BooksAhead is Kindle-bound

Dear readers, I want to thank you for your early and ardent support of this blog. After one month of publishing, I’ve got a regular 150 or so readers at the site (not including search bots) and 25 or so reading via RSS. That’s extremely gratifying. Thank you.

I want to ask your help in raising the BooksAhead banner. Starting today, the blog is available on Kindle, if you’d like to read it that way (do add your reviews at Amazon.com). I’d also like to get more people into the discussion here on the site, so your forwarding articles, tweeting about what you’re reading here and generally helping spread the word would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks, everyone!

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.

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.

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

The app-ification of publishing

Publishers Weekly‘s Craig Morgan Teicher has a long feature, “The App Boom Hits Publishing,” which reads like an article from Digital Media, my old newsletter, in the early 1990s. There’s a kind of Lotus Eaters quality to it, as it requires you believe application-based e-books solve the e-publishing problem.

The article revolves around repurposing existing content, such as crosswords and foreign language phrase books, by making them interactive, which is an excellent and relatively simple strategy if you have the right kind of titles on the shelf. It goes so far as to conflate that kind of title with any title that might be digitized.

The article makes the case that any book can be turned into an application and associates the ePub format, an e-book format designed to provide open cross-platform readability, with applications that are proprietary and closed. It’s a mistake to think that applications, which rely on functional code to enclose a text, are open or that they will survive the relatively brief period of time when e-books have not been published in a standardized format that can be read in a variety of applications. It’s a bandage on a heavy wound, one that, if future e-book readers cannot access the books people buy today, will alienate readers from e-books because they will seem increasingly unreliable.

Yes, Apple’s App Store is a big deal and a lot of applications, including e-books, are selling there. But the model isn’t predicated on the application, rather it is thriving on the fact that all iPhone apps run on all iPhones. Portability from one phone to the next, so that buyers don’t find they cannot access their data after upgrading their iPhone, is the key to the app model’s success.

Texts wrapped in code become incompatible with all but the operating system and hardware that it was written to run on. Texts need to be portable, so that books remain useful. Amazon’s willingness to deliver a Kindle book over and over to new reader devices is the right way to assure readers they will be able to access a proprietary format, but it is also the cost of that proprietary format for the distributor.

If a publisher is going to publish “in an app” today and abandon the reader and customer support when they move on to the next application platform, they are risking losing each customer they are spending to win today.

Re-purposing is a stop-gap strategy.

Adding value means more than digitizing a book.

Putting your book into a proprietary format dilutes the value of the book to the reader, because it diminishes the utility of the text over the long term.

Enough said.

Amazon’s in-book ad patent: Non-enforceable

I’ve seen a lot of conversation about how it will be awful or wonderful when Amazon presents advertising in its e-books. The fact is, contextual advertising has been patented for many years and designing it into “out of print and rare books” and the use of “advertising tokens” (essentially, tags that mark ad insertion points) doesn’t make the claim enforceable. There are more than 200 earlier patents of related functionality.

Contextual advertising can’t be protected, because it is a common business process today. Consequently, it is very hard to imagine these patents will be enforceable, though that doesn’t mean Amazon won’t place ads in books. It just means that anyone can place an ad in a book, in context or not. This has been one of the cornerstones of Amazon’s book project from the beginning—this is why the Google Books settlement explicitly includes shares of advertising revenue.

Just as Amazon once patented one-click purchasing features, which was overturned, this is merely a statement of potential business direction, not a significant move with regard to Amazon and its competition. Ads will support books in some cases, but in many readers will opt not to have them. It’s just another small step, not a particularly significant nor innovative one.

Soon, Amazon, Apple and Google will not be e-book competitors

Observing a market in development, such as the e-book business today, teaches the thoughtful analyst one thing above all else: No company is making investments that lead to failure. They only fail by mistake, by placing too large a bet on one direction the market might take. Amazon is no more at war with Google than it is with Apple. Yes, they are competing for dominance. But neither company would kill itself over this one vertical within either of their much broader businesses.

Amazon can drop the Kindle hardware to sell more books on an Apple device or through Google Books. Google could embrace the Kindle format, as well as the Mobipocket format that Amazon owns. Apple could provide hardware to serve up both Amazon and Kindle books. Microsoft, as the odd-man out and dominant operating system player is least like to control the high ground in any of these markets, because it holds the largest share of revenue generated by consumers today.

None of them will destroy the rest of their business to control the book publishing market, which is worth only $46 billion annually according to the most optimistic estimates. Mobile phone hardware, search engine marketing and advertising and PC operating systems are all larger markets than books, though one could argue that publishing has the greatest potential to drive revenue if managed perfectly. It is easier for any of these companies, however, to sell hardware, advertising and operating systems and development tools than to undertake the challenges of publishing.

Instead, these companies are jockeying for leadership, which will allow them to dictate their share of the resulting market for e-books, e-magazines and e-anything that generates revenue. Eventually, and I believe it will not be long, Amazon will yield to Google, making its book available on Kindle, or by licensing its formats to Google to sell independently of Amazon (but sharing revenue when the Google-scanned books are sold in Amazon’s Kindle Store). Apple will sell hardware, driving sales of e-books through any channel that provides books that run on its hardware. Likewise, Microsoft, which know it has lost the high ground in electronic publishing, will cede publishing revenues in exchange for support of its OS by the widest range of e-readers.

Only Google and Amazon are so decidedly at odds that they cannot work together. One of Microsoft’s most profitable divisions has long been and remain its Mac software unit. Everyone else in the e-books market has only their long-term survival at the center of their calculations, and none of them depend on dominating publishing.

Excerpt II, The Book Ends

Continuing where we left off the other day….. This segment, which is going to be torn apart and used in other ways, shows how quickly any writing on the e-book market ages.

Why Kindle is the early leader

As of this writing, in March 2009, e-books have limited network connectivity. The most forward-looking implementation of networking in an e-book reader is Amazon’s Kindle, a somewhat elegant, often clumsy device that, in my opinion, is poised to dominate the first-generation of e-book adoption. All that the network in the Kindle enables is electronic distribution and backing up of annotations added to a book consumed using the device. Called “Whispernet,” the Kindle network, which is provided by Sprint, with wireless delivery priced into the cost of individual books sold by Amazon.com, is an excellent first step because it eliminates several steps that other devices require before purchasing a book, including finding and paying for wireless connectivity. But because the Kindle remains a tightly controlled proprietary format—the books that people buy on the device today do not augment reading with connections to other readers, the author or communities of experts or critics that can extend the experience of reading—it remains an unattractive option for many, particularly those who would rather read one of the half million or more books available for free from archive sites such as Project Gutenberg and Google Book Search. Nevertheless, with the introduction of Kindle for iPhone in March 2009, Amazon has made its book format, which is based on HTML and a digital rights management technology owned by Amazon, the de facto choice for authors or publishers wishing to reach the largest possible audience with a book for sale.

Many who read this will object. Open standards, open formats such as ePub, and a variety of devices will be raised as alternatives to Amazon’s Kindle and the format of Kindle e-books. Unfortunately, I’m relatively old and have seen too many ideal products fall before the good-enough and mundane and that succeeds in reaching a critical mass in the marketplace, to think that individual features and benefits of ideal products will drastically change the developing audience for books on the Kindle. Business success is defined by the ability to sell something and culture has always demanded that creative work be compensated in order to sustain the creator—patronage was the primary compensation model until 250 years ago.

The Kindle has not locked up the market for all time, only for the foreseeable future because it offers all the new books available on any other reader or in any other format, while providing an even wider choice of titles through conversion and a relatively simple form of reader annotation with synchronization across multiple copies of a given book. There are still many shortcomings to the Kindle, but they’re the same shortcomings as competing devices, such as the Sony Reader and iRex Iliad, while Kindle does some things better than competitors. That is just good enough at a early adopter’s competitive price, in light of Amazon’s vast reach in the marketplace, to make it the device and format of choice at this time. Later in the book, I’ll explore the many devices and formats in greater detail, pointing to features and opportunities that will disrupt the e-book market in the future.

By Christmas of 2008, by my calculations based on conversations with Amazon executives and booksellers, Amazon had sold 379,000 Kindles (it’s an odd figure because they gave some away) and, because of production shortfalls had back orders for an additional 50,000 to 60,000 devices, which were delivered shortly after the Kindle 2 was introduced in late February 2009. After Kindle 2 shipped, the company sold approximately another 220,000 units for a total sold as of late April 2009 of about 655,000.  [As of July 1, 2009, I estimate the total sales of Kindle 1, Kindle 2 and Kindle DX is 754,000.]

It was the addition to Amazon’s market of the iPhone platform, in a Continue reading

Hachette’s got no problem with Text-To-Speech in Kindle, except….

The Hachette Book Group, parent of Little, Brown  and Co., Grand Central Publishing and other imprints, has embraced Amazon’s Text-To-Speech technology, introduced in the Kindle 2, which lets the device “read” the book aloud in a synthesized voice, according to Publishers Weekly. The publisher said in a statement that it will allow any book to be read, unless the author asks them to disable the Text-To-Speech feature (PW backgrounder here) or “books that fall within our audio publishing program or specialized circumstances like memoirs, where the author or character’s voice is an artistic element of the work. Under such circumstances HBG reserves the right to request that the functionality be disabled.”

That suggests that books available in audio format from Hachette imprints will not include Text-To-Speech capabilities on the Kindle. While it is good that Hachette is open to buyers using Text-To-Speech, this qualified position about when it is comfortable allowing it makes this a statement of a non-position. Books with Text-To-Speech disabled need to be labeled. It would be better, I believe, to offer an audio version of a book read by a narrator or the author when turning on the Text-To-Speech version. Publishers should go so far as to offer the first chapter in spoken word format for free, then, if the buyer wants to hear the book in a synthesized voice, let them.

Rather than raising barriers to use of a text by customers, turn the Text-To-Speech option into a selling opportunity that will be perceived as greater service by readers.

The Economist hits Kindle store

EconomistDamn it, why didn’t I wait another month to renew? There is one magazine that I will not stop reading, even if it wasn’t in the Kindle, so I’d recently extended my paper subscription to The Economist. Now The Economist is available in the Kindle Store. Paul Biba at TeleRead reports the paper and e-version are priced the same, so it looks like I’m going to stick to paper for another two years.

Still and all, after Foreign Affairs went Kindle earlier this month, I have managed to migrate to digital versions of all the magazines I read, except this one. Oh well, timing was never my gift.