and others, collaborators include filmmakers, computer programmers, graphic artists, martial artists and combat choreographers, video game designers, and a professional editor. In a departure from conventional fiction, much of the content of The Mongoliad will be in forms other than text, not bound to any single medium and not in the service of the central narrative. Once the project develops momentum, the Corporation envisages fans of the work to contribute, expanding and enriching the narrative and the fictional universe in which it takes place.

So this is collaborative, multimedia, world creating…which just happens to be led by two of the biggest names in genre fiction. I’m a complete sucker for Stephenson, and I signed up as soon as the site went live. I’m really looking forward to seeing where this project goes.

The other interesting serialized novel being done is also in the genre fiction realm, the DragonsBard project by Tracy & Laura Hickman. Tracy Hickman is probably best known for being half of the Weiss & Hickman writing duo that gave fantasy the Dragonlance world of novels. Unlike the Foreworld stuff above, which is a subscription model, the DragonsBard publishing model is a single price upfront, which gives you access to the ongoing story and a limited-edition signed & numbered hardcover of the story when it’s over.

There are two things that I find interesting about this model of publishing. The first is it’s leveraging of technology to provide not only different sorts of distribution, but also different types of content completely (images, video, etc). The second is how it allows for the complete disintermediation of the publishing house.

I look forward to seeing if other authors take this approach. I also look forward to seeing how these sorts of works get cataloged. :-)

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.

Quick Office, not Goodreader

After some prodding from Glenn in the comments of my post on Goodreader and the iPad, it turns out that the security culprit doesn’t look like it’s Goodreader at all. It’s the Port 4242 that gave it away, and much thanks to Glenn for pointing it out…I was too concerned with publishing fast, and didn’t follow up the details as well as I should have.

It looks like Goodreader lets you SEE any shared iPad on wifi, but it doesn’t share openly in the way that I described. The bad guy here appears to be QuickOffice, which DOES use port 4242 and share files by default across a shared wifi LAN. I could see in Goodreader the files that someone else had on their iPad in QuickOffice…not the normal set of events for the iOS devices, as the file systems are normally sandboxed to not allow that to happen.

So: revised security alert! If you use QuickOffice on your iOS device (iPhone, iTouch, iPad) please ensure that you have sharing off by default, so that others aren’t able to see your stuff at all.

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.

URLs as a measure of user experience

I’m spending part of my morning looking through tech specs on various desktops and laptops for use as exemplars for our new building. Finding, deciding, and then sending links to our architects  for the systems I’m interested in, so that they can track down heat loads and such for HVAC calculations.

Tell me…which of the following URLs shows a company that cares about User Experience:

Dell Studio One
http://www.dell.com/us/en/home/desktops/desktop-studio-one-19/pd.aspx?refid=desktop-studio-one-19&s=dhs&cs=19&~oid=us~en~29~desktop-studio-one-19_anav_1~~

Lenovo C Series
http://shop.lenovo.com/SEUILibrary/controller/e/web/LenovoPortal/en_US/catalog.workflow:category.details?current-catalog-id=12F0696583E04D86B9B79B0FEC01C087&current-category-id=00C718E6D6AB498383A1A2F8DFF428C3

Apple iMac

http://www.apple.com/imac/

Google Chrome OS on a Dell Mini 9

Google Chrome OS running on a Dell Mini 9.

Chrome OS on Dell Mini 9

Chrome OS on Dell Mini 9

It looks like most everything works (touchpad, including tap-to-click, sound, video at full rez)…except the wireless. Hardwired connectivity works fine, though. Maybe in an updated build they’ll add drivers for the mini 9 wireless.

Anyone else out there having success getting it running on a Dell Mini 9?