July 23rd, 2010 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Apple, Tech

While it’s possible that next year will be even bigger, this seems to be the year of the eBook.  There were a plethora of new eBook readers announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, and a bunch more have been announced since then.  There’s not really a lot of variation among the readers themselves, but the competition is going to help drive down prices to the point where the cost of the hardware is no longer the biggest factor in a buyer’s decision making process.

Perhaps an even bigger reason to call this the year of the eBook is that virtually all of the main retail channels for book sales are now supporting eBooks in a big way.  Amazon and Barnes & Noble both have their own dedicated readers, while Borders has teamed up with several different manufacturers. 

One of the most important developments in this whole situation is the fact that these companies have realized that it’s ultimately the software (that’s the eBooks themselves in this scenario) that brings in the money.  So instead of trying to do everything they can to tie you into a specific piece of hardware, they have gone out of their way to make it as easy as possible to use the software wherever the user wants.  All of the big retailers have all made apps that allow you to read their eBooks on other devices besides the dedicated readers. 

For example, Amazon offers a Kindle application for the iPhone, iPad, and other devices.  Barnes and Noble has a similar reader app for Nook-compatible eBooks, as does Borders.  While each of these vendors have encoded their eBooks with their own flavor of DRM (Digital Rights Management), they’ve gone a long way to allow users to read their eBooks anywhere they want.

In particular, owners of Apple’s new iPad device are in eBook Heaven, with the ability to read Amazon’s Kindle eBooks, Barnes & Noble NOOK eBooks, Apple’s own iBooks, Border’s eBooks, and more.  Not to mention the wide variety of dedicated magazine applications that offer up concurrent E-releases of current magazines.

Leading The Pack: Amazon Kindle

Just over two years ago, Amazon debuted the first version of their Kindle eBook reader.  This wasn’t the first handheld eBook reader on the market, but it offered several innovations over previous portable eBook readers.  However, it ultimately wasn’t the hardware that was the real big deal.  The real paradigm shift came on the software side of things.  Previously, most eBook systems offered mainly a variety of reference titles and “classic” novels that didn’t have to be licensed because they were old enough to be in the public domain.  However, Amazon was able to leverage their position as one of the world’s preeminent book sellers to broker a wide variety of content deals with publishers.  As a result, from day 1 they were ready to offer a huge library of current titles in just about every genre, including many titles from the current bestseller’s lists.

More than anything, the Kindle represented the first time an eBook reader was capable of offering a reasonable selection of books that people actually wanted to read.  With all due respect to the classics, most people are looking for the next release in the Twilight series, not Treasure IslandAnd what’s more, bestselling titles were offered at paperback prices while the physical version was still available only in hardcover, giving avid readers a chance to recoup some of the Kindle’s price.

I looked upon the Kindle with great interest when it first came out, but several factors prevented me from buying one right away.  Price was an issue, of course.  But the biggest factor was the fact that Amazon was an online-only retailer.  The actual experience of reading on the Kindle was the most important part of this whole equation, and there was no way to try it before buying!  I had to know how the device was going to feel in my hands, how the screen was going to look, and most importantly, how the experience of reading books on Kindle would compare to reading paper books. 

Yes, there were other eBook readers available at retail that I could go check out in person.  But at the time, they all used a regular LCD instead of the Kindle’s “e-ink” display, which was purported to be much more clear and readable.

I wanted to believe in the basic idea of eBooks, but wasn’t sure if the Kindle was where I needed it to be, or if I needed to wait another generation or two.

While I was debating my purchase, Amazon released the next-generation Kindle 2.  The hardware interface was a bit more streamlined, and the operation was a little faster, but mainly it was not all that much different from the original machine.  So I was still unsure.

Here Comes Nook

As it turns out, the thing that finally got me to buy a Kindle was the introduction of the Nook from Barnes & Noble.  Other than having a secondary screen where some of your user interface choices are displayed, the Nook is very close to being essentially the same hardware as the Kindle 2.  Both units were about the same size and weight, and had the same size screen.  And ultimately, the software isn’t that much different either.  Not in the broad strokes, anyway. 

However, there’s one important difference with the Nook.  While the Kindle was sold online only (at the time), the Nook was going to be available in each store of the massive B&N chain.  If not anything else, this meant I’d have a chance for a hands-on experience before laying down any cash.  Looking at the Nook would answer a lot of questions about the Kindle. 

Unfortunately, when B&N put these huge “Nook COMING SOON” displays into the stores, they didn’t actually include an operational Nook in the equation.  At least not at first.  But then in mid-December while picking up a stack of new magazines, I noticed a line of people at the Customer Service desk.  They were all waiting for a chance to try out the fully operational Nook that was now on display.  So I got in line and had a look myself.

The Nook turned out to be a very nice device in most respects.  The main screen was very readable, and the secondary color touchscreen also looked pretty good.  However, while the hardware looked good, there were several things about the software that ended up pushing me towards the Kindle. 

First, the Nook’s user interface seemed a bit awkward and inconsistent.  The design seemed like it didn’t really quite know how to make the most of a touch-screen system.  The screen real estate was under-utilized.   Last, the system seemed slow to respond to my input, and also seemed to buffer the input.  So I’d press something on the menu, wait a bit while nothing happened, then I’d press again, and the system would eventually end up processing both times I’d hit the screen.  Ultimately, I learned to be more methodical.  I’d tap the screen, wait for it to finish, then tap again as needed.  That worked better, but underscored the slow response time.

I was last in line to look at the demo unit, so I had a good 10-15 minutes to try things.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the Nook would probably be a really nice machine some day, after a couple of software upgrades.

My Kindle 

At this point, I didn’t know for sure if the Kindle’s software would be any better than the Nook, but I hadn’t really heard anything too bad in any of the reviews I’d seen, and at least my concerns about the hardware had been put to rest.  So I decided to take the plunge and ordered the Kindle 2 a few days after checking out the Nook.  It arrived a few days before last Christmas.  

I decided that the only really fair test of this new device would be for me to go cold turkey with regards to paper books.  At least for fiction, since I’d already determined that things like computer books didn’t work on this smaller screen size.  So I put aside the stack of paperbacks awaiting my attention and bought several new titles on the Kindle.

The Screen

One of the reasons I waited to buy the Kindle was that I was concerned about the size of the screen.  I wasn’t really worried about the sharpness of the text, because I knew that the screen resolution was about 4x as many pixels per square inch as a typical computer monitor.  But I was afraid I would find the screen size to be too small.  For a long time, I thought I’d only be happy with the larger Kindle DX, with its 50% larger screen.   But the higher price of the DX was just a bit too much for me to jump into without having had a chance for a hands-on demo.

When I got the chance to try out the Nook, which has the same size screen as the regular Kindle, I decided the screen size would not be a major issue.  Actually,  for reading fiction, the screen size of the Nook and Kindle is just about perfect.  At the smallest text size, the screen is quite readable, and holds about 95% as much text as a page in a typical paperback book.  And it is just small enough to fit into my pocket.

However, for non-fiction, especially things like computer books, I definitely wish the screen was bigger.  As a general rule, any non-text content seems a bit too small on the regular Kindle.  The same is true for many non-standard bits of text, like source code listings in a computer book.  This also applies to many documents stored in the Adobe PDF format, since the current version of the Kindle software offers no capability to zoom and pan around the page.

The main issue that I have with the screen is that I wish it had greater contrast.  Instead of a true black text on white paper look, you get a dark grey text on a somewhat lighter grey paper.  However, I do have to say that the screen is quite readable and I’ve never noticed any particular eye strain when reading, even after an hour or two.

Battery Life

The main variable with battery life depends mostly on how much you use the 3G radio.  The main reason to use 3G is so that you can sync your reading progress with other Kindle software/hardware, and for when you want to do shopping/browsing from the device itself.  For general reading, you can turn off the 3G radio to conserve battery power.

My experience is that with the radio on, from a full charge you can expect the battery to last a good 5 days or more.  It charges via USB with the included cable in a couple of hours, so as long as you pay at least a little attention to keeping the device charged, it should rarely be a problem.

Given how good the battery life is, it’s a shame they didn’t put a big solar cell on the back… you’d never have to plug it in then!

The User Interface

The hardware side of the Kindle’s user interface is just about perfect for me.  The layout and operation of the various buttons is just fine, with one exception.  The left side of the screen includes buttons for “Next Page” and Prev. Page”.  The right side has a button for “Next Page” but no “Prev. Page” button.  We do get a “back” button which SOMETIMES does the same thing, but not always.  I think we’d be better off with symetrical buttons for next/previous.

The Kindle’s software user interface is a mixed bag.  Operating the menus is mostly easy and intuitive.  But I felt like they took the easy way out with the main listing of books.  Everything is shown in one long alphabetically-sorted list.  You have a couple of different sorting options and some very basic filtering, but it really is the bare minimum.  As long as you’ve only got a small amount of content, it’s not too bad, but as the list grows to several pages, I find myself wanting more options for organizing everything.

We should be able to assign each book to a category or attach keywords, and then define viewing filters based on whatever boolean combination of categories or keywords you want.  If I want the main listing to show only books tagged with “SCIFI” or only books tagged with both “SCIFI” and “STARTREK” I should be able to do that.  Furthermore, I should be able to define and save different filter sets so that I can switch back and forth quickly.

Book Shopping

Shopping for books on the device itself is something of a mixed bag.  Overall, if you’re looking for something specific, finding it is fairly simple.  However, if you’re wanting to browse around without a specific title in mind, then to be honest you’re better off using your computer and web browser.

Oh, there is a built-in web browser, so technically you could browse the Amazon website that way from the device itself, however, I had mixed results using it, and Amazon refers to it as “beta” so for now I would not consider that a mainstream solution.

One nice feature of the Kindle setup is the ability to download samples of books so that you can read a chapter or two before buying.  This only works when browsing the Amazon website, however — you cannot download a sample from within the store browser on the Kindle device itself.  Otherwise, this is a great feature.  The only real downside here is that when you’re done reading a sample and decide to buy the book so you can continue reading, the price of the book is not shown.  You have to exit the sample and do a fresh search to get the price.  Personally, I would have made sure that the price was shown prominently EVERYWHERE the user has the option to buy the book, but apparently the Kindle’s designers either disagree or they managed to overlook this idea.

In Conclusion

The whole eBook thing still has some rough corners but it’s off to a good start.  I would say that the biggest problem right now is the fact that there is a lot of content that isn’t available in eBook format yet.  There are many reasons for this, such as the fact that there are still a number of publishers who haven’t gotten on board with the idea of eBooks in general.  And even with the publishers that ARE offering eBooks, there’s a bunch that still haven’t wrapped their brain around the idea that eBooks don’t really follow the traditional publishing business model. 

The other big problem has to do with pricing.  I don’t mind paying $9.99 for a brand new release that’s otherwise only in hardcover, but asking me to pay $7.99 for an eBook when the paperback edition is the same price is just wrong.  Especially when it’s some title that’s been out in paperback for years and years.

It’s not the huge kind of wrong that prevents me from buying ANYTHING, but I have to say I’d buy a crapload more older titles if the prices made more sense.  But I’ll get into that in another article, another day.

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June 17th, 2009 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Apple, iPhone

The much-anticipated version 3.0 of the iPhone software was finally released this morning.  I was up early and online so I started checking at about 6am (PST) but nothing was available yet.  At about 7pm it occurred to me to check the Twittersphere for information and so I loaded up TweetDeck and did a quick search for “#iphone 3.0 update“.

The people tweeting about the update mostly fell into the category of “It’s the 17th so where is it?”  However, then I saw a tweet that showed a link to a page on Apple’s website where it apparently said that the update had been moved to the 18th.  When I checked out the page, it did indeed say the update would be coming out on the 18th, but it didn’t say anything about this being a change from the previous announcement.  Navigating the site from the front page soon revealed that there was another very similar page that indicated the 17 th. I couldn’t find any links to the page that said the 18th, so I’m thinking someone discovered an outdated page and posted direct links to it.

Awhile later, a few people posted links to a couple of news websites which had stories indicating that the update would be released at 10am PST.  So I went back to what I was doing.

Doing The Deed

 At a few minutes after 10am, I launched iTunes and got a message that there was a new version of the iPhone software available, and did I want to download it?  I thought about that for a couple of picoseconds and then hit the button for Download and Install.

I was expecting the update to take forever to download, since everybody and his brother would be trying to update at once, but to my surprise the 200mb+ download took just a few minutes.  Either Apple must have a bunch of servers hosting the update, or I just got lucky.  When I checked the system again a few minutes after starting the process, I was surprised to discover it was actually just about done.  I sat and watched the progress bar for the last few minutes, and when the phone finally came back up and running, I’d say the total elapsed time was probably not more than 10 minutes or so.  Maybe 12 minutes tops.  It happened so quick I wished I’d actually timed it so I could see how quick it really was.

First Look

The first thing I noticed was that a new icon for Voice Memos had been added to the 1st page.  The new voice memo feature wasn’t really something that was at the top of my list of things I wanted, mainly because a few months ago I’d gotten tired of waiting for something like this and had bought QuickVoice from the App Store.  However, I was never completely happy with QuickVoice, and after trying out the new Voice Memos applet, I really like it and I think I’m going to switch.  I especially like that it creates more or less standard MPEG-4 audio files, and also that it sends files via EMAIL wherever you want.  QuickVoice had some wacky feature for emailing voice memos, but it required sending stuff through their own server and frankly it just didn’t work in my experience.

The next thing I noticed was that the SMS Messages applet had been renamed to just “Messages“, no doubt to accommodate the idea that MMS messages are now supported as well.  However, upon opening the new version of the applet, I couldn’t immediately see any difference.  And the reason for that turns out to be that the MMS feature is not enabled quite yet.  Apparently we’re waiting for AT&T to flip the switch.

Seriously?  WTF?  Every other damn phone that AT&T sells supports MMS, so what is the freakin’ deal with enabling it on the frakkin’ iPhone?  Why is it that every time we turn around, there’s some goofy limitation on this device that ultimately tracks back to AT&T?

Search

Another thing I noticed was the addition of a teeny tiny little magnifying glass icon at the left end of the row of dots that indicates what page of icons you’re currently viewing.  Click that and the new Spotlight Search function appears on screen.  From there, as you type in a search phrase, it will show you everything on the phone that matches.  Video files, song files, applets… I mean everything.  If you’re familiar with the Spotlight function on the Mac, you’ll find that the new iPhone version of this feature works in much the same way.

At first, I thought that the little magnifying glass icon was going to be really hard to click, but in operation it turns out to work reasonably well.  There’s enough room between the row of icons above and the row below that even users with fairly big fingers should have no problem.

Cut, Copy, & Paste

I said it before and I’ll say it again… big frakkin’ deal.  I’m glad they finally got this basic feature into the dang phone.

*MY* YouTube

One feature I was definitely  looking forward to seeing was the new version of the YouTube applet, with the ability to actually sign in to my account and view my favorites and subscriptions.  Frankly, I hadn’t used the old version of the applet all that much simply because I found it to be too much of a pain in the ass to have to type in searches to find everything.

One wacky thing I noticed that videos in my subscriptions did not appear to be sorted in any particular fashion I could figure out.  I would have expected the newest ones at the top, oldest at the bottom, but that did not appear to be the case.  It wasn’t alphabetical, or sorted by the number of views.  Finally I figured out that the list was sorted by rating.  An interesting choice, and not one I find especially useful.  I looked around the applet, and even checked the system’s Settings applet, to see if there was any way to change this, but didn’t find anything. 

Apple, this is a seriously goofy choice.  First of all, there should be a choice of sorting options.  But if you’re not going to provide such a choice, I’d much rather see the list sorted by date with the newest videos at the top.

The Rest Of It

There’s a whole bunch of other new stuff in the 3.0 software, but most of it is not invidually a big topic.  You can now buy movies, tv shows, and audio books in iTunes.  I didn’t realize you couldn’t already do that until they announced it as a new feature.

The calendar has been improved, including the ability to sync up with Exchange and other applications supporting the CalDEV protocol.

The new software also supports tethering via USB or Bluetooth.  That’s when you use your phone as a cellular modem to provide an Internet connection to another device such as a laptop.  However, apparently this whole thing caught AT&T by surprise because the feature won’t become active until later in the year when they finally get their act together.  They already offer tethering for other phones, and really it’s nothing more than charging a few bucks more for higher volumes of data transfer.  So what’s the big techno-mystery here, AT&T?  Get it together!

The iPhone 3G S

There’s a number of things in the 3.0 software that you won’t see unless you’re using the new iPhone 3G S, which hits stores this coming Friday.

You won’t get video.  I dunno why that is, since video recording applications have already been demonstrated on the older hardware.  Apple once made some noise about the reason being that video recording would put an extreme strain on the phone’s flash memory but the problem with that idea is that there really isn’t any difference between what the new phone uses and what the old phone has, other than capacity.  Plus, virtually every company that makes video cameras has been shifting from using tape to using, you guessed it, flash memory!

Chalk it up to Apple just being goofy until you hear a good reason otherwise.

You won’t get the new Compass applet.  I don’t know why that is, but I suppose there could be a hardware difference with the new phone’s GPS setup that makes the Compass possible.

You won’t get the Voice Control feature.  At first glance, one has to wonder why not, since there are a number of applets for the old hardware that do voice recognition.  But actually, you’ll find that those applets don’t actually do the voice processing on the iPhone itself.  They pretty much all upload the recorded sound to a server, which does the voice recognition and then sends back the result.  The new hardware has a faster processor, and I’m guessing that’s what makes the difference here.  Although, I honestly have to wonder, even if it took twice as long to do the processing on the old phone, wouldn’t that still ultimately be faster than uploading an audio file?  Even if it’s not faster, frankly I’d rather have slower native voice recognition than none at all.  Apple needs to rethink this.

The new phone also has an Accessibility applet that allows you to set things like a screen reader and zoom feature for those people who are visually impared.  This doesn’t seem to be hardware-specific, but it’s not available on the older hardware.

Upgrade Path?

As recently as last week’s big Apple WWDC developer conference, there had been no news about any sort of an upgrade path for current users.  Traditionally, the discounted prices for the iPhone have only applied to either new customers or customers eligible for an equipment upgrade discount. (i.e. people who haven’t gotten a discount in the last two years)  However, as of this morning, the Apple website indicates that there is an intermediate-level discount available for eligible users, with prices of $299, $399, and $499 for 8gb, 16gb, and 32gb models.  That’s not quite as cheap as what new customers get, but it’s $200 less than the regular price.

And apparently, even users who got their iPhone in the last few months are eligible.  I got mine in late March, but according to the Apple website I’m eligible for the medium-level upgrade.  I don’t think I’m going to jump right on that any time soon, but it’s nice to know the option is there.