Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Got Nook?

After much fanfare, I've finally received my Barnes & Noble "Nook" digital reader - the much-anticipated, potential "Kindle-Killer". But does it live up to the hype?

The short answer: potentially. But as-is, newly released and fresh out of the box...it's a strong competitor, not yet a killer.

The Unboxing
Right off, I have to mention the surprising quality of the packaging. The Kindle came in a sturdy, decorative box; the Sony, in a practical, sleek but utilitarian package. The Nook, by contrast, comes packaged in a hard acrylic case that I've generally only seen on the shelves of people who collect memorabilia - baseballs, rare coins, 70's cartoon action figures. I felt tentative opening it, afraid of breaking anything - including the packaging. In short I felt like I was unveiling something expensive and special.

Removing it from it's protective microenvironment I was immediately struck by the weight and solidity of the reader. The original Kindle 1 was a hollow, plastic-feeling device that imparted a sense of fragility; it was a big reason why I chose the Sony, which had a good heft and a metal casing. It screamed "durability", and the Nook manages to convey a similar sensation while still maintaining a sleekness missing in the other two competitors.

In size, the Nook falls somewhere between the Sony and the Kindle 2. It's coloring and lines are strongly suggestive of the K2, but the lack of a physical keyboard gives the illusion that the eInk screen is larger; in fact it is, but only by an inch diagonally.

Unlike the Big 2 other readers, the Nook has two separate screens - the main eInk display which is identical to other devices, and a new LCD touchscreen strip below it. This LCD strip serves as the navigation menu for the device. The default options are: The Daily, My Library, Shop, Reading Now, and Settings.

Registering the Nook was easy. I already had an account on B&N's website, and my credit card was already set up for purchases; I'd bought a few books to download once the Nook arrived. Clicking the Settings icon brought the basic info about the device onto the eInk screen - my name, available memory, battery charge, etc. The menu bar changed to reflect options where I could make changes; clicking Device allowed me to Edit my Profile or Register the Nook. Registration only required me to enter my account email and password, using the LCD keyboard provided. Done, submit...and a second later, I'm fully registered with my web account.

[Side note: the default setting for the LCD screen's brightness is at 50%, but I found it incredibly distracting set against the passive grey, unbacklit display of the eInk screen. I dialed it down to a much more comfortable 20% brightness, which doesn't distract me from the reading experience so much.]

There is a black bar separating the two screens, and on this is a small iconic "n" - the logo of the Nook, which here also serves as a home key to return you back to the main menu. I found I needed to tap this space more than once in order for it to work; I'm not sure if the area needs more sensitivity to react faster/more accurately, or if it's a failing of the construction. Keep this in mind, because it will be a recurring theme throughout the menus.

Jumping over to My Library brings me to...my Library. Which you would think is non-existent, but B&N gifts you with 4 free books to get you going: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Little Women by Louisa Alcott and Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

And yes, color me unexcited.

But whatever, they're free - and it gives me the chance to see how the ebooks themselves come across.

Scrolling up and down through your menu choices (they display on the larger eInk screen) is done via the smaller LCD screen; arrows for up and down, as well as an enter/submit button, is displayed along with other choices: Search, Show Covers, Sort, Hide, etc. all dealing with how the information in your library is displayed. Choosing to view the book will bring up...yet another selection of menu choices.

On the big screen, an overview of the book is displayed along with a rating (if rated). On the LCD is an image of the book cover and choices to Read the book, View Details (publication info,file size) about the book, and to Lend the book. More on that later.

Tapping Read...well, it brings the book to the eInk display. Using page turn buttons (back and forth) which are nicely located on either side of the device lets you flip through the book. You can also use the LCD touch screen to turn the page, flicking/dragging your finger quickly away from the page you want to turn (it's the same motion you would use, were you flipping the page of a real book). This motion can take a full second to turn the page; it doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're actually reading a digital book a second is a long time to wait for a page to turn. Using the page turn buttons is slightly faster, but I feel obligated to point out that both the Sony and Amazon readers are noticeably faster in this regards. It may simply be a software update is needed to correct this; Amazon recently sped up the reaction time of it's K2 with an update.

Also: some tech reviewers have noted an annoyance with the "formatting" that takes place when you first open a book, citing it as a negative - and it can be frustrating to wait the agonizingly long 4-7 seconds it takes for the reader to load and format the book you've chosen. Sony and Kindle users are used to this, I would have expected the reviewers to have been as well.

The eInk screen is as to be expected; great contrast, sharply defined characters. Even the images, although black and white, are surprisingly vivid for a non-LCD display. Here it stand equal to the Kindle and above the Sony - the Sony fails only because their touchscreen overlay, while making the device fun and simple to use, creates a blindingly annoying glare and reduces the contrast level between the pale grey background and the black lettering. The result makes the Sony seem less sharp and clear, despite using the exact same underlying technology (note: their non-touch versions do not have this limitation.)

The LCD menu gives you the option to Search for specific keywords (the keyboard will be displayed), create a bookmark, go to a specific point (more on this), highlight and take notes on a page, look up a word, change the font (you have two choices, helvetica neue and Amasis) and change the font size (5 options from Extra Small to Extra Large.)

I have to voice a slight disappointment with the Go To feature; I expected to be able to go to a specific page in a book. As it stands, you're only able to jump to the Cover, the furthest read point (?), or specific chapters. I'd like the ability to enter a specific page and have it jump to there, a simple request I think.

Also, beware of over-navigating the LCD while reading the book. If you should happen to accidently move back to the main menu on the navigation screen, it will take you OUT of the book you're reading to display the main screen info. It's also very easy to do this, as - at least the way I tend to hold the device - my thumb hovers in an empty space between the forward page turn button on the left, and the LCD screen edge where the "back to main menu" arrow happens to sit. While the LCD screen is dark this should not pose a problem, and I've changed the settings on my LCD to fade to black after 10 seconds of inactivity - but until I made that change I found myself "closing" the book far too often.

Tapping the Nook "home" button (3 tries, it took) sent me to the main menu where it was time to check out the Shop icon. The bookstore display is simple, breaking down your categories for browsing by eBooks, magazines, newspapers, bestsellers, new relesaes, recommendations, NYTimes bestsellers, and "top 100" lists. There is also a Special Offers and Articles section, where you'll see promotional items (such as a suggestion to download the True Blood ebooks as a group.)

Their magazine and newspaper selections are very limited, but I expect these lists to grow with time. PC Magazine, the Washington Post, the LA Times, Harvard Business Review...very stodgy but respected periodicals. 3 newspapers and 7 magazines in all.

Prices for the ebooks are comparable to what you'll find on Amazon; $9.99 for new hardcover releases has become the industry standard, with prices for others just above or just below that range. Most older books are in the $5.99 range, and of course there are selections of free books as well.

Using the LCD screen you can choose to Show Covers, Search for a specific title by typing it in, or - and this I especially like - bring up your personal eWish list from your B&N online account, and download/purchase a book you've tagged as interesting. I did this prior to receiving the Nook, and was pleased to find all of my selections available for easy download on my device.

Under New Releases I choose Michael Crichton's "Pirate Latitudes", which is listed at $9.99 (List price for hardcover is $21.99). It has 123 ratings, giving it 3 out of 5 stars. There is a summary overview displayed of the book, and my touchscreen options allow me to buy it, get a free sample, view the book details, or add it to my eWish list. There is also an image of the book cover on display.

I'm all about the free stuff, so chose the option; it asked me to confirm, I did...and 4 seconds later, it confirmed that my book is being downloaded. I click the Nook home icon (only 2 taps!), choose My Library...it updates, and voila! There's my free 15-page sample sitting and waiting.

I wanted to test out the Lending option, so I called up a friend and asked her to help. She was kind enough (thanks, Nel!) to download the B&N reader application for her iPhone; while she did this, I jumped over to my Settings and added her email address in my Contacts section.

Once I had confirmation that she'd set up her account, I opened my purchased copy of S.M. Stirling's "Dies the Fire" to the overview, and selected "Lend" from the options on the touchscreen. It brought up my Contacts list - I only had the one person; I selected her, it asked me to confirm, and zoom! it was being sent to her iphone. On My Library list it showed an icon indicating the book is On Loan, and I no longer have the option to Read it - the same as if I'd physically lent her the book. In 14 days, or I guess until she's done with it and returns it somehow, it will unlock for me and remove itself from her library.

Wanting to test this further, I tried lending another book to a different friend - and was told by the Nook that it was unable to comply with my request. I suspect, but I can't say for sure right now, that I'm only able to lend out one book at a time regardless of whether it's the same person or not.

The Nook is marketed noting it's expandability using an SD card expansion slot, and on first inspection I had to wonder where they managed to hide the slot. The answer is much worse - this is taken directly from the user guide, which I read online at B&N's website:
To insert a microSD card:
1 Press the power button for about 5 seconds, until your nook turns off. Your nook must be fully off, not just asleep, to insert a microSD card.
2 Remove the back cover.
3 Place your nook on a flat surface with the open back facing up and the top away from you.
4 Unlock the metal cover by inserting a fingernail in the slot in the middle of the cover (shown in the drawing above as a gray line) and pushing the cover toward the top of your nook. The metal cover only moves about 1/16th of an inch.
5 A rounded, cut-out area below the cover allows you to insert a fingernail to lift the cover. With your fingernail, lift up on the bottom edge of the metal cover, until the cover points up. In the space for the microSD card, you see eight contacts toward the top of the holder (near the hinge).
6 With the contacts on the microSD card facing down and lined up with the contacts in the holder (the thicker base toward you and the notch to the right), drop the microSD card into place. You might need to move it around a bit. It should fit snuggly.
7 With a finger, close the metal cover until it lies flat.
If the cover does not close easily, do not force it. Doing so will damage the microSD card holder. Instead, ensure that the microSD card is correctly positioned (contacts facing down and the notch to the right and flat and snug in the holder), and then try again.
8 Lock the metal cover by inserting a fingernail in the slot in the middle of the cover and pushing the cover toward the bottom of your nook. The metal cover only moves about 1/16th of an inch.
9 Replace the back cover. Full instructions for this are given in “Attaching the Back Cover” on page 25.
10 Power on your nook.

Yeah...not exactly the user-friendly experience I'm used to on my Sony (they have 2 slots along the edge of their device. Insert card, done.) I don't expect many to bother going to this much trouble; unless I'm adding a 32g card to expand from the 2g of onboard storage, it's way too much effort just to add more books.

The B&N bookstore uses the ePub format, which is rapidly becoming the non-Amazon industry standard. It IS still a DRM format, so despite Sony and B&N using the same format - you can't read one on the other device.

The Nook will also read PDF and PDB files and...well, that's it, no other document file types right now, which is a bit of a disappointment - again, given the wide range of formats available to be used on the Sony devices (LRF, TXT, RTF, epub, PDF) but I'm keeping my fingers cross that this will change in the near future. The device can be read as a storage device by your computer, allowing you to move documents from your PC to your Nook (store them in the My Documents folder, which you can access from the Nook via My Library and, in the LCD menu choices, My Documents.) There is also software via third parties which will convert documents from, say, RTF to ePub - as I did last night with some personal notes I had, and can now view on my Nook. Unfortunately you can't Share these documents, which I think would be a nice feature - but I suppose it's simple enough, since these documents are DRM-free, to email them to a friend rather than loading them onto your Nook and then sending them via the device.

I would like to see a method of loading documents onto my online B&N account, letting me download them remotely via the Nook, rather than having to use it as a USB storage device directly. It'd be an incredibly handy feature for someone like me who often reads personal documents on his digital reader.

I took the device to a nearby brick-and-mortar B&N, wanting to test the free wi-fi option. When I powered on the device it immediately seemed to recognize I was in a B&N store - it greeted me with a welcome message, and a small BN icon appeared at the top of my device screen. I did not, unfortunately, have enough time to figure out what additional content may have been available in the store - but it was nice seeing that the Nook itself becomes self-aware that you're in a store, and presumably will make such content readily available. I recall early on in the pre-reviews that there will be exclusives only available in-store via the Nook, and that you'll be able to read entire books for free while in the store itself (again, via the Nook.) I'll have to test this as more stores/the B&N network becomes more Nook-friendly.

So overall: do I love the Nook? No, but there's some serious like going on here. It has it's flaws - slower response times, less document format choices, a slightly awkward menu system, and a horrific method for adding a memory card. But it's a solid device, and with the Android OS running it the incredible potential for constant updates and, just as importantly...application programs, makes it a great buy.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

When Stupid People Attack

A friend was on a "people suck" vent-fest earlier today, and it reminded me that I haven't put up a Darwin Awards for a while. Soooo...here's to you, Angel!

What are the Darwin Awards? Named in honor of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, the Darwin Awards commemorate those who stupidity is so great, they improve our gene pool...by removing themselves from it.

Here are some of this year's nominees:

(16 July 2008, Italy) Gerhard, 68, was queued at a traffic light in his Porsche Cayenne sportscar. Before one reaches the light, there is a railroad crossing, and Gerhard had not let the queue progress forward far enough before he drove onto the tracks. As you might imagine, given Murphy's Law, a train was coming.

The safety bars came down, leaving the Porsche trapped on the rails. According to witnesses, it took the driver awhile to realize he was stuck. Finally he jumped from the car and started to run--straight toward the oncoming train, waving his arms in an attempt to save his sportscar!

The attempt was partly successful. The car received less damage than its owner, who landed 30 meters away. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

(2 February 2008, New York) A 50-year-old man was bird hunting in Upstate New York with his buddies and his faithful canine companion. They stopped for a smoke, and his dog found a deer leg bone!

The man tried to take the bone away, but like any right thinking dog, the animal would not relinquish its treasure. He stayed just out of reach. Frustrated with this blatant show of disobedience, the man grabbed his loaded shotgun by the muzzle and began wielding it like a club. Each time he swung it, the dog dodged.

Suddenly the "club" struck the ground and fired, shooting the man in the abdomen. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he died from his injuries. He did remain conscious long enough to confirm this account to police; otherwise, his poor friends might now be under suspicion!

At least he didn't hit the dog.

(13 January 2008, Florida) Wearing only swim trunks and sneakers, a 37-year-old man raced his motorcycle toward the Manasota Key drawbridge. As the bridge began to open, it was clear that he intended to "shoot the gap." Bridge designers had anticipated such lunacy and invented the crossing guard. The closing gates swept him off his Suzuki, over the side of the bridge, into the water, and out of the gene pool.

The motorcycle, however, continued up the ramp and made it across to the other side.

(January 2008, Pennsylvania) A 23-year-old man with various body piercings decided to have some fun at work. He wondered, "What it would feel like to connect the electronic control tester to my chest piercings?" Several coworkers tried to convince him that it was a bad idea to wire himself up to the electronic device, but he ignored their pleas.

He proceeded to connect two alligator clips to his metal nipple piercings, one on each side, and hit the test button... His coworkers were still trying to revive him with CPR and rescue breathing when police and rescue personnel arrived.

They were not successful.

(14 April 2008, Texas) A contract worker was hired to install reinforcement bars on a communications tower near Camp Bullis. He was wielding power tools high above the ground, when two other workers saw him lean back and fall 225 feet to his death. Turns out, the man had loosened the bolts on the bar to which he was attached.

Police are calling it a tragic accident. Between fits of laughter.

The ambulance responded to a frantic call concerning a neighbor's trip through an industrial tree shredder. It seems the individual had decided to prune his own trees, rather than hire a professional. Why not? After all, the local shop rented shredders that could make quick work of yard debris, including tree limbs up to 8 inches in diameter.

To save time (those fateful words) the neighbor had placed the shredder at the base of a great oak tree, where he could drop branches directly into the hopper. He intended to cut off the top third of the oak, since it had been killed by lightning.

With the shredder running wide open, the neighbor climbed his ladder to the first tree branch, stepped off the ladder, slipped, and fell. The paramedics found him very dead, half in and half out of the shredder's hopper, one leg shredded to the hip.

Not married, no kids, removed self from the gene pool.

An enterprising lumberman had felled a large tree, and needed to haul it up a steep embankment. So he jacked up the rear end of his pickup and swapped one of the rear tires for a bare rim. He attached one end of a rope to the rim, and the other end of the rope to the felled tree. He put the pickup into gear, expecting the rim to act as a makeshift rope crank that would pull the tree up the embankment, saving him lots of sweat.

A great idea? Not if you're reading it here! You see, the tree vastly outweighed the truck. The man was standing with one foot on the ground and the other foot on the accelerator. When he gunned the engine, the tree acted like an anchor, and the truck yanked itself backwards. The open door rammed into him, and he was swept over the embankment along with the pickup.

When the dust settled, our lumberman had entered the great beyond. But his escapade served as a warning to others. The next lumberman cut up the tree where it lay, and carried it off.

[I had to add this: the early bird may catch the worm, but it's the 2nd mouse who gets the cheese!]

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Get the Point?

I realize, as a society of caring adults, we occasionaly will come up with ideas that we deem "innovative" in the name of social responsibility and public safety. However, there are times when we break through the second wall, and enter a realm which shall be heretofore known as Absolute Stupidity.

Across the great pond, a British designer has come up with a kitchen knife designed to "make it more difficult to stab someone", because as we know most stabbings take place in the average household kitchen.

The knife has a rounded edge instead of a sharp one, with a little hook/groove designed to SNAG ON CLOTHING OR SKIN, making it that much harder to penetrate.

More interestingly was this little tidbit from the designer, John Cornock:

“It can never be a totally safe knife, but the idea is you can’t inflict a fatal wound. Nobody could just grab one out of the kitchen drawer and kill someone”, and "will reduce the risk of accidental injuries."

Just. Can't. Inflict. A. Fatal. Wound.

John. Johnny boy. Jim-bo. Unless this magic blade of yours is blunted like a butter knife...what's to stop me from taking your wonderful invention and just slicing across someone's neck like it's a head of cabbage?

It's a fucking knife, you English twit. It's SHARP. Reduce the risk of accidental injuries? Have you ever actually cooked in a kitchen? Who the FUCK cuts themselves accidently with the pointed tip? The only "accidental" injuries I've ever had, or seen, are done with...wait for it...

The goddamned BLADE.

Jeezus H. Christ, this is such an incredibly dumb concept that it'll probably make this fool millions.

Understand, I'm not knocking the rounded tip; it actually makes more of a design sense, and I can see the safety of it. But the little hook, to prevent it going in deeper? Come on...just SAYING that, makes me want to test it! I can see hundreds of psychopaths right now, rushing out to buy this gadget just to prove this fool wrong!

I can see the note left for the police now:

"Tell Cornack I said to go back to the drawing board. Keeps a nice edge, tho'."

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Newsflash: Amazonian Chutzpah

Apparently when I suggested yesterday that Amazon might be shooting itself in the foot, I wasn't far off the mark. The Dallas Morning News is reporting to the US Senate that "the best deal Amazon will give the Dallas Morning News>—and we’ve negotiated this up to the last two weeks—they want 70 percent of the subscriptions revenue. I get 30 percent, they get 70 percent. On top of that they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device. Now is that a business model that is going to work for newspapers? I get 30 percent and they get the right to license my content to any portable device—not just ones made by Amazon? That, to me, is not a model. Maybe what Plastic Logic comes up with or what Hearst comes up with, might provide a good model but today Kindles are less than 1 percent penetration in the U.S. market. They’re not a platform that’s going to save newspapers in the near term.”

The subject came up during the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on the future of newspapers. Dallas Morning News Publisher and CEO James Moroney spoke up after Arianna Huffington raved about the Kindle DX's potential as an option.

Personally, I see this as both bad for both Amazon and the newspaper industry. The latter, because frankly they're an archaic dinosaur that needs to find a new way to grasp technology and new users; the former, because they're letting greed override judgement. Someone with better marketing sense (read: Sony or, as a dark horse, Apple) needs to slide into this gap and take advantage of the situation, quickly - or ebooks will die from this negative taint.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Is Amazon Killing the Kindle?

Let's face it: ebooks, and more specifically digital book readers, are an incredibly niche market. Most people out there have little to no interest in them, because it's hard to fathom paying $250 or more for a device that does little more than display books.

Sure there are legitimate reasons why the technology is both expensive and limited, and those of us who have expressed a real interest in these devices understand and accept these reasons. However, for the average consumer - it just isn't good enough.

So with that in mind, is Amazon - unquestionably the market leader in this field - destroying it's own chances, in the mind of the general populace?

Amazon today introduced the third in it's Kindle line of digital book readers, the Kindle DX (for "deluxe").
The DX boasts a larger screen (9.7", over the K1 and K2's 6" screen), larger internal memory (4G to the K1/2's 2G), auto-rotatable between landscape and portrait, and a larger footprint (roughly 7"x10"). And, finally (for Kindle users, anyway), native PDF support.

So what, exactly, is the problem I see here?

1) Amazon just released the Kindle 2 a few months ago. Their users have been crying for native PDF support, and after spending $370 for the K2 Amazon releases a new device, just a few short months later, with that very feature. For $489. Not cool, Amazon.

2) The appeal of the digital book readers - at least in my view - is it's portability. My Sony Reader fits comfortably in the pocket of my trenchcoat, which makes it easy for me to bring on my morning and evening commute to and from work. The K1 and K2, while slightly larger than the Sony models, both offer similar portability; my girlfriend carries her K2 in her purse. The KDX, by contrast, isn't designed for the average consumer; it's footprint is considerably larger, more in line with a standard letter-sized paper or notebook. You'd need to carry a briefcase, or backpack, to bring it with you.

And therein is where they market the device. This is being pushed at both the student market, and the newspaper crowd. The question is, will either really be interested in this device, at all?

I can absolutely see the initial appeal as a student. A single Kindle can carry the entire textbook load of that student's college life; never again would you need to lug around 40-50lbs of books between classes, when you can carry them all embedded on this singular device. That alone is a considerable bonus.

But is it enough? As a student, I was constantly making notes in the margins of my books, flagging pages for later review - and flipping back and forth between chapters, to refresh mental notes. The Kindle has limited capabilities to do this; will that sensation of "slowness" be a turnoff for a student?

Let's also talk about the resale value of a textbook. Every student I've ever known, has managed to recoup at least SOME of the cost of textbooks by reselling them at the end of each semester. With Amazon's DRM'd format, will this even be possible anymore? Judging by the price of ebooks now (and this is not limited to Amazon's ebook store), there is only a small discount (if any) from the price of a printed book; if that carries over to textbooks, will the cost of a nearly $500 ebook reader (etextbook reader?) be worth the cost, if the cost of electronic textbooks is not significantly lower?

That leaves the newspaper crowd, and this...boggles my mind. The KDX is being marketed as being able to display electronics newspapers in a more newspaper-like fashion, and the NYTimes has reduced its subscription cost from the $14.99 a month price to $9.99 on the Kindle - with, rumored, a 2yr obligation.

Here's my question, for the newspapers: why would I pay for something I can now read, online, for free?

Every single newspaper I read has updated their websites with RSS feeds. Thanks to aftermarket software, I can download those RSS feeds onto my digital reader and read, for free, the sections of the newspapers that most interest me.

For free.

So why would I want a large, unwieldy device to do this at an extra cost?

I understand that this is a hail mary pass by the newspaper industry, trying to find a way to bring the populace back to their pages. Newspaper readership is dying, and each year it gets worse as the new generations adapt to new technologies. In this green world we're living in, the idea of a daily paper seems wasteful when you can get the same news online.

For free.

Lastly: Amazon, very quietly, recently announced they were raising the cost of their personal document conversion service. In order to get, say, a PDF document onto a Kindle you have to email it to this service, which would then convert the document into a Kindle-friendly format and send it wirelessly to your device. This service used to cost a single dime, $.10 cents, regardless of the size of your document.

Now, that same service is raised to 15 cents - and that's 15 cents PER MEGABYTE, rounded up to the next megabyte. Which means the same document you used to send could now cost you as much as 50 cents to convert - small change, but a considerable price increase.

I honestly don't know what Amazon is thinking here. On one hand, yes their push into the student/textbook market makes a certain amount of sense - IF textbook publishers were already on board. Which they aren't. So Amazon is having a Field of Dreams moment; if they build it, they will come. They're marketing it as a newspaper reading device, but the reality is they're hoping the academic publishers will see the benefits of it and flock to digitize their textbooks - because that's where the real money will come from.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for Sony to announce their own wireless, touchscreen, Wacom-assisted next-generation reader with open-ended document support. And yes, I will be upgrading to it - while shaking my head at Amazon's self-destruction.

Did I mention I can download newsfeeds...for free?

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Attack, Or Just Another Case of Robot Love?

You may recall from a little while back, I'd written about a robot who trapped a lab assistant for hours because it loved her and didn't want her to leave.

This is only the beginning, folks. The apocalypse is near. The day of the robots is upon us! Where's John Conner when you need him?!

From a Swedish newspaper:
"A company must pay fines of 25,000 kronar because it has been deemed responsible for the [robot attack].
"I have never heard of a robot who beat a man in this way," said prosecutor Leif Johansson.

In June 2007, a man who is employed at a factory in Bålsta north of Stockholm took a look at a malfunctioning robotized machine. The machine was used for lifting heavy stones. When the man went into the building he thought that he had cut the power to the machine but he had not. Instead, the robot was activated and forcibly grabbed the man's head. He managed to defend himself, but received serious injuries on the body.

"The man was very lucky. He had four broken ribs and was almost killed," said Leif Johansson."

A few things here.

1. A fine of 25,000 kronar?! Seriously folks, that's like $3000 in US dollars. A robot went nuts on company property and damn near killed a man, and they only got fined three grand. I'm starting a business up in Sweden, because I'll be saving a bundle just on the insurance I won't need to buy.

2. I'm obviously missing something, because how does this industrial robot, made for picking up large rocks (and....doing what, exactly, with them? Play marbles?) GRABBED HIS HEAD. And he had four broken RIBS. The last time I looked, my ribs were not located anyplace remotely close to my skull. So unless they're breeding some seriously freakish mutants in Sweden, this is pretty damn fishy.

3. Forgetting the anatomy lesson, I'm still confused; so what if the power was on. What would prompt the robot to "suddenly" activate on its own accord, to grab the man at all? Had he been rolling around in mud all afternoon, and the robot assumed it was a man-shaped boulder? What is the robot supposed to do with the rocks anyway?

I'm thinking...this man is a bot molester. This poor, sickly robot was taken to him for care and maintenance...and he tried to abuse it, thinking it sedated. The robot woke up, saw the perverted things being done to it (I'll let you use your own imagination) and reacted appropriately - which is why the courts gave such a paltry fine to the company. The man had to agree to the cheap payoff, or risk everyone knowing:

He's a robot fucker.

(video embedded)

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Parenting License Not Included

There are times when I truly believe some people should have to take an exam before they're allowed to have children.

Or at least, to have children AND technology.

A Colorado dad decided to give his 13-yr old daughter a cell phone. Okay, I know some of you out there do it, and some of you have responsible kids (and are responsible parents), so it works. But in general, I'm of the firm belief that most 13yr olds do not need a phone. What possible use, other than calling Mom or Dad, would it serve? But I digress.

So Daddykins - a Gregg Christofferson, and since his name was published in the Denver Post I'm happy to reprint it here - bought said family plan WITHOUT A TEXT MESSAGING PLAN. Because, I assume, they don't text each other so why would they need it? He later claims he assumed that meant the option was disabled on the phone.

Sure he did.

Fast forward, about a month. Daddy opens his Verizon bill and discovers they owe: $4,765.25

You see, 13yr old Dena was ESTATIC to get her new phone. And had to text her friends, "OMG luk i gt iphon r0xx0rs!"

To the tune, over the course of the month, to over 10,000 messages sent. And about the same incoming.

Dena, as it happens, went on this texting frenzy mainly during school hours - which works out to roughly 300 messages a day, every day, for a month.

It goes without saying, of course, that her grades plummeted from A's and B's, to F's.

So Daddy - and I love this part - TOOK A HAMMER TO HIS DAUGHTER'S PHONE. Because it's the phone's fault. Of course.

Which, in my eyes, means he's now also out the cost of a new phone - because a man who doesn't think saying no to a texting plan means it can't be used, probably also doesn't think he needs the phone insurance either.

And because this is America, of course the Christoffersens are asking school administrators at Johnson Junior High School to crack down on cellphone use during school.

Because it's the school's fault. Of course.

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Whatever Happened To Just Say No?

Sometimes, you come across an item that you really want to say "April Fool!" to, and walk away from.

Getting a kid to sit in a dentist's chair, I guess, is a task far too complex and herculean for the average doc. Some manufacturer, sensing a potential gold mine here, came up with a product that absolutely boggles the mind.

Called the Pedisedate, this wonderful device is made to hook up to both a Gameboy, and a tank of nitrous oxide - so an unsuspecting Junior or Missy can play Pokemon while they fall into a blissful anesthetic state.

I particularly like the concept triangle on the ad of "Comfort, Distraction, and Sedation".

A few questions:
- will there be Xbox and Playstation versions, or is this only for portables?
- can we get a PSP version in black?
- what about a bluetooth/wireless version?

I have to wonder, what are the psychological ramifications of using a Game Boy to lull your child into sleep...and when they awaken, they not only discover that the Nintendo was used to sucker them - but they were violated while unconcious at the same time? Is the ultimate idea to evoke some negative Pavlovian response to Game Boy? "No mommy no, not the Nintendo, I'll be good I promise!"

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Monday, April 06, 2009

When We're Enslaved in the Future, This Will Be Why

Is it me, or are Japanese robots getting creepier and creepier?

This Powder-like apparation with the "I'm going to kill you in your sleep" eyes is named CB2, aka "Child Robot with Biomimetic Body", which to me would be CRBB - but then I guess a kid-bot named CRaBB isn't very appealing. And if it's being created by the Japanese, why would it have an English name? Will it have blond hair too? Be proud of your heritage, Eido-ans! Dammit.

Anyway. So Cree-pio here (cue: star wars reference) is yet another learning bot, specifically designed to think like a human infant and read facial expressions, reacting accordingly. It also has "197 film-like pressure sensors under its light grey rubbery skin, (and) can also recognise human touch, such as stroking of its head".

"The robot can record emotional expressions using eye-cameras, then memorise and match them with physical sensations, and cluster them on its circuit boards, said creator Minoru Asada.

The professor, also a member of the Japanese Society of Baby Science, said his team has made progress on other fronts since first presenting CB2 to the world in 2007.

In the two years since then, he said, CB2 has taught itself how to walk with the aid of a human and can now move its body through a room quite smoothly, using 51 "muscles" driven by air pressure."

So: it walks, it can read your facial expression, and react accordingly. Now...I might be off base here...but this looks uncannily like a child version of:
Am I wrong? Well? Remember I said this, when you're tossed out a high-rise window in the near future! On your way down you'll be thinking "oh shit...he was riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight*splat*"

Why do we keep making robots LOOK more human? I don't want a doppleganger roaming around! Let my robot look like a monkey. Or an alien. Or...I dunno...a goddamn ROBOT! Do you seriously think I want to come home, wasted out of my gourd from a night's drinking with the boys, and see THIS creepy boy-bot sitting in a chair waiting around for me because my bratty kid didn't tuck it away in his toybox?

"You're home late, Dave..."

Hey, boy-toy. I got an facial expression you can read, right'ere!

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

When Snuggies Attack

As if the horrific Snuggie, the mutated backwards robe-blanket, wasn't enough...now they're peddling this Baby Bjorn-like version for new moms.

Dubbed the Peekaru (peekaboo? pikachu?), this garment? sling? will ensure that your child will be emotionally scarred from a very, very young age. Imagine the happy family at the older child's baseball game, watching from the bleachers all warm and cozy in their bright, neon-colored Snuggies...and Junior, tucked away against his mother's stomach grinning like a madman from his hidey-hole.

Am I the only one who sees this, and is reminded of the creatures emerging from a torso in the movie Aliens?

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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Elephant In The Room

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, "Hey, there is an elephant in the village today."

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, "Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway." All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

"Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first man who touched his leg.

"Oh, no! it is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.

"Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

"It is like a big hand fan" said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

"It is like a solid pipe," Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, "What is the matter?" They said, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said."

The natural ending to this parable is that everyone walks away happy, having gained a much greater understanding of what, exactly, an elephant is - by looking at it from the viewpoints of other people. They each "saw" it differently, but the whole - in this case - is much greater than the sum of its parts. It's meant to teach us that, in order to better understand a problem, we must and should look at it from different sides. Far too often, there isn't just a single viewpoint; look at a subject in various ways, and you gain a greater understanding, and perhaps connection, with that thing.

The obvious use of this story is as a metaphor for religion. God (or Yahweh, or Allah, or Buddha, or Wakantanka, or Luna) is that elephant in the room; everyone has an opinion on it, and everyone who does have an opinion thinks that the ear, or leg, or trunk that they're holding is the Alpha and the Omega of how that elephant should be defined.

Someone very near and dear to me is going through a personal crisis of faith. She's being pulled between two worlds, each of somewhat differing views of what her faith should be. Or rather, who her faith should be in. It's my happy role to help guide her onto a path that she feels comfortable with, and if the path I help her blaze happens to take from two different trails...does it matter, if in the end she's reaching the right destination?

I ask, because there is someone else - and the whom, of this, isn't important - who has a completely different opinion of this. To him, there is only one yellow brick road to Oz; there is no deviation from it, and any other road - whether or not that road runs parallel or not - only leads to a dark, dark place. Obviously this person plays an influencing role in my friend's life, and is using that influence to denounce any other way of thought.

Why are some people so focused on the light ahead, they're completely blinded to what they're doing to the people around them?

I take personal umbrage with the idea that the afterlife of the enlightened is this...exclusive club, with a velvet rope outside. And if you aren't a member of this ecclesiastical elite, no matter the person you are inside...you won't get into the club. Instead you'll be damned, and sent to the furnaces.

Because you didn't kiss someone's ring.

I've been called Anti-Christian by some, and I disagree with that description. I have little or no problem with the Christian faith itself; I do, however, have considerable issues with the institution of Christianity, and the ideologies they invoke among their followers. Some of their followers. I have...concerns, about a faith system that encourages converting other people to their way of thinking, even considering it a virtue if not a requirement - and condemns those who do not focus on the elephants leg.

But I'm not here to complain, or argue, about the Church of the Apostles.

My friend is a Christian, and has no desire to...expel herself from the Christian faith. She does follow Christ as her Lord and Savior, and despite my personal views I have no desire to dissuade her from that.

However. That system is at odds with an ever-growing fire inside of her, that perhaps the way of the church she's followed for so long...isn't enough. That there's a more natural way of the world that she feels, deep inside her heart, isn't being nurtured. She's out of balance because of it, because she's felt an emptiness inside that, despite her best efforts, the ways of her belief system hasn't been able to fill.

A feminine principle. A Yin, to Christianity's Yang.

There are vast similarities of the rites of Christianity, to the old rituals of various pagan belief systems; none of these similiarities were happy coincidences, but were carefully orchestrated by those in power, in order to incorporate EXISTING BELIEF SYSTEMS to more easily help people accept the Christian faith. However, unlike most other belief systems Christianity (and the entire Judeo-Christian ideology) rejects the feminine ideal, relegating the role of the Yin - the Goddess - to an afterthought.

I mention this, because there are many others out there who, like this friend, have felt this emptiness and have discovered their inner balance by co-embracing certain pagan beliefs, intertwining them with their Christian faith.

Christopagans, they're called. Or Christian Wiccans, depending on what you read.
They said to Him: "Shall we then, being children, enter the Kingdom?" Jesus said to them: "When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, then you shall enter the kingdom."
- the Gospel of Thomas

Christianity is the New Testament of the Bible, and the New Testament...is incomplete. The Gnostic Gospels - the Apocrypha - are unknown to most Christians, because they were rejected in most cases by those in power, as being too controversial or obscure to be included within the canonical Bible.

It's fascinating that among these texts are various references to disagreements between the Biblical Peter and Mary Magdalene, conventionally thought to be little more than a holy groupie; some, however, believe she was in fact closer to an apostle in status, and perhaps because of this disagreement by Peter (incidently, the actual "founder" of "Christianity" as we know it) the role of women in the teachings of Christ were purposefully downplayed. The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Pistus Sophia and the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians all strongly hint at this - and perhaps more importantly, the existance of the Holy Mother as the third figure in the triumvate (replaced in conventional speech as the Holy Spirit).

During Christ's time, there existed in the kabbalastic texts reference to the Holy Spirit as Wisdom; in Greek, Sophos...or Sophia. This Divine Mother was worshipped by the early Christians as the Womb of Life, with the dove as her emissary.

So why, then, is a blending of the feminine principle - now best exemplified by the Wiccan traditions - with the uber-masculine ideologies of Christianity, a BAD thing?

I'll stop now, before I get preachy. This was really intended as a way for me to vent, and a way for a friend to see that perhaps her budding views are not so alien to her traditional beliefs.

And just maybe someone else will see this and begin to question whether his views are maybe - just maybe - more rigid and less accepting/inclusive than he'd like to believe.

Just a thought.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ebooks (vol. 4): Epilogue

Time to round off this series. I've outlined what the technology is, listed the various types of digital readers available, and pointed to places online where you can download ebooks. So what's left?

My own opinion, of course.

The Amazon Kindle is, right now, the undisputed king of the digital jungle. It wasn't the first, but like the iPod it simplified the process. Amazon linking their device to their own online bookstore, and plastering KindleKindleKindle all over their front page, was pure marketing genius.


The original Kindle was as ugly as an 8-track tape. All things being equal otherwise, with the other options available to me there was just no way I could walk around with that monstrosity and admit I paid nearly $400 for it in 2008. It looked like a plastic toy from 1988.

The K2 is sleeker by far, and a bit more modern in styling. But it still doesn't match the overall heft and design of the Sony digital readers. This is a device I'll be carrying around in public a lot - and I do get asked questions about it, constantly. I want a certain wow factor because of how it looks, not just for what it is. The Kindle is more recognizable, certainly - that doesn't make it a better design.

But what about functionality, you cry. It's hard to ignore the wireless network provided on the Kindle; being able to download a new book, on the fly...that's a pretty damned nice feature.

And I wholeheartedly agree. But is it really all that necessary? How often am I outside in a park, and suddenly thinking...I HAVE to get a copy of this book, right now! In a coffee shop reading, and suddenly have an overwhelming urge to download some new titles?

The wireless feature is handy for people who...well, who aren't computer jockeys. They don't spend much time at all on their computers, maybe they're constantly on the go, and need a feature like that.

Provided, of course, they're not travelling outside of the continental U.S. Because the network doesn't work outside of the States. Nor can you buy Kindles outside of the United States, or use a non-U.S. credit card to buy books for it...

My Sony Reader plugs in, downloads any books I have queued to sync, and I'm ready to go. Often I'll browse the Sony ebookstore on my lunch hour online, looking for books I'd like; I'll add most to a wishlist for later, and actually purchase a few for downloading. I can either do it right then, or wait until I get home - where the ebook will be downloaded onto my PC, where I can ALSO read it if I so choose (the Kindle - can't do this).

That wireless browsing also significantly cuts into your battery life.

So you really have to ask yourself whether you need to pay an extra $100 for wireless access to an electronic bookstore from your device.

I'm also not a fan of Amazon's proprietary format model. You're pretty much limited to direct-download two formats, both of which Amazon owns. You can use their email service to send and convert documents in a few other formats, but the device itself isn't designed to handle those formats.

By contrast - and to me, in a very surprising move - Sony has a much more open-ended format model. They do of course have their own proprietary .lrf format, but their device can also view documents in .txt, .rtf, .pdf, and more importantly - .epub.

Why is the latter so important? Because .epub is the format the publishing world as a whole is adopting as their standard. In the near future, this is the format you'll see more ebooks being available as...and if your device can't read it, you'll be behind the curve.

The only other device on the market that even remotely interests me is the iLiad reader. It has a design reminiscent of the Sony, and that Wacom touch screen makes me want to drool. Unfortunately it doesn't support as many formats, and I can't bring myself to buy tech that I can't physically hold in my hands and test before purchasing. I wouldn't be able to tell you where you could buy an iLiad, except for getting one online - which is a flaw, in my eyes, of the Kindle as well. The Sony is available in the Sony Style stores as well as Borders Bookstores, J&R Music here in NY, WalMart, B&H Video...it's accessible.

So there it is. Good luck, I hope this was all helpful.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ebooks (addendum): Samsung Joins In

Samsung is to launch a touchscreen ebook reader to take on the Amazon Kindle.

The new model called Papyrus will launch in Korea in June with the aim to eventually launch in the UK and US.

A5 in size, the model, which will come in a range of colours, will feature a stylus for touching the screen and 512MB of on-board memory for storing content. There is no SD card slot.

Aside from being able to let you read the latest digital versions of your favourite books, the model will also double up as a notetaker, world clock, diary, memo taker, calculator, and contacts making a truly modern day Filofax.

Pricing has yet to be confirmed, but it seems Samsung is being very aggressive, with a $299 price point if and when it makes it out of Korea. The price point would make it $60 cheaper than the Amazon Kindle, although it will lack EV-DO connectivity.

Interesting, except there's no detail on actual specs, and what document formats it would support. We'll see if this becomes a viable competitor, or just B-level device.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Discovery Channel Files Against Amazon Kindle

I don't know how I managed to miss this last week, but apparently Discovery Communications has filed suit against Amazon, claiming that the Kindle(s) infringe on a patent they have on digital security on a device that can deliver electronic books:
Kindle Sparks Patent Suit by Discovery
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009; Page D04

Discovery Communications sued Amazon.com yesterday, accusing the e-commerce giant of infringing its patent for electronic book technology with the Kindle reader.

Discovery, based in Silver Spring, said Amazon's two versions of the Kindle, as well as its online services related to the e-reader, violate a patent that the media company and founder John Hendricks received in November 2007, the same month Amazon released the first version of Kindle. The patent deals with encryption technology for distributing digital publications.

"The Kindle and Kindle 2 are important and popular content delivery systems," said Discovery general counsel Joseph A. LaSala. "We believe they infringe our intellectual property rights, and that we are entitled to fair compensation. Our tradition as an inventive company has produced considerable intellectual property assets for our shareholders, and today's infringement litigation is part of our effort to protect and defend those assets."

An Amazon spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Discovery is best known for its channel on cable television, and is not seen as an Amazon competitor. But Discovery and Hendricks have been "significant players in the development of digital content and delivery services in the 1990s," the company said in a statement.

"Hendricks' work included inventions of a secure, encrypted system for the selection, transmission and sale of electronic books." He filed for a patent in 1999.

A Discovery spokesman said the company has not developed e-reader technology using the patent. In the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Delaware, Discovery is seeking compensation from Amazon for using the patent, not an injunction to prevent it from selling Kindle.

Amazon's Kindle got attention after its release as a possible replacement for paper-based reading, and its sequel, released last month, won praise for more user-friendly features. But Amazon has been criticized by publishers who say it is trying to avoid paying royalties related to its text-to-speech feature and by consumers who are frustrated that Kindle-ready books are locked to the device with software restrictions. The portable Kindle, which costs about $360, connects wirelessly to Amazon's Web site, where books can be purchased.

The Discovery spokesman declined to say whether the company planned to sue other e-reader makers, such as Sony.

More and more, I'm happy with my decision to go with the Sony. We'll see how this plays out.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ebooks (Vol. 3.a): Google Jumps Into the Fray

This isn't exactly an atomic bomb attack by Sony against Amazon, but it's definitely a precision missile strike. People like numbers, and being able to tell people their library has over 600,000 books - compared to Amazon's 250,000 - is a major selling point. Combine that with Sony's device being able to handle more formats that Amazon...

...now if only Sony could figure out how to ADVERTISE their device better.

NY Times
Sony Reaches Deal to Share in Google’s E-Book Library
Published: March 18, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — Aiming to outdo Amazon.com and recapture the crown for the most digital titles in an e-book library, Sony is announcing Thursday a deal with Google to make a half million copyright-free books available for its Reader device, a rival to the Amazon Kindle.

Since 2004, Google has scanned about seven million books from major university and research library collections. For now, however, Google can make full digital copies available only of books whose copyrights have expired.

The books available to Reader owners were written before 1923 and include classics like “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” by Mark Twain, and “The Awakening,” by Kate Chopin, as well as harder-to-find titles like “The Letters of Jane Austen.”

“We have focused our efforts on offering an open platform and making it easy to find as much content as possible, and our partnership with Google is another step in that direction,” said Steve Haber, president of the digital reading business division of Sony Electronics. “We would love to continue working with Google to see how we can get more content for Reader owners.”

The companies did not disclose financial terms of the deal.

Sony is hoping that the partnership and its newly expanded library help slow some of the Kindle’s momentum. Amazon currently has 250,000 books in its Kindle library, but it stresses that they are the books people are most interested in reading, like new releases and best sellers.

Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, has said that works in the public domain, like those Google is making available to Sony, are easy to get since there are no copyrights attached.

Google has been working to encode books in a free, open electronic publishing format, ePub, which makes them easier to read on devices like the Reader. The company is aiming to gradually increase the number of copyright-free books in the Google Book Search catalog available to Sony and any other e-book distributor that shares its goals of making books more accessible.

Google is displaying only short snippets on its Web site of books that remain under copyright protection, which are the vast majority of the books it has scanned. Under a sweeping settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by authors and publishers, which has yet to be approved by a judge, Google would have more freedom to sell copies and split the proceeds with rights holders.

A new "store" was added to the Sony library software, effective 9 p.m. Pacific Time yesterday. It will let Sony Reader owners download the 500,000 public domain e-books to their libraries, and their Readers, at no charge. And non-Reader owners, including Kindle owners with the right conversion software for ePub, can also benefit. This is only a part of Google’s library of 1.5 million books, but Google is working to add the rest of the books to this program. Google and Sony did not give a time frame for completion of this project.

This program is part of Sony’s commitment to an open platform, as opposed to the closed platform of its major competitor. The ePub conversion is being done by Google itself, as noted; and Sony and Google are exploring ways to make copyrighted ePub material available.

Sony also will be working with libraries to make the commercial ePub material available in the public library’s typical time limited format for copyrighted material. This is nothing new, it is being done today in conjunction with Overdrive, but Sony would like to make this library interaction easier, perhaps even making it part of the Sony store. No time frame has been set for this.

Sony has also indicated support for the Mac, and said that a Mac version of the store would be forthcoming.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ebooks (Vol. 3): I Know Which Device, but Where to Find eBooks?

So, I've talked about why you might want a digital book reader, and gave examples of readers on the market for you to choose from. Now: where can you go to actually GET ebooks for the reader?

First, I need to make something extremely clear: you will NOT find every book you want in an ebook format. Ebooks have been slow to catch on, especially with bookstores (brick and mortar, AND online) and publishers. Some authors, like Stephen King, have come out strongly in favor of ebooks; others, like J.K. Rowling, have explicitly denied any chance of their books coming out in ebook form.

Also. Ebooks can be free. Some of them. But most aren't. You won't find your latest volume in the Twilight series for free, but you'll likely find them in several formats across various ebooks stores and libraries. Don't expect to always get fantastic discounts for not buying paper, either; I've seen modern releases discounted for as little as 5% off the paper price. On the other hand, I've also seen as high as 70% off the paper price, especially if the ebookstore is pushing a particular author/genre/series. If your reader can support multiple formats...shop around, you might find a better price someplace else.

Classic literature is usually the least expensive to find, and are often the ones you'll find for free. At most, you'll see them being sold for maybe $4, perhaps as little as $1. Buy generic, unless you feel you need to pay more.

Now, I would like to say that certain truths are self evident: that all ebook stores are created equal. That all digital readers are endowed by their creators with comparable digital rights, that among these are PDF, PUB, and DOC files.

But alas, true believers, this isn't the case at all.

Ebooks come in all shapes and sizes, depending on where you find them. And, most importantly: not every reader, can read every format.

Yes, my friends, it's true. We're back to the format wars, only now it's the realm of digital books.

Right now ebooks can be found across the web in the following file formats: HTML, PDF, DOC, TXT, RTF, LIT, PDB, PRC, MOB, EPUB, PPT, DJVU, CHM, WOLF, LRF, and AZW.

Holy ridiculous variety, Batman!

Knowing what formats are available on what reader you choose is very, very important; you don't want to find yourself stuck with a reader that is only good for reading PDF documents, and then you're unable to find a library/bookstore where you can get books you want in that format.

Of course, ve haff vays uff circumventing that...but I'll talk about that later.

Here's a list of the largest repositories of ebooks; there are a lot more than these out there, and you can feel free to Google your little hearts out. These are simply the bigguns, the Borders/Waterstones/Barnes & Nobles of the ebook world, and in some cases - the only place you can go. Read on, McDuff.

1. Amazon
Gee, what a surprise to find them here, right? Amazon is probably the biggest online retailer for books, and you shouldn't be surprised that they also have the largest ebook library at over 245,000 titles for sale. Unfortunately there is a catch: Amazon's ebooks only come in Amazon's proprietary .azw format. Annnnnnnnnd now, for the grand prize...can you guess which device is the only device able to read this format? Yes, you guessed it: the Kindle. It's the Apple iTunes model - build the largest library, build the only device that supports it, lock people into a sales loop. And good luck circumventing their format, because the Kindle ebookstore doesn't download to your desktop - it wirelessly syncs to your Amazon/Kindle account, and sends your books directly to your registered device.

2. Mobipocket
Mobi has been selling ebooks since 2000, well before there were dedicated reader to use them on. They were originally designed for PDAs, the predecessor to today's Smartphones - so were well ahead of the curve when the digital reader revolution began. Their library has over 120,000 titles in the .mob and .prc format...and were bought by Amazon in 2005. Which goes at least half the distance to explaining why Amazon has such a large ebook library, compared to others in the market.

3. Sony Ebook Store
Poor Sony. They were the first big name on the ebook reader scene with their device, and now it's like being Stephen King's cousin, Sammy King - write all the books you want, you'll still just be in someone else's shadow. They've worked out an association with Borders Bookstores, which I'm hoping will see their library exponentially increase over the coming year; Sony's ebook store has close to 100,000 titles, which download in their .lrf format. To their credit, however, Sony has given up the ghost of proprietary formats fairly quickly (given their history), and made their reader much more multi-format compatible. They've also come out in support of the .epub format, which is slowly - sloooowwwwwwlyyyy - inching its way to becoming the industry standard; their device also supports the Adobe Digital Editions/PDF formats. You do, however, need to install Sony's Ebook software to download books.

4. Fictionwise
Fictionwise is the dark horse in this race; opened in 2000, they don't have the largest library of ebooks at around 59,000 titles. What they do have is the largest format support of any other ebook retailer. They sell ebooks in both device-specific encrypted form and unencrypted forms, and in a choice (depending on a title's format availability) of: .lrf, .mobi, .prc, .lit, .pdf, and a few others (.kml, .rb) I haven't seen. Also, and perhaps most importantly: on March 5th of this year, Fictionwise was acquired by Barnes & Noble. I particularly find this somewhat amusing; in 2003, B&N pulled out of the ebook market, complaining that "manufacturers have not yet made a device that consumers embrace on a wide scale."

5. Ebooks
Launched in 2000 (do you see a trend here?), Ebooks is another Little Engine That Could. They claim to have a library of - depending on what part of their website you read, either 30,000 titles, 100,000 titles, or 160,000 titles. Hmm. I'm inclined to believe the former, and the latter figure includes "documents", which may be research papers in electronic format. They do offer multiple formats: .mob/prc, .lit, and .pdf.

6. Ereader.com
You have to give Ereader some credit, they just keep managing to survive. This is probably the OLDEST online electronic book retailer, once upon a time (mid 1990's) existing as Peanut Press and selling ebooks exclusively for the Palm OS devices. Since then they've been sold to Palm (became Palm Digital Media), then to Motoricity (where they became Ereader.com)...and in 2008 they were bought by Fictionwise. Which is now owned by Barnes & Noble. Which gives B&N a double-foothold into the ebook online retail market. Look out, Amazon! Right now, you need the Ereader software to read their books; they were primarily designed for PDA devices. I'm expecting this model to change dramatically as B&N.com changes their online model to once again include ebooks.

7. Gutenberg Project
Project Gutenberg is the first and largest single collection of free electronic books, or eBooks. Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, invented eBooks in 1971 and continues to inspire the creation of eBooks and related technologies today. PG is about digital books in all their forms - the list I've seen includes ASCII, .html, .pdf, .prc, .pdb, .rtf, .txt...as well as .mp3, .midi...you get the idea. PG is about non-DRM formats, and free books to all. Books on PG are also public domain - you won't find any Ann Rice novels here, but you will find various works by Plato, Shakespeare, Bram Stoker, Byron...at last count they had 27,000 free titles available.

I decided to include one more - not that I've had any experience with them at all, but I stumbled across them looking for something else and felt they warranted mention, if not further exploration:

8. eBookMall
From their own website:
eBookMall is a leading e-publisher and Internet retailer of eBooks. The eBookMall e-commerce website at www.ebookmall.com was launched on July 4, 2000. The site has grown from 2,000 eBooks to over 210,000 eBooks and continues to grow rapidly.

eBookMall now offers over 150,000 eBooks in a variety of popular formats. Our ordering system is simple and secure. We've provided an ample amount of instructions on how to order, because we understand that eBooks are a new technology and not much of the population has had experience with ordering them yet. We think the amount of eBook readers will increase as everyone realizes how simple eBooks are to use, and how many benefits they have.
From my own quick research, they support ebooks in the following formats: .prc, .pdb, .mob, .lit, .pdf, .doc, .txt, and .html.

So, there you have it; an exhaustive list of places you can go to get your book-read on, once you've bought your digital reading device. But what happens if the books you want, aren't available in a format your device supports?

See you next time :)

Ebooks (Vol. 2): Okay I Want, but Which One?

Thanks largely in part to 1) Oprah mentioning it on her show, and 2) no one being able to buy anything from Amazon's website without seeing a Kindle ad, the Amazon Kindle has burst out to a commanding lead in the dedicated ebook device sales market. However, just because they're becoming the iPod of ereaders, doesn't mean they're the only kid on the block you should look at. I've compiled a list of the big players out there, and you can decide for yourself which one you like more. Next volume, we'll discuss where you can GET books for your device - because not every device, can display every book format.

Kindle 2
Manufacturer: Amazon
Price: $359
Available: Amazon.com only
Display: 6" diagonal E-Ink® electronic paper display, 600 x 800 pixel resolution at 167 ppi, 16-level gray scale.

Size (in inches): 8" x 5.3" x 0.36".
Weight: 10.2 ounces.

System requirements: None, because it doesn't require a computer.

Storage: 2GB internal (approximately 1.4GB available for user content).

Battery Life: Read on a single charge for up to 4 days with wireless on. Turn wireless off and read for up to two weeks. Battery life will vary based on wireless usage, such as shopping the Kindle Store and downloading content. In low coverage areas or in 1xRTT only coverage, wireless usage will consume battery power more quickly.
Charge Time: Fully charges in approximately 4 hours and supports charging from your computer via the included USB 2.0 cable.

Connectivity: EVDO modem with fallback to 1xRTT; utilizes Amazon Whispernet to provide U.S wireless coverage via Sprint's 3G high-speed data network. Check our wireless coverage map for availability. This expanded coverage is only available for Kindle 2. See Wireless Terms and Conditions.

USB Port: USB 2.0 (micro-B connector) for connection to the Kindle power adapter or optionally to connect to a PC or Macintosh computer.

Audio: 3.5mm stereo audio jack, rear-mounted stereo speakers.
Content Formats Supported: Kindle (AZW), TXT, Audible (formats 4, Audible Enhanced (AAX)), MP3, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively; PDF, HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP through conversion.

Included Accessories: Power adapter, USB 2.0 cable, rechargeable battery. Book cover sold separately.

(CNET) The good:
Slimmer and sleeker looking than the original Kindle; large library of tens of thousands of e-books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs via Amazon's familiar online store; built-in free wireless "Whispernet" data network--no PC needed; built-in keyboard for notes and navigation; a faster processor speeds up the device; with 2GB of internal memory, it's capable of storing 1,500 electronic books; font size is adjustable; improved battery life; displays image files and plays MP3 and AAC audio; compatible with Windows and Mac machines; new Text-to-Speech feature allows you to have text read aloud.

The bad:
No expansion slot for adding more memory or accessing files; files such as PDFs and Word documents aren't natively supported, and need to be converted at 10 cents a pop by Amazon; no protective carrying case included; battery is sealed into the device and isn't removable; hardware and content is still too expensive.

The bottom line:
While it's still short of perfection--and has a price tag that's too high--the Amazon Kindle 2 offers a range of improvements that makes it the best overall e-book reader we've seen to date.
Reader Digital Book 700
Manufacturer: Sony
Price: $399 ($259 non-touchscreen 505 model available)
Weights and Measurements
Dimensions (Approx.) : Approx. 5 1/9 x 6 7/9 x 13/32 inches (127.6 x 174.3 x 9.7 mm)
Weight (Approx.) : 10 oz. without soft cover

AC Power : Optional AC Charger requires 120 Volts 60Hz
Battery Life (Approx) : Up to 7,500 continuous page turns (or up to two weeks worth of reading)

Battery Type : Rechargeable Lithium-Ion
Recharging Time : Approx. 4 Hours with USB charging from powered Computer or Approx. 2 Hours when using optional AC wall charger

Media Formats Supported
DRM Text : BBeB Book (Marlin), ePub
Image : JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP
Unsecured Audio : MP3 and AAC7
Unsecured Text : BBeB, ePub, TXT, RTF, Adobe® PDF10, Microsoft® Word (Conversion to the Reader requires Word installed on your PC)

Gray Scale : 8-Level Gray Scale
Resolution : Approx. 170 Pixels Per Inch
Screen Size : 6" Measured Diagonally
Technology : E Ink® "Electronic Paper"
(MobileTechReview) Sony has worked a near miracle with their touch screen and touch-centric user interface. The Reader is simply a joy to use in terms of ergonomics, control and navigation. This is by far the most natural way to manage, navigate and read books we've seen so far. Alas, its lesser contrast doesn't warm our bookish hearts, and for those in love with e-ink's paper-like look, that's a tough one to swallow. For those new to eBook readers or those who don't mind reading from matte notebook displays, the PRS-700 has greater appeal. As always, the Reader is a great way to carry around a huge library of books and avoid the storage issues of traditional books. We aplaud Sony's support for a variety of formats, both DRM and non-DRM, especially native PDF and ePUB support. Though it lacks the cool wireless shopping feature we won't complain since all book purchases are downloaded to our PC and we can read those books on the PC too.

Pro: Responsive touch screen and excellent user interface. Navigating through books, notes and where you left off in a book is quick and easy. Nice design, more attractive than the original Kindle and more book-like than the Kindle 2. The touch screen means there's no need for a hardware keyboard (assuming you like to take notes and want a keyboard). A nice cover is included. Several book formats are supported natively, including ePUB, which will likely become the standard for digital books. The sidelights are a godsend to those who read in bed and don't want to disturb his/her partner. Sturdy metal casing (though that display is glass, so do take care).

Con: Screen has less contrast and clarity than earlier Sony Readers and the Amazon Kindle. Sony desktop software doesn't support the Mac.

Plastic Logic Reader (no official name given)
Manufacturer: Plastic Logic
Price: unknown
Available: late 2009
Specifications/Review:From the company website:
The Plastic Logic reader supports a full range of business document formats, such as Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint, and Adobe PDFs, as well as newspapers, periodicals and books. It has an easy gesture-based user interface and powerful software tools that will help business users to organize and manage their information. Users can connect to their information either wired or wirelessly and store thousands of documents on the device. The reader incorporates E Ink technology for great readability and features low power consumption and long battery life.

(from reviews on the demo device)
The Plastic Logic reader's screen is larger, the size of a standard sheet of paper--8.5 by 11 inches--but it doesn't weigh much more than the other readers. It weighs 13 ounces--compared with 10.3 ounces for the smaller Kindle. And it has a display on a plastic substrate, unlike the glass screen used for the Kindle and Sony Reader, which means that it is rugged. (At Demo, Plastic Logic's CEO, Richard Archuleta, showed a video of the display being whacked with a shoe and continuing to operate.)

Instead of dealing with buttons, users can flip through the pages of a book, magazine, or PDF using a touch screen and a simple swiping gesture. The Plastic Logic reader includes a "sticky note" function and a soft keyboard for marking pages. The company hasn't made a final decision on what the reader's storage capacity will be.
Cybook Gen 3Manufacturer: Bookeen
Price: $350
Available: yes
4.7" x 7.4" x 0.3"
118 x 188 x 8.5 mm

6.13 ounces -174 g
battery included

6" E Ink® Vizplex screen
[4.8"x3.6"- 122mmx91mm]
600x800 pixels, 166 dpi
B&W, 4 grayscale
Daylight readable
No backlight
Portrait and landscape mode

buttons "ON/OFF", "Up ", "Down", "Right ", "Left", "Enter ", "Delete", "Menu", "Music".
Power Supply:
Universal AC 100~240V, DC 5V 700mA
Plugs: Euro 2Pin, UK 3Pin, US 2Pin
Operating System:
Embedded Linux
Software suite:
Bookeen® Multi-format eBook reader
Supported image formats: JPG, GIF, PNG
Supported sound format: MP3
Rechargeable built-in Li-Polymer battery (1000 mAh)
8,000 screen refresh battery life
Samsung® S3C2410 ARM920T 200MHz
ROM memory:
8 MB
RAM memory:
16 MB
Storage memory:
512 MB
USB Client (v2.0) - Mini USB B connector
In the box:
Cybook eBook reading device
USB cable
Quick Start Guide
Charger (Deluxe version)
Case (Deluxe version)
2GB SD card (Deluxe version)
Extra battery (Deluxe version)
Stereo earphones (Deluxe version

Review:(TheFutureOfThings) On the plus side, we can definitely say that, for the most part, the Cybook is fairly quick and responsive. It has a readable display, good battery life, good RSS support, and as a dedicated e-book reader it usually does its job very well.

On the downside, it is hard to use the device without considering how much better it could have been given slightly improved hardware and more robust firmware.

Fast—faster than the Sony PRS-505
Thin, light, and small
Very good battery life, (8,000 page-flips, according to Bookeen, and many hours of MP3 playback, revealed by our test)
Latest e-paper screen—very comfortable to read in a well-lit environment
Mobipocket format and software is excellent
Good—and free—RSS support

Cumbersome page-flip mechanism
Only a few, small hardware buttons
Current firmware (late February 2008) lacks folder and subfolder capabilities, making anything with more than 100 items difficult to find
Incomplete PDF support—some files don’t open or crash the device
No SDHC support
No wireless connectivity
iLiad Book Edition
Manufacturer: iRex Technologies
Price: $699
Available: yes
8.1-inch (diagonal) Electronic Paper Display
768 x 1024 pixels resolution, 160 DPI.
16 levels of grey-scale
Touch sensor input
Integrated Wacom® Penabled® sensor board
Stylus (Wacom® Slim Pen)

Processor and memory
Intel® 400MHz XScale™ processor

Storage and expansion
256MB internal flash memory of which 128MB accessible to user.
Expandable via USB, MMC or CF cards.

Power and battery
Built-in rechargeable Lithium Ion battery
Charging via Power Adapter
Charging time: about 3 hours

Built-in stereo speakers
3.5-mm stereo headphone mini-jack

Built-in Wi-Fi® 802.11B/G wireless networking
Optional external 10/100MB Ethernet networking via Travel hub.
Size and Weight
Height: 217mm (8.5 inch)
Width: 155mm (6.1 inch)
Depth: 16mm (0.63 inch)
Weight: 435 grams (15.3 ounce)

Supported Formats
File formats supported : PDF / HTML / TXT / JPG / BMP/ PNG / PRC (Mobipocket)
Additional formats supported in the future.

Interface Languages
Dutch, English, German, French and Spanish.
Additional languages supported in the future.
(TopTenReviews) It seems to be marketed more toward the communal student environment. Where you can read a book on it, but you can also get anything else that can be printed off from a computer (meaning it supports PDF files). The iLiad also has more of an international base, giving users the option to get many of the international newspapers straight to their device.

One feature we liked about the iLiad was its device-to-device compatibility. When you make notes and annotate documents on the iLiad it can be transferred not only to another computer but also to another iLiad device. If you had a paper you wanted edited, you could make notes on yours, transfer it to someone else’s so they could make notes and comments and give it back to you.

Because the iLiad screen is equipped with Wacom Penabled technology, you can use the stylus to make notes, underline, draw and more. This means that you can do things like Sodoku puzzles and crossword puzzles.

The iLiad falls short compared to other eBook readers with its battery life and internal memory. The battery only lasts around 15 hours. Disappointing, especially when compared to other devices that can go for weeks. Also, the iLiad only has 4GB of internal memory, that’s holding dozens of books as opposed to the hundreds and thousands other devices can hold.

The iLiad does not have a dedicated service for providing content. You can get online and create a MyiRex account, but that allows you to make use of the daily delivery service for two newspapers. But you can get RSS feeds on the iLiad.

The iLiad has some really cool “wow” features that we think will probably be the future of eBook readers. However, even though some of the features give user some more flexibility, the lack of storage space, a dedicated content provider and compatibility with some formats gives it a low score in value.

Hanlin eReader V3
Manufacturer: Tianjin Jinke Electronics Co., LTD
Price: $299
Available? Yes
Dimensions 184mm(L)*120.5mm(W)*9.9mm(H)
Main Display ePaper (E-ink technology)
Storage Internal/SD Card
Memory SDRAM : 32MB, Internal 2M NOR FLASH
Weight 210g
Battery Li-ION 950mAh
I/O A.3.5mm stereo audio jack for earphone, B.USB 1.1 Port, C.SD slot(extendable up to 4GB)
Working Temperature 0ºC to 40ºC
Keeping Temperature -20ºC to 55ºC
CPU Samsung Arm9 200Mhz
Operating System Linux OS
Accessories USB cable, Charger, User Manual, Earphone
(Associated Content) The Hanlin Ereader V3 supports a very wide variety of digital book formats, supporting DOC, WOLF, PDF, HTML, TXT and many other file types without the need to convert. However, it has no wireless access so electronic books must be first downloaded to a PC and then transferred to the ebook reader by means of an SD memory card or a USB port. It fulfills its main function as a portable ebook reader quite well, although it lacks many of the additional features available in other wireless reading devices. Overall, this is not a poor quality piece of technology at all, although it lacks any real unique features to make it stand out from the fold
Manufacturer: Fujitsu
Price: approx. $1,000
Available? Expected April 2009, Japan only
Resolution: 768x1024 (XGA)
Colors: 8 or 4,096 (depending on the mode; 8 colors refresh in 2s; 4,096 colors refresh in 10s)
Size: 210x304x12mm (A4), 158x240x12mm (A5)
Thickness 12mm
Weight: 480g (A4), 320g (A5)
Body colors: White pearl, pink pearl, silver
Features: Touch panel, scroll button, six function buttons
OS: MS Windows CE5.0
Security: AES-128
CPU: Intel XScale
Connectivity: WiFi 802.11b/g
SD Card
USB 2.0
Stereo speaker built-in, head phone connector
Lithium polymer battery with 50 hours runtime
[Revised](FastCompany) The FLEPia is a full sunlight-visible e-ink device, capable of displaying greyscale and color imagery (with 260,000 colors) on its 8-inch touchscreen, which has 1024 x 768-pixel resolution. There's an SD memory card slot, 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0 EDR and it can run for 40 hours from a single charge. It runs Windows CE 5.0, so it can be used for reading e-books, browsing the web, emailing, reading Word, Excel and Powerpoint files, PDFs, TXT files, and JPEG imagery--that means it can also be set into digital picture frame mode.

The device has two major problems. First, the screen refresh rate is an astonishing 1.8 seconds. Although the Kindle's screen update isn't pretty (with that oddly eye-grabbing color-invert) it's at least speedy. Waiting nearly two seconds for the FLEPia to change its display is almost certainly going to get tiresome. Think about reading a physical book--flipping a page takes a fraction of a second to grab it, flip it, hold the book in place and track your eyes to the top of the new page. That's a far cry from the FLEPia's performance. And when in web or email-viewing modes it'll be really annoying. The 1.8 second time is also just for 64 colors, since it rises to 8 seconds for the full 260,000 color range.
Manufacturer: Foxit
Price: $259 introductory (deadline passed), $299 retail.
Available? Preorders sold out; due for April shipping
Screen:6" E Ink® Vizplex screen 600 x 800 pixel resolution, 4-level gray scale
Size: 7.4" x 4.7" x 0.4" (188×118×9.2mm)
Weight: 6.4 ounces (180g) battery included
Color: Black , Gray(Black back), White (Light Gray back)
Connectivity: USB2.0
Operating System: Embedded Linux
Supported Formats:
eBook Formats: PDF, TXT, Any printable document(after converted to PDF using included software)
Sound Formats: MP3
Internal Memory: 128MB
Storage Memory: SD Card (2GB included. Supports up to 4GB)

Expandability: SD card slot
Certification & Regulation: FCC
Controls:Buttons "ON/OFF", "Up ", "Down", "Right ", "Left", "Enter ", "Delete", "Menu", "Music".
Plugs: Euro 2Pin, UK 3Pin, US 2Pin
Battery:Rechargeable Lithium-Battery
Processor:Samsung® S3C2440 ARM 400MHz
(CNET UK) The device appears to be pretty no-frills--there's no built-in wireless--and seems to be all about viewing PDF files (Foxit makes a PDF converter and viewer, so that's the tie-in). The eSlick uses the same E-ink technology that the Kindle and Sony Readers do and it comes with a 2GB SD card that slips into an expansion slot.

All in all, the concept is a good one. A lot of people don't want to fiddle around with a lot of e-book formats and just want a device that's an excellent PDF reader. We'll see if the eSlick is as slick a PDF reader as it says it is when it's released