Reading Steve Jobs: Why 45 e-reader devices don’t make a market

Thomas Jefferson hacked bookstands for partial continuous attention

Thomas Jefferson hacked bookstands for partial continuous attention

As I develop the coverage here at BooksAhead, I have decided that trying to break news stories about e-reader devices doesn’t add a lot of value for the reader, especially when there are few differentiating features or functionality. Way back in the early 90s, when a new Ethernet interface card for the Mac—I was networking editor at MacWEEK—it became clear that an occasional summary article covering all the recent releases would be more useful than many individual articles announcing yet another Ethernet card.

However, sometimes a real breakthrough would come along, and that would get an individual article. The most important change in the early networking card market was something subtle and largely unheralded: The addition to writable ROM chips to cards eliminated the need to return a card when its software was defective. Yet, for several years, Ethernet card developers hesitated to include EPROMs in their products. Once they did, new features proliferated, such as Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), because cards could be updated in response to changing technology rather than having to be replaced. It sounds trivial, yet it made a huge difference.

The e-reader device market is looking a lot like the Ethernet card business back then: It’s a developing commodity market. Price is becoming the only differentiator, but the functionality is still very limited compared both to books and what e-books could be. The action will soon turn squarely on format and networking of documents, just as the Web became relevant when the browser changed hyperlinks from navigating between documents to navigating within parts of many documents.  Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson designed a bookstand for reading several titles to accommodate the limitations of books (the idea is older, but Jefferson’s is one of the most elegant solutions to the problem). Readers want to use books and the knowledge and enjoyment they contain, not just consume them.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this issue since I wrote about the ePub standards maintenance process beginning a couple weeks back. There are huge business opportunities in the Continue reading

Smartphones could be e-readers of choice

Flurry_JulyPulse_eBookActiveUsers-resized-600Flurry, a San Francisco-based mobile applications market research firm, reports a break-out increase in e-book application use on smartphones, particularly Apple’s iPhone. According to this blog posting, Flurry is tracking user sessions (privacy questions about in that statement) and found a 300 percent increase in e-book application use between April and July. The company suggests that translates into 3 million active e-book readers during July.

The methodology isn’t explained, but the firm points to another research group, Apptism, to back up its claim, albeit tangentially, saying that e-book application sales had a 14 percent share of sales in Apple’s AppStore, second only to Games sales, which were 19 percent. There is, however, no explanation about how sales are tracked and reported, something Apple has been disinclined to do in detail.

A little context, if these numbers are valid, which I think remains unproven. They suggest that smartphones are convergence devices that will contest with specialized e-readers, such as the Amazon Kindle and others. If so, the real question to look into is sales per instance of application installed. Here, I think, Kindle would wipe the floor with iPhone e-reader applications. Why? Well, sampling of applications is a typical feature of iPhone and smartphone usage. People buy phones and install lots of apps, but seldom stick with them, either uninstalling them (which is not tracked by anyone) or simply ignoring them. Also, because book titles are usually embedded in an application on smartphone platforms, at least until recently, each book purchased may be counted as an application installation, which skews the real number of installed applications.

I don’t doubt that devices that include e-reader features could easily outsell dedicated e-readers. These numbers don’t support the argument that smartphones will overwhelm e-reader devices, yet. We need per-device or per-application counts of titles sold to determine what’s really going on.

Via GalleyCat

Kindle grabs for an educational advantage, but Apple gets priority

Blackboard, developer of an electronic coursework management software, has allied with Amazon and Apple to make its educational materials available on the Kindle, BlogKindle reports. Schools can install a new component, called a “building block,” to their existing Blackboard server system and begin distributing coursework to Kindle users immediately.

But Blackboard made a bigger move toward the Apple iPhone with its acquisition Tuesday of Terriblyclever Design LLC, which develops iPhone and mobile Web (e.g., for smartphones) applications for education. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the fact that the publicly traded Blackboard (NASDAQ: BBBB) invested in access to the iPhone market suggests that the company believes the shortest route to student’s attention is through a device they already have—a smartphone and, particularly, the iPhone—rather than one they need to buy, the Kindle.

“Today’s students want to do everything with their mobile devices, including managing their social, school and work lives,” Michael L. Chasen, president and CEO of Blackboard, said in a press release. “Mobile is just beginning to emerge and no one is doing more to define the space in education than Terriblyclever. The newly acquired technology provides deeper integration with an institution’s classwork and schedule than is currently possible on the Kindle. The presser says it will provide schools with:

  • Navigate a school’s entire course catalog and utilize one-touch navigation to directories and maps to find out more about course professors and locations.
  • Identify exact campus location using GPS, search for buildings by name or address and see photos of the building.
  • Check news, schedules, and real-time scores for athletic teams and browse and receive alerts on general news articles for the institution.
  • Access iTunes U, YouTube, or custom video content including course lectures.
  • Find students and staff in the school directory, access calendars for special events and campus happenings and browse and share images from a school’s photo archives.

A Kindle partnership makes sense and is notable, but the fact Blackboard put money into accessing iPhones and other smartphones tells me the most expedient path to young readers appears, to Blackboard, to be through those multi-purpose devices.

Useless Info Dept.: Barnes & Noble’s iPhone app beats Amazon’s in first week

What does the fact that Barnes & Noble’s iPhone app, introduced last week, has been downloaded more than the Amazon Kindle for iPhone app during its first week on the market?

Nothing. It merely demonstrates that free applications enjoy a novelty bump, getting a try by readers interested in reading on the iPhone. Even as a horse-race statistic it means little or nothing.

The cumulative downloads of the Kindle for iPhone app far exceed those of the BN.com app, but the real question is how much revenue is being generated through the apps. Jeff Bezos has said that Kindle users read approximately 1.7 times as many books a month than paper book customers. If BN.com’s app performs the same over time, driving incremental e-book sales, then we’ll have something meaningful to consider.

Wattpad debuts on Google Android phones

WattpadlogoWattpad, a venerable ebook sharing community founded in 2006, has introduced its Wattpad e-reader application for smartphones that run on Google’s Android operating system. (The Android download is not currently listed on the company’s download page, here. Mobile phones may download Wattpad here.) It is also available on Apple’s iPhone, RIM’s Blackberry and Nokia’s Symbian OSes.

The company has more than 10,000 new titles published by members each month. The Wattpad application has been downloaded more than 3.1 million times as of June 1, 2009.

The significance of this announcement is somewhat muted by the emphasis on mobile handsets. Android is Google’s fulcrum for dislodging Microsoft Windows across a variety of platforms, including netbooks, laptops and desktop computers. It is also the foundation of an interactive cable/TV initiative, all of which would be open to Wattpad users. Asus, for example, has announced an Android netbook, and many more Google-powered devices are on the way.

Netbooks, tablet PCs and other home- and office-oriented screens will soon be book-reading devices, as well.

Amazon on the record: Device limits set by publishers

I queried Russ Grandinetti, vice president, Books, at Amazon about the lack of clarity about how many devices can access a Kindle book or how many times a buyer can expect to download a title from the Kindle Store. He referred me to Drew Herdener, director of communication at Amazon, who replied with the following:

Russ forwarded me your note.  Thanks for your interest.  To answer your question, there is no limit on the number of times a book can be downloaded to a registered device (i.e. Kindle, Kindle DX, iPhone).  In the case where the publisher has chosen to apply DRM, there may be limits on the number of devices that can simultaneously use a single book.  If a customer has upgraded or replaced their device(s), they can delete the content and deregister any device(s) no longer in use, which enables the customer to download to new registered devices.

So, to reduce the answer to its component parts:

  • Buyers may download an unlimited number of copies of a Kindle book title they have purchased to a registered Kindle device or iPhone (and, future supported devices) that are associated with the buyer’s Amazon account,
  • unless a publisher has decided to impose a limit on the number of devices that may simultaneously have access to the title,
  • in which case, the user may go to their Manage My Kindle page and “deregister” a device to allow for downloading to a device that does not currently have an access to the book.

Publishers, not Amazon, make these decisions. Customers need information about device limits when buying, it should be displayed on the product page as a courtesy to customers. I still believe setting a higher limit than six is essential to making a book useful to a family.

I have asked Drew several follow-up questions and hope to have a bit more soon on how customers can identify books with limits and whether there is a system-wide default limit on number of devices.

A usability note based on this information: The Manage My Kindle page does not list either the number of devices on which a title  may be accessed, nor the devices on which the title is currently is readable. Both would be helpful information, the latter because it should be possible to deactivate a device’s access to a single title without wiping out the device’s library—this is doubly important because only some of the titles in the Kindle Store come with simultaneous device limits.

I may want to make a book accessible to my son’s iPhone, for example, which would be the seventh registered Kindle device in our household, by taking it off my daughter’s Kindle. If I disable all the titles on my daughter’s Kindle by deregistering it, she’d be pretty disappointed, when all she wanted to do was share a book with her brother (not that she’d be in the mood to do that very often).ManageKindleitem

My roughly hewn mock-up of what this should look like in the Manage My Kindle library is displayed to the right. There is ample room in the Your Orders listings for a book to include a device listing that allowed per-device  registration of the title. By checking the red box, one could deactivate the title on just one device, in this case “Dad’s Kindle.”

Without per-device control of titles, the system effectively limits the number of devices a customer can use conveniently to the lowest number of devices on which they may want to read a DRM-limited title. That needs to change. And it is good that Amazon is listening.

Cambridge reports on the realities of “mobile libraries”

Citing the move from library mobiles, the bus and van services that delivered books to remote users in the past, the University of Cambridge Arcadia Programme explains the challenges facing the development of “m-libraries,” library access via mobile phone.

Source: M-Libraries: Information use on the move

Source: M-Libraries: Information use on the move

Author Keren Mills reports that her surveys of university library users discovered that many user experience and cultural barriers remain to universal use of of library collections on mobile devices. Despite having new and advanced multimedia mobile handsets, the vast majority of library users surveyed have never read an e-book, listened to an audio book or played music or video on their handsets.

The survey also found that fewer than 16 percent of Cambridge students use their phones to access Web sites more than once a week. Mills writes: “one obvious inference to be drawn from this is that it is not worth libraries putting time and effort into developing dedicated mobile websites. Rather, if they want their sites to be mobile-friendly they are better advised to use either (Cascading Style Sheets) CSS or Auto-Detect and Reformat software (ADR).” Moreover, she also reports that libraries should not invest in creating iPhone applications, as only 21 percent of survey respondents have downloaded applications to their phone and would choose to do it again.

A good deal of the report focuses on the touchscreen and Web presentation features of the iPhone and how they will facilitate new library services. This, however, does not make the problem of educating people about and acclimating them to the use of mobile handsets when confronted with a research problem for a class or work. But the real meat of the findings is that, at this point, students are still primarily interested in finding out if the library is open or whether it will be open and the information they are seeking accessible when they need it.

My thought is that the libraries may need to rethink their engagement with mobile phone users completely. If the emphasis of a library Web site is to provide information about hours and the availability of a text, the logical next step is to find a way to provide the text without requiring a visit to the library. Then, it becomes a relatively short step from inquiry to fulfillment of the need for information.