Apple’s mythic beast: These tablets don’t come from God

The flurry of reports about Apple’s rumored 10-inch tablet iTouch/e-book reader/Media tablet over the weekend have only one thing in common: All are wild guesses based on exchanged rumors taking on a life of their own.

Notable in today’s Financial Times, for example, is the devastatingly guessy comment from Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Yair Reiner: “I think it will have a lot of the functionality of the iPod touch, but will be quite a bit bigger.” Mashable jumped on the FT’s report this morning, saying it “adds credibility” before going on to list the same set of questions everyone has been guessing about. Will it be a Kindle competitor? Will it be a phone or not? And so forth.

Pointing to one article riddled with guesswork does not add credibility to the rumors reported. Another article in the FT today, which discusses Apple’s efforts to revitalize the “album” in music sales, at least has some sources speaking on the record. The only named source in the tablet article, Mr. Reiner, quoted above, offers speculation. A source, described as a publishing executive said of the tablet: “It would be a colour, flat-panel TV to the old-fashioned, black and white TV of the Kindle.” That is a characterization without any detail from someone speaking off the record—why speak off the record if you aren’t leaking substantive information? Why let a source play authoritative expert when they are offering guesses?

Wild-eyed guesses. That’s all people are running with, because everyone dearly desires a good horse race to report. There is no horse race, there is a breeding program underway that will yield a lot of mules and a few thoroughbreds. Watching a breeding program can get very dull, sometimes gruesome. Unfortunately, most press are looking for “winners” and “losers” rather than seeing that features and traits developed in each generation of device are the only Darwinian players in this story. No one device or platform will win, because media is a deeply fragmented marketplace with broad choice for buyers.

Here’s what we can be sure of:

  • Apple never races to meet Christmas season deadlines. The company manufactures enthusiastic buyers whenever it wants, making the primary claim of the rumors, that the device must launch between September and October, ring hollow.
  • The market evolution underway now assumes that people are going to adopt specialized devices for different activities, such as reading, watching movies and browsing the Web. We have computers, televisions, radios, personal media players and myriad other devices that do most of these same things.
  • No one, not even Amazon with the Kindle and its almost 800,000 units sold, has brought about the adoption of a new activity specifically suited to a small computer with a screen capable of displaying text. It’s still just reading and we’re being asked to buy another device to do it. Whether e-readers will catch on in the current form is still very much up in the air.
  • The first substantial change in publishing as a result of these devices will be in magazines and newspapers, which will find renewed vitality when they don’t kill as many trees.
  • Readers who buy books—the third of Americans who read more than one book a year—are not going to give up paper for formats that will be obsoleted or lacks substantial enhancements over paper, except for short-lived information, such as newspapers and magazines. Anybody remember interactive CD-ROMs, which did sell millions of units and went absolutely nowhere. The benefit of these devices is not eliminating books from people’s lives, yet that is how many characterize every step, as the “end of books.”
  • Kindle is the ultimate newspaper and magazine reading device, since it provides the benefit of relieving readers of a lot of trash. No more piles of old magazines and newsprint; instead, your subscriptions will all be stored for reference and searching on a Kindle. However, any portable device, including a computer, can do the same thing. An Apple tablet could offer this, too. So, choosing a device becomes a matter of preferences and priorities. The Apple tablet addresses different priorities than the Kindle.
  • Any device introduced as a Kindle-killer will be hyped, and any product Apple makes will probably be very pleasing to the eye, the ear, the touch and, because Steve Jobs will not ship a monochrome screen in an age of rich media, as he is no fool, Apple products will not deliver the long battery life that characterize e-reader devices.
  • Steve Jobs will not introduce a device for a market of less than 100 million. An Apple tablet will have to combine functionality to appeal to many target users in addition to readers.
  • All the devices on the market and in the offing will involve trade-offs between different classes of functionality. The Apple tablet, if it even exists, will aim for the video market and e-books will be an afterthought supported by third-party developers, meaning readers will only embrace it if they also feel strongly about carrying movies and television along with them.

Relax, the world will not end or dramatically change when Steve comes down from the mountain with his tablet, if he even does so this year.

Plastic Logic e-reader will feature AT&T 3G

AT&T will provide broadband connectivity to the Plastic Logic e-reader, the companies announced today. Details about the way customers will pay for broadband service, however, were not announced. In the past week, Plastic Logic has filled out key components of its ecosystem, announcing that Barnes & Noble’s e-bookstore will be the exclusive seller of books to the Plastic Logic device (though it will support books acquired in other channels, the BN.com store will be the built-in source of e-books) and this alliance with AT&T, which is also the provider of data voice and data services for Apple’s iPhone.

This is s win for AT&T as much as for Plastic Logic, as Sprint and Verizon had also been discussed as potential broadband providers.

Plastic Logic’s device is being pitched as a business tool that has the benefit of providing e-book, newspaper and magazine subscription access. That’s a very different point of entry than the Amazon Kindle, which has come to market as a pure “consumer device” designed for the typical reader. It suggest the device will be priced higher than the Kindle when fully configured, but the low-end configuration will probably come to market at or below the Kindle 2’s price.

Since the Plastic Logic device also features Wi-Fi connectivity, it could be the case that 3G service will be available only on a monthly subscription basis through AT&T, similar to the iPhone data plan. If that is the case, and I get the strong feeling it is as I look at the positioning of the Plastic Logic device, then we can probably expect wide-area 3G networking to be a checklist item among the upgrades available for a monthly fee discounted to unlimited AT&T data service for the PC (which costs about $70 a month on average). The iPhone data plan, which is $30, is the likely model.

The question is, how much data will the Plastic Logic device be using on a typical day. If most subscriptions are fulfilled over Wi-Fi when the device is charging, wide-area service would be trivially inexpensive—unless the device is more oriented toward Web surfing than currently described. A Plastic Logic data plan could be less than the iPhone plan.

A Plastic Logic spokeswoman said details of wireless pricing will be released closer to the early 2o1o launch date.

Barnes & Noble moves, embracing Google and Plastic Logic

barnes-noble-e-books-oBarnes & Noble, which introduced its iPhone e-reader back on June 29, launched a vastly expanded e-book store today. The announcement of the “world’s largest bookstore” is actually a combination of several existing catalogs, Barnes & Noble’s previous e-book listings, the ereader.com site and the Google Book Search catalog for a total of 700,000 titles, which may be read on iPhones, Blackberry, PC and Mac client software.

The application, largely a re-skinned version of the Fictionwise e-reader application it acquired, is useful (the user agreement references the ereader.com site as the source of user support). BN.com will store books for repeated downloads. There is no information about limits on simultaneous devices or download limits on the site.

The big news is that Plastic Logic has signed on to link its e-reader device that will ship in early 2010 to the BN.com bookstore, a relationship that BN executives described as “exclusive” during a conference call. This means we can probably expect format conflicts between Kindle and Plastic Logic. Oddly, there was no comment from Plastic Logic about this partnership, which draws a significant battle line in the e-book market.

While B&N has endorsed the $9.99 price point for frontlist titles and bestsellers, the store features books ranging in price from a dollar (including many $4.99 books from Barnes & Noble’s imprint, which has specialized in cheap editions of classic literature) to much more expensive e-books discounted from the hardcover or trade paper price, but well above $9.99. Flexibility in pricing will likely be one of B&N’s competitive strategies with publishers.

DRM is prominent in the application. The manual deals immediately with how to enter an “unlock code” for DRM’d titles.

Usability note about the app on most platforms (iPhone version pictured at right): Once installed, the application displays the title page of the user manual, but doesn’t explain it is a user manual or provide any navigation cues. They should fix that. It would be better if the first thing the app displayed was an “add books” dialog that walked the user right a reading experience of their own choice. Manuals, even good ones, are so 1990s. If your app isn’t intuitive, it needs more work. The PC version of the application opens to the user’s library, which is prepopulated with Last of the Mohicans, Sense and Sensibility, Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Dictionary, Dracula, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice and the user manual.

Strange bargain alert: Windows PC users who download and install the B&N e-reader app get six e-books (all pre-selected by BN.com-described above) free, but the offer apparently isn’t available for Mac users.

In the irony department, the fact that Chris Anderson’s book, Free, which is free on Amazon and Google Books, doesn’t appear in the B&N e-books search suggests that while the site is operating it is not being actively managed with the care one would expect. Either that or it’s a judgment by Hyperion, Anderson’s publisher, that B&N’s store won’t have a material impact on one of its important titles of the season.

There’s no way of telling whether BN will get great traction with the e-book initiative unveiled today. We know free reader applications get a novelty bump in downloads, sales from those downloads aren’t guaranteed. BN may benefit from launching the first business day after Amazon bungled the Kindle 1984 “refund,” but was anyone really waiting for another e-reader before jumping into this kind of reading? No.

Amazon and Apophenia

TeleRead‘s Paul Biba has a useful critique of Amazon’s repeated poor handling of e-book and Kindle-related customer issues. I think, though, that he has gone from suggesting improvements to exercising the tendency people have toward apophenia. His conclusion that Amazon’s failure to staff its organization with publishing industry veterans is the cause of all these issues results from aggregating disparate events and imposing an overriding pattern to explain them. It’s not an accurate portrayal of Amazon’s organization. While few on the team have previous experience with e-books and e-readers few of those people exist (though Amazon hasn’t hired several legitimate e-book vets I know who have applied), the company’s problem is not that there is no publishing industry savvy on board.

However, the teams that run the Kindle business are split between the book sales side of the company, the book acquisition team and the Kindle development team. Contending perspectives and responsibilities that seem to be at cross-purposes sometimes result in the isolated and apparently boneheaded decisions Biba correctly identifies, all of which Amazon ultimately learns from and generally does not repeat.

Amazon could use some more experience with rapid innovation and publishing generally, but that’s the same challenge faced by every company that has stepped into a yawning chasm of opportunity to find early success.

Closed: Polymer Vision wraps up its story

Polymer Vision, a British developer of flexible display technology and the never-released Readius e-reader, has shut down. The company had hoped to challenge glass and stiff plastic displays, allowing readers to roll up the e-reader screen into a compact case when finished with a document. The device was touted as extremely light (115g), providing 30 hours of battery life for a five-inch greyscale screen, with 3G data connectivity and support for HTML, PDF, ePub and audio books.

Polymer Vision had been acquired by a subsidiary of Philips Electronics, which had promised to debut the device last Fall, having disclosed its plans as early as 2005. The company laid off its employees last Wednesday.

The technology will likely appear in other devices at some point in the future. Presumably, the assets will revert to Philips; they could also be sold to another company. Polymer Vision, however, has written its final line because it could not raise any more cash. Rival Plastic Logic, on the other hand, said it had raised additional investment, now totaling more than $200 million, last week.

Blackwell launching e-book store, selling BeBook in stores

BeBookProductpaginaCrop3British academic book retailer Blackwell will begin selling the BeBook e-reader at retail next week, the Bookseller.com reports. Blackwell offers more than 45,000 titles for the device, which features an E-Ink display and support for ePub, .mobi, PDF and other e-book formats, will sell for £199 ($327.00 at current exchange rates) through Blackwell’s e-book store. BeBook currently offers the e-reader directly through its site for $279.99, which is described as a “Temporary Price Reduction.”

BeBook is also available at retail Libris and Biz bookstores in the Netherlands.

BeBook had sold 30,000 units as of last September. Based on the increased volume of sales in readers and the new promotion by Blackwell, BeBook will likely finish 2009 with approximately 92,000 units sold, if my market estimates are correct.

Dissing the e-reader

While reading a very thoughtful article on the economics of education in the Kindle edition of The Atlantic, I ran across the following mangled phrase:

The conventional wisdom is that you get what you pay for.that the larger the price tag, the better the product. But that.s not true in higher education.

The electronic version of the magazine isn’t being copy edited for errors after conversion from the files used to create the paper publication.

Poor quality copy is not going to help publishers solve the problems presented by the transformation of media. Treating the digital text as a quick, cheap copy only denigrates the reader, who is paying for quality writing, the writers who contribute the work, and the staff’s efforts to make a good product. All these are obvious reasons to make the same effort to proofread published material for errors before sending it to Kindle (or any e-reader) owners. The economics of poor quality lead only one way: downward.

Pirated e-books now readable on pirated e-reader!

founder-intl-ebook-reader.previewFrom China comes the Kindle 2 clone, a $210 rip-off of Amazon’s hot-selling e-reader device that will ship in China latter this year or early in 2010. Made by the Peking University Founder Group Corp, which changed a few features of the Kindle 2, using “Page Up” and “Page Down”—in English—to label navigation buttons (when cadging designs, it is always a good idea to look to the IBM PC keyboard for UI inspiration), for example. And the keys are a slightly different shape than those on the Kindle. The device’s name was not disclosed, apparently, though the pictured unit is labeled “WeFound.”

It will likely display e-books in a proprietary format developed by the Peking University Founder Group, called “Apabi.” Hopefully, the company will respect the rights of authors in making e-books available in the format and not simply copy a file and call it their own.

It has a roughly 6-inch E-Ink display (the company is reported to have described the size as “unclear”) and uses some form of wireless cellular data to transfer purchases to the device, according to Nikkei Electronics Asia. The reporter could only find out that a “SIM card” is required, so it is hard to say what the connectivity actually is, though readers will purportedly be able to make purchases and download e-books to the device itself, just like Kindle.

News Corp. exploring e-reader partnerships

Rupert Murdoch told TheStreet.com News Corp. “is exploring a wireless e-book device strategy with manufacturers for a product similar to Kindle.” It’s relatively old news, but shows that the publisher is still concerned with new distribution channels for its news. News Corp. is also contemplating pricing strategies for news. TheStreet points at iTunes as a payment model that Murdoch believes may work: “We’re still thinking our way through this, and there will be micropayments as part of it. But I’m thinking much more along the lines of subscriptions like The Wall Street Journal does.”

AT&T’s designs on wireless devices: Wrong avenue for e-books

A couple years ago, Ed Whitacre, then the CEO of AT&T, told an audience that he resented Web companies’ use of “his pipes” for “free,” ignoring completely the fact that every company connected to the Web is paying for the privilege. He simply wanted a larger cut, a piece of every transaction flowing over “his pipes.” Now, his successor at AT&T is taking a shot at e-book reader development, according to BusinessWeek.

Let me preface the following by reiterating my long involvement in telecommunications and with AT&T. I have spoken at AT&T Bell Labs and appeared in a “vision video” about the AT&T service that was designed the support the General Magic device. I’ve seen AT&T go through three cycles of decline and recovery, interviewing a series of its CEOs along the way. We are now at the tail end of its latest recovery, though the company has yet to earn a market cap approaching the amount of money—more than $200 billion—Whitacre spent to cobble together many of the former Babies Bell into the “New AT&T.” The company has also consistently underperformed compared to its industry and the wider market since Whitacre’s tenure began.

AT&T should stay out of the e-book reader business.

AT&T was a consumer hardware company in the early 20th Century*. For the most part, however, it has only succeeded in delivering enterprise technology and services or creating technologies which it failed to commercialize as effectively as upstart competitors (like the transistor and the fundamental elements of the hard drive). But hundreds of thousands of smart people have worked there over the years, and it has done some things very well at certain times. I thought, for example, that it’s support of General Magic’s Telescript agent-based application technology was potentially visionary. Instead of adapting Telescript to the emerging public Internet and its standards, which would have trumped Continue reading