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➟ Jason Schwarztman introduces the New Yorker iPad app

A finer or funnier video today you will not see. Every second is a glimmering of gratuitous quirkiness.

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Links

➟ Star Trek’s iPad-like designs

Not the freshest link on the internet by this point, but a really fantastic story about how budget constraints and creativity led to the creation of touch and screen-based control panels on the Enterprise, 23 years ago.

Update: More awesome PADD screenshots here, including Facetime and image manipulation apps.

Link [arstechnica.com]

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Reviews

Ditching Read It Later for Instapaper

This evening I made the switch from Read It Later to Instapaper. The latter is by far the more popular service. On the surface, it might be hard to choose one over the other. Their iPhone apps both cost $4.99 (Read It LaterInstapaper), they both have free-to-use websites, they both suck the text out of a web article you’re too busy to read at the moment of encounter, and store it online for later enjoyment. Well, at least that’s the idea.

It seems grabbing the right text off a page isn’t that easy, and RIL was just letting me down too many times. Quite often I’d have words like Home, About, and Related Articles – clearly bits of the navigational interface missed by the dust filter – appearing before or in the middle of the story I wanted to read. Sometimes they’d be the only words on display: the article itself having been weeded out and tossed aside, 90% of the page’s content or not!
The RIL text engine wasn’t very smart about pretending to be a normal browser either. Sometimes the policing mechanisms of a website would prevent it from loading the intended content and direct RIL to the front page instead. In the instances where I might only get around to reading the article months later, there’d be simply no way to remember what I was supposed to have been saving. Salon, Edge Magazine, Wired Mobile, and The New York Times all gave it trouble, among others.
There were reasons I stayed this long, though. Read It Later excels at being social. After reading an item I really liked, I could send it to Diigo for full-text archiving, or Evernote, or tweet it, Facebook it, bookmark it in Delicious, share it in Google Reader, or even email the plain text to a friend who might be interested. The Diigo bit was closest to my heart. But for every sweet feature – a full-screen view and a scrollbar for quick skimming are two examples worth mentioning – there’d also be the disadvantages of being second-best.
I think the reason Instapaper has such a knack for sniffing out the right words from a page is that dedicated users send Marco Arment emails whenever something doesn’t work right. By his own admission, the system is a pile of hacks, but as far as the end user (me) is concerned, it just works. I wish it didn’t always have to be about Features vs. Excellence, but Instapaper definitely wins the lower-my-blood-pressure challenge. RIL probably doesn’t get enough feedback to develop a comparably intelligent engine, but missing the first paragraph of every article on the New York Times? Come on.
Also, most apps install support for Instapaper first, and the wait for RIL integration is always long and uncertain. I don’t know if Nate Weiner, Read It Later’s developer, does anything to help adoption of his service along, but like in the case of the new Twitterrific for iPhone, users like me end up being the ones petitioning other app developers to please please please consider adding RIL support. It sucks.
Plus, in the time since I last saw Instapaper, it’s received a bunch of great new features like a paginated viewing method, and an enhanced presentation with inline graphics. I’ll miss RIL’s sharing features, and hope Instapaper adds just a couple more export options to the current choices of Tumblr & Twitter (Diigo, please!), but for the moment it’s enough that I can bookmark stuff and be secure in the knowledge that they’ll be waiting for me, complete, when I get to them.
The fact that this blog somehow appears in the screenshot for Instapaper in the App Store has nothing to do with it, I swear!
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Links

➟ iPad magic in Tokyo

A Japanese magician performs a multimedia (and multi-prop) presentation with an iPad, out on the street by Ginza’s iconic Apple store. It’s a pretty impressive string of visual effects, one after another in under three minutes.

Link [YouTube]

Why the $14.99 Ebook is a Tragedy for Reading

Edit: Inserted an extra paragraph before the last one, 20 minutes after hitting Publish. Sorry about that.

I couldn’t believe my girlfriend was oblivious to the huge row between Amazon and the publishing houses of Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Hachette. Until I remembered that, unlike me, she has a real job, and that the whole thing only blew up one week ago.

“The iPad was announced only last week? No way, it feels like two weeks at least!” I said, not realizing that the constant reading of similar news stories can cause a retardation of time (amongst other things).

If you haven’t caught up on Amazon’s ebook troubles, this post by John Scalzi will serve as an excellent primer.

Short summary: Amazon used to sell ebooks at a near-standard price of $9.99, reportedly at a loss on what they paid the publishers, to help sell more Kindles.
Monkey wrench: Apple’s iPad bookstore will reportedly let publishers set their own prices, which will be $14.99 for most new books.
Result: Publishers have started to push Amazon to raise its prices, obliterating the Kindle’s price advantage.

There are reasons to be upset about all this, of course. Do I think the publishing industry is being extremely greedy, short-sighted, self-important, and ignorant of how much their situation mirrors the mistakes of the record industry not so long ago? Yes, I do.

According to multiple sources, selling ebooks at $14.99 will net publishers the exact same profit as having Amazon sell them at $9.99, because Amazon sold them at a loss. This price increase to the consumer is being sold as a solution to what Rupert Murdoch has called the ‘devaluation of books’ (at the $9.99 price point), and the competition that ebooks pose to hardcover sales.

Linking price to value is a pretty poor argument when it comes to books. Take anything else, say clothing – if Armani shirts were being sold for what they really cost to make, as opposed to the price commanded by the brand, sure, you’d see those suits being devalued real quick as everyone started wearing them to the supermarket – but books are a special case in media because of the public domain.

Not too many audio recordings or films exist in the public domain, but being an older medium, lots of books do. Great Expectations and Moby Dick are completely free downloads from Project Gutenberg. I wouldn’t call them devoid of ‘value’ in any sense of the word. Their being freely available doesn’t hurt sales of physical printings either. This Penguin Classics edition has a retail price of $15 (discounted to $10.20 by Amazon). These are some of the best books ever written, available free for reading on nearly any digital device, and still millions of copies are moved each year.

One aside: imagine if MacMillan started to dictate the prices at which Amazon and other bookstores could sell their physical books too. It would mean the end of discounts. Also consider that if one wanted to boycott the modern publishing industry completely, it would not be to the detriment of his reading. At last count, over 20,000 books in English reside on Project Gutenberg. Refusing to pay for music and movies, however, would leave one largely at the mercy of free-to-air radio and television programming; quite the inverse experience from book-reading in terms of quality.

Given that they enjoy no increase in profits, it can hardly be argued that these publishers are seeking to cover the increasingly high costs of producing and editing new material, or to subsidize a supposedly shrinking physical books market with ebook sales. My guess is that a sense of wild fear and uncertainty drives these decisions, and artificially pricing these ebooks high is the only way they think they can convince an uninterested public of their worth. But that’s not true at all. People buy books, at the right price.

$14.99 is not the right price.

Apple knew something the music industry didn’t when it launched the iTunes Music Store: the right price. As the store grew more popular than any of the labels expected, their despicable instinct was to milk these new customers. They began to demand variable pricing schemes in place of Apple’s fixed price of 99 cents a track. Variable pricing sounded like a nice idea; new songs would cost more than old songs. What they really wanted was for most desirable songs to cost more than 99 cents, and have a few old crap songs nobody wanted at bargain bin prices. Steve Jobs held them off for six years until the industry agreed to sacrifice DRM in exchange.

Apple understood the psychological appeal of a low, fixed price. The music guys couldn’t even understand the meaning of the money that came in from Apple each month. It amazes me that people who essentially failed to sell their own product could presume to meddle with a successful strategy someone else had come up with. Would you know it, that’s exactly what the book industry is doing right now to the people who sold a shitload of ebooks for them. And they’re succeeding.*

Everyone knows the argument: ebooks cost almost nothing to copy and distribute, whereas pulp, ink, and an entire mechanism of printers, transporters, and physical stores exist to put books in our hands. That’s what gives a book value for most people, exchanging $14.99 for a piece of work in front of them, not an artificial price on a digital file they can neither keep forever not share with friends and family. People expect ebooks to cost less, the same way they expect a pizza to cost less if they drive up to the outlet and pick it up themselves instead of having it delivered. Instead, we’re getting a flavor pill that only tastes like pizza, delivered to our homes for the same price as a real pie sold down the street.

That the publishing guys are able to ignore the threat of piracy is even more worrying. Once a book is scanned and processed into raw text (a trivial task these days), it’s even easier to distribute than an MP3 or movie. It literally takes seconds to shoot a novel of a few hundred kilobytes across the net; paste it into the body of an email, and it can’t be stopped. It seems to me that people are more likely to illegally download an overpriced book than a 99c song. Especially since almost half of all books bought are never finished.

Now, it may appear that consumers took to the idea of buying and listening to digital music fairly quickly, which no doubt gives publishers the same hope for switching people over to a higher-profit digital medium. But the transition to digital music didn’t start with MP3s, it happened over a period of 20 years with the audio CD. Hungry to earn repeat sales on records they already sold once or twice, the industry weaned us off turntables, vacuum tubes, and cassettes. They got us used to the idea of digital reproduction, and even convinced most of its superiority. By the time MP3s arrived, an entire generation that never knew the warm sounds of analog reproduction was ready to embrace them, and eventually even pay for quite a lot of it.

The fraction of music lovers who clung onto vinyl will look like nothing compared to the majority who will continue to prefer real paper. A lot of us read off screens every day, but it seems most don’t want the same experience when curling up with a novel. Even if we were to get used to it, there’s still the problem that reading is more prevalent in the older generations, who won’t jump to pay a couple hundred bucks for a fancy reader.

For those reasons, I don’t believe real books face any significant cannibalization from ebooks in the near future. If anything, the number of actual readers will increase with ebook sales. And the more people read, the more they make recommendations to those around them. Invariably, some of those whispers will result in the sale of real books.

Should this hold true, the initial cost of producing the content will continue to be shouldered by the process that creates paper books, as it always has. Real books can continue to be sold at their traditional price points. This leaves the sale of every ebook to be counted as pure profit. The day when major publishers put out new ebooks by noted authors without physical counterparts on store shelves, we’ll reevaluate.

Pricing ebooks prohibitively high does nothing for readers in general. If successful, the industry will associate the numbers $14.99 with the idea of reading a book on a device like a Kindle or iPad, the same way we now think of songs on an iPod as costing 99 cents, only less attractive. When digital music went mainstream, it was with Napster. Legal alternatives came later. Because it’s the opposite for digital books, assuming the whole thing even takes off, how many will know to venture past the virtual display shelves and over to the free public domain section?

Ebooks should be seen as alternatives, for those who don’t need or possess the means to house a large library of battery-free, device-independent books that may someday be passed on. We will buy these digital editions on impulse, out of fleeting interest, on the insistence of friends, from the comfort of our Sunday beds, or in the midst of long journeys, perhaps as other books are closed and some aching gap remains, or when we can no longer wait for a final installment, and consequently we will as a species read more, and our society will be the richer for it. In exchange for acknowledging their impermanence, we will hopefully be charged a fee more like a rental, and less like a scalping.

* As to why Apple would play a curveball with the book guys and give them miles of rope to hang themselves, see Matt Buchanan’s post over at Gizmodo: Why (and How) Apple Killed the $9.99 Ebook.

The New Apple

There’s a phrase that tends to pop up in conversations about the latest divisive move from Cupertino: “the new Apple”. There’s always a new Apple that threatens the way things have been, or turns its back on a loyal segment; doing something other than what we, presumably desirable, tech-savvy customers want for our money.

Lately, it’s been the iPad and its being in bed with the iPhone OS when we’d already arranged for a marriage to Mac OSX. It’s a computer for grandparents that will have severe implications for their grandchildren’s ability to grow up into the kind of curious, tinkering hackers who poke their noses where they don’t belong and thereby discover new and better ways to write software and build hardware and renew the flattened spirit of progress, thus we are destroying the circle itself!, the naysayers charge, gasping for air.

With the iPhone model, software developers leave Apple a cut of every sale on the sides of their plates, while suffering the indignity of letting the publisher have final veto rights. Tinkering and sales aside, the goddamned thing wants to be a computer but has no multitasking! – This is the work of the new Apple.

When new MacBook Pros were released with the same glossy, reflective screens as consumer MacBooks, pissing off graphics professionals who needed color accuracy and glare-free visibility in daylight, that too was the new Apple. The new Apple ditched PowerPC chips for Intel’s, after trumpeting the former’s superiority for a decade; the new Apple said no removable batteries for any portable device, too bad if you have a 20-hour flight; the new Apple also developed an odd nippled mouse that stopped scrolling after just months of use, ironically named after an unstoppable cartoon character; the new Apple resembles the Orwellian state in the old Apple’s ‘1984’ ad, year after year.

The truth is, of course, that there is no new Apple. The ones who talk about it, imagine it, are mostly from a core of computing enthusiasts and creative professionals who have had love affairs with their Macs from before the second coming of Jobs. When consumers flocked en masse to cheaper PCs, they stayed with the ship and played music like nothing was happening. And edited video. And designed layouts. And touched up photos. The creative industry stayed with the Mac because it had the best software for their needs. Over time, they made the platform their own.

Theorists might point to Jobs’ return and subsequent introduction of colorful, family-friendly iMacs as the day when new Apple began, but only because of how long it had been since Apple last produced anything of interest to the public. If anything, the new Apple was born right after the Apple II.

Designed to be a computer for the everyman, the first Macintosh was built on the the same fundamental principles as the iPad 26 years later. Intuitive to use above all else, thanks to new technologies: a mouse then, multi-touch now. Resistant to tinkering: both are sealed with limited options for expansion. The inexplicable absence of features that might have been trivial to add: a color screen and hard drive on the Mac, a camera and multitasking on the iPad. Both were doubtlessly shaped by the idiosyncratic tastes and insights of Steve Jobs, whose involvement and personality defines Apple to the point that the idea of a ‘new’ direction seems flawed. It has always been Steve’s way.

Professionals need to believe that because they kept the company going for much of the 80s and 90s, their needs are still important to it. But the Mac Pro is the last remaining concession to this group of customers. It’s the only Mac that can be upgraded, and to which more than one non-glossy display can be connected for serious graphics work. Ever since the explosion of Mac use in the home, with the help of iLife and iWork as key selling points, the face of Apple has changed. If I’d asked you ten years ago to describe the Mac for me, you’d have said “used by video editors and designers”. Chances are, that’s not your first thought today.

I don’t suggest that Apple is leaving professionals out to dry, obviously the segment is still extremely important for the brand’s prestige and these customers are useful for pushing engineering efforts into things like octo-core and 64-bit computing, all of which eventually trickle down to the consumer products, but there have been bumps in the road to show that the company’s attention is slipping now that it’s gained the widespread consumer adoration it has courted all along. Case in point: the recent debacle over the MacBook Pro’s downgraded SATA interface. By the way, we’ve reached a point where the Pro products are bought by regular consumers just because they look cooler or carry more status. It was a recognizable trend by the time MacBooks sold out at a premium price just for being painted black, and it made a sort of poetic sense when the unibody aluminum consumer MacBooks morphed overnight into 13″ MacBook Pros earlier last year.

With the help of pundits and analysts who, at best, bat a little over 50%, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking you know the game plan, which is how all ‘new Apple’ complaints begin. If you want to know what the new Apple is liable to do, just ask if it’s something the common man will understand, notice is missing or broken, and still buy the hell out of anyway. Just like the first floppy drive-less Macs, less-space-than-a-Nomad iPods, and 2G-only iPhones.