Wednesday, May 25, 2011

New Ereaders Giveth, and Taketh Away

As the price of ereaders falls—Barnes & Noble’s just-announced touchscreen device goes for $139, while Kobo’s, announced the day before, shaves ten bucks off that (yet both still cost more than Amazon’s months-old Special Offers Kindle, which weighs in at a mere $114)—they’re all giving up a feature that once seemed essential to these read-anywhere, buy-anywhere gadgets: 3G cellular service.

[We interrupt this rant to admit that Amazon has just announced a 3G version of the Special Offers Kindle for $164. So Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos clearly feels this trend toward Wi-Fi only ereaders offers an opening in the market for those who know they need 3G.]

When the Kindle debuted in 2007 its true disruptive genius—what allowed it to trump the seemingly sleek ereaders Sony had been selling for years—was its free 3G connectivity. Suddenly it was easy to imagine buying and reading a book most anywhere: while commuting to work on the train, waiting at the airport to board a flight, vacationing at a resort, eating lunch in a city park. The possibilities were so tantalizing I remember doubting at first that Amazon really was offering 3G at no cost. (It's easy to forget that at the time 3G cellular service was state of the art.) Then, when I learned it was true, I decided the Kindle was so expensive because fully $100 of its initial $399 price must have been subsidizing that lifetime AT&T 3G contract.

And I still think having 3G on an ereader is a powerful plus. That’s because I spend a lot of time in upstate New York out of reach of free Wi-Fi or reliable 3G service. Rural New York has shown me that my year-old refurbished Nook 3G, which uses the same AT&T network as the Kindle, somehow manages to connect in areas where even my first cell phone, which used Verizon’s venerable network, typically gave up.

More to the point, I’ve learned that outside an urban center cellular data networks are far more reliable than cellular voice networks—they obviously require a fraction of the bandwidth to function. The telcos are certainly aware of this advantage, because they’re happy to tack on added-cost 3G data plans for just about any portable device—phone or tablet—that can benefit from them.

Yet ereaders, now that they’ve lost their free 3G cellular function, appear unlikely ever to gain the kind of optional cellular data support AT&T and Verizon offer for Apple’s iPad.  I surmise that the big ebook retailers don’t want a buyer worrying that an attractively priced ereader has the added cost of a perpetual 3G data plan weighing it down. They recognize that such marketing gambits are strictly for brazen telcos hawking tantalizingly cheap, heavily subsidized smartphones.

It’s easier to tout Wi-Fi capability, since affluent ereader buyers almost certainly have a wireless home network, bought and paid for, ready to do the heavy data lifting. (Of course, none of these devices supports Wi-Fi’s state-of-the-art 802.11n spec. Since downloading a text-centric book is fairly undemanding, Amazon and B&N and Kobo deem it sufficient to go with the slower, middle-aged 802.11g spec. Whenever cool technology is for sale, you can be sure the seller is rationing it somewhere.)

So we’ve come to a crossroads. Since today’s sexiest mobile devices are all data capable, we’re leaning harder than ever on carriers’ data networks. That turns Wi-Fi into a convenient fallback. I suspect when Virgin Mobile’s marketers decided to pair an all-you-can eat data plan with a tightly restricted voice plan (mine gives me 300 minutes a month for $25) for their android phones they consoled themselves that subscribers would get most of their data via the phones’ integrated Wi-Fi—either at home or on the road in a Starbucks, hotel, or the like. (My android phone has revealed that even supermarkets offer free Wi-Fi.) Sprint’s 3G network would thus take less of a hit, especially from Virgin Mobile’s inevitable android data hogs.

Certainly I go Wi-Fi whenever my phone tells me there’s a wireless access point available.

Then, too, even a pedestrian Wi-Fi network is visibly faster than a good 3G network—and good 3G service, at least from Virgin Mobile’s parent, Sprint, isn’t that common. (Not long after getting my LG Optimus V I found myself unable to text my daughter from a parking lot on 9th Avenue and 33rd Street in Manhattan.) So users like me naturally train themselves to prefer Wi-Fi hot spots for surfing the web, streaming a YouTube video, or using a data-intensive app.

There’s just one problem.  The more mobile data we use, the more we want.  Getting it at home and at Starbucks and (amazingly) at the supermarket just makes us pine for it wherever we can’t have it—on a highway, at a rural park, in the wilds of upstate New York.  (Places where, maddeningly, your mobile phone’s GPS system has no trouble finding you.)

The Victorian art critic Walter Pater once wrote famously that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”  My take: all technology constantly aspires towards the condition of real-time.

Real-time data, data on the run, data whenever you want or need it—whether it’s the latest bestseller on your ereader or an emergency text message from someone you love on your mobile phone—continues to be elusive. With the exception of that new Kindle 3G with Special Offers, these latest low-cost ereaders aren't aspiring hard enough towards the condition of real-time.

Monday, May 9, 2011

This Comment Has Been Removed

On the web, you never know when you're going to run into a political foodfight.

This morning I finally opened last Thursday's email from David Pogue, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, pointing me to Pogue's blog post about a new ebook app from former Vice President and presidential candidate Al Gore.

I hurried over to read it because as someone who's a little underwhlemed by the ebook reading experience -- and who imagines ebook readers doing routine things (e.g., looking up a word, making marginal notes) better than they do today -- I wanted to see what Gore's version had brought to the party.

So I sped through Pogue's enthusiastic report on Gore's iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch version of his book Our Choice but, because I don't have an iPad, iPhone, or iPad Touch I was a little frustrated by merely reading about something that sounded like very much more than a book.

Then I started browsing the blog comments.

The first thing I noticed was that comment #2 had been removed.  The Times had replaced it with their bland and opaque "abuse" boilerplate:
This comment has been removed. Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive. For more information, please see our Comments FAQ.
I scrolled down a little further and found that comment #5 had also been removed.  Next, I noticed that comment #8, from asz of Erie, PA, while fully intact, was a little persnickety:
I don't agree or disagree with Al Gore, but please don't regurgitate publicist PR junk into such a valuable column. One more of these, Dave, and I'm checking out of your mailing list. I don't have time for it. Let him buy an ad.
Gosh, I thought.  Was Pogue's review that unctuous?

As I plowed on it became clear that most of the comments weren't from tech enthusiasts eager to weigh in on the UI (user interface) pluses or minuses of Gore's book/app -- or the thinking behind it (from PushPop Press).

Instead, there were 3 consecutive jokes about Gore having invented the Internet.  And by comment #23 Dbulleit from Atlanta had done asz from Erie one better and asked to be removed from Pogue's subscriber list:
This hurts, as I've followed and admired your BLOG for years. That said, please remove my name from your list. "It’s vintage Gore: persuasive, careful, reasoned..." Please!!! You'd do well to keep your Valentines private (as the large majority of informed scientist and engineers will tell you that Gore has unparalleled penchant for distortions, half-truths and outright demagoguery).
Anyway, I know this comment isn't likely to see the light of day; but, IMHO it's a sad day: to see a writer of your caliber stoop to such blatant, obsequious pandering.
It's not that I'd never before noticed this kind of behavior from Pogue's readers.

When I worked at Barnes & and Pogue wrote an enthusiastic review of the NookColor I noticed what seemed to be dozens of hostile comments by Kindle owners.  Since for years Amazon had been eating B&N's ebook lunch I couldn't help enjoying these protests ... but it was a sobering reminder of just how emotionally invested people become in their tech choices.

So it shouldn't have surprised me that many of the comments about Gore's app skipped the app and went straight to Gore's views.  These commenters were emotionally invested in their political choices, too -- and those choices didn't include Gore.

But then, their comments also suggest that the novel interactivity of the former veep's app -- however elegant or involving -- is doomed to fail at persuading those Gore must surely think most in need of persuasion.  And that an app with a political point of view, no matter how inventively designed, can be dismissed, unopened, as easily as any printed book.

BTW: one of the comments did mention a presentation of Gore's app that one of Push Pop's founders, Mike Matas, made at a recent TED conference. It's brief but gives you a good idea -- possibly better than Pogue's review -- of what Push Pop is doing for (or to) ebook reading.

Postscript: on August 2, 2011 Facebook, of all online businesses, announced they'd bought Push Pop Press.  My guess is Zuckerberg and company are mostly interested in the company's talent in designing user interfaces -- it's hard to imagine they want to get into the interactive book publishing business.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What Doomed Osama bin Laden? No Internet!

Looks as if Osama bin Laden's security team thought it would be a bad idea for his 3,000-square foot compound near Islamabad, Pakistan to be wired for Internet or phone service. But you can file this cautiousness under "cure being worse than the disease."

According to a story published today on The Atlantic's website by contributing editor Marc Ambinder, bin Laden's "radio silence" seems to have made his compound just as suspicious as if he'd shared a friends-and-family plan with Ayman al-Zawahiri or was addicted to trolling on

NSA [National Security Agency] figured out, somehow, that there was no telephone or Internet service in the compound. How it did this without Pakistan's knowledge is a secret. The NGIA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] makes the military's maps but also develops their pattern recognition software -- no doubt used to help establish, by February of this year, that the CIA could say with "high probability" that bin Laden and his family were living there.
So there you have it: do without a phone or Internet service to avoid having your chatter picked up and our spooks wonder, "Hmm, what's a guy with a deluxe ultra-secure compound doing without a phone or Internet service?"

Most sobering of all is what this story suggests about the state of technology underlying pattern recognition and probability theory -- and how our intelligence agencies can apply them.

On the other hand, building a conspicuous retirement home for a local folk hero like bin Laden in the suburbs of a city, half a mile from the country's West Point-style military academy, probably wasn't the smartest idea either ... whether or not you decided to skip calling PTCL (Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited) for their money-saving Super Sunday Offer or awesome UltraNet 50mbps VDSL.