Category Archives: Technology

Problems with Apple

Apple TV has overheated againI will fully admit that a Twitter debate about Apple products is possibly the most First World thing in existence, but…here we are. Today I spent some time debating with a number of my library friends on Twitter about the relative merits of the Apple UI and whether or not it is superior and/or better in an objective way than it’s competition for the average user. One tweet in the stream that particularly caught my eye and made me feel like I needed to respond more fully was from Jenny Levine (@shifted):

@griffey I used to think that because I haven’t seen blog posts or other pieces you’ve written that note/address Apple issues & problems.

I decided to poke around a bit. As it turns out, Jenny is right…I haven’t written much here about Apple’s shortcomings. So, I decided to list, once and for all, the Things that Bother People About Apple & Their Products (complete with why I don’t think they are a big deal):



The lack of ability to load apps on to iOS devices outside of the App Store

WWDC 2010I would love to be able to load apps directly onto my iOS devices outside of iTunes, whether for testing or just because I want to use an app that doesn’t fit into Apple’s licensing terms for entry into the App Store. Of course, I can do this…I could jailbreak my phone (and I have, whenever I wanted to test something non-Apple approved). There is a very good reason that Apple doesn’t allow this by default: the average user benefits from having a controlled ecosystem for their mobile device. It ensures stability, battery life, consistent interface, and (mostly) prevents malware. It has been suggested that the proper course of action here is for Apple to bury a “let me sideload” option deep in the Settings somewhere, and let people choose to open their device up if they want. However, having jailbroken my phone a half-dozen times, I will say: I have consistently reinstalled to the stock OS.

Apple Hardware is Expensive
Apple's two most recent handheld computersThis one comes up every time I talk about the iPhone or any other piece of Apple hardware…Apple is largely perceived as considerably more expensive than its competitors. First off, this is a relative value proposition, placing unsure values on things like build quality and discounting the cost of software completely…neither of which is a fair comparison.  Apple systems come with the iLife suite built in, some of which can be adequately mirrored by free software on the PC side (Picasa) and some of which really don’t have a good free analogue (Garageband). Windows Movie Maker is better than it used to be, but it’s not really in the same class as iMovie, when you get to actual usage.

But my real issue with this point is: So What? If I argue, as I did today, that Apple puts together a better user experience than any of the other PC makers, what difference does it make that they are more expensive? It’s probably the case that a Lexus dealership puts together a better user experience than Lying Larry’s Used Cars does, even though both sell things with four wheels that move you around. I don’t have a problem with Apple products not being price-competitive with generic PC makers. That’s not what I’m concerned with, and has nothing to do with why I think that they are a better user experience than Generic Windows 7 PC #47 (although in all fairness to Microsoft, Windows 7 is a HUGE improvement on everything they’ve done before).

People hate AT&T
Not happy with AT&T right nowLet’s be clear: people in certain large cities hate AT&T. San Fransisco, Chicago, New York, and more are under-towered for the number of users that are attached to them, but in many cases this isn’t AT&T’s fault. AT&T would LOVE to spread towers over every inch of San Fransisco, but they can’t because SF won’t let them. The converse of this problem is that in many rural areas (like mine) AT&T is literally the only option…where my house is, the only provider with a tower anywhere even close is AT&T.

I wanted to get an Android phone for my last upgrade, and almost certainly would have bought a Droid or an Evo, except that I can’t use either of them in my house. But I don’t blame Verizon for that, or Motorola for that matter. If it made economic sense for Verizon to have a tower in my area, they would…it’s ridiculous to think that corporations wouldn’t move into a profitable area if they thought there was profit here. But there isn’t, so I have exactly one option for carrier where I live: AT&T. And I don’t think anyone would seriously dispute that the best phone on AT&T is the iPhone…they are beginning to get a few decent Android handsets, but 6 months ago it was a wasteland.

I wish that Apple devices were less expensive, and I wish that Apple would allow OSX to be installed on non-Apple hardware, and I wish that Jobs didn’t hate buttons quite as much as he appears to. I really hate the arbitrary rules in the App Store process. I despise their use of DRM. But I do believe, strongly, that even with the problems, Apple devices are almost always better designed, more elegant, more thoughtful, and just straightforwardly more usable than the competition. There are a lot of people that disagree with me, and I’m sure I’ll hear why in the comment on this post. But I think there is objective proof that the public agrees with me…take a look at Apple stock over the last five years. Apple is, by market cap, the largest technology company in the US right now, and the second largest company, period. They could, in theory, overtake Exxon-Mobile in Market Cap…which is insane.

I also admire Apple because they are one of a very, very few technology companies that have consistently changed the fabric of the technology landscape. Apple changed personal computing with the Macintosh, and they changed media consumption with the iPod, and they changed mobile computing with the iPhone…and it’s possible that they’ve now changed personal computing again with the iPad. I defy someone to name another company that’s had such an effect on the landscape of technology over the last 30 years. Microsoft is a great business, but Apple is a revolution engine. Do I wish they did some things differently? Absolutely. But I also think that nobody else comes close to them for usability and user experience.

Technoliteracy

Amazing article in the New York Times from Kevin Kelly about home schooling his 8th grade son, and the lessons learned from the effort. Some amazing pieces of advice about technoliteracy and what everyone should know and learn about technology…here are my favorite bits:

  • Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.
  • Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second. Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.
  • Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.
  • Every technology is biased by its embedded defaults: what does it assume?
  • Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?
  • The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.
  • Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.

Just brilliant stuff. Read the whole article.

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/