Category Archives: Apple

Proprietary e-readers are doomed

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Image: Engadget.com

Few tech gadgets these days inspire more wonder and press buzz than e-readers.  While Amazon didn’t pioneer the e-reader space, they did popularize it with their bookworm-friendly Kindle.  The Kindle, while rather feature-poor as a device, is great for pure book reading, and the passion shown by its users has apparently inspired many other companies to follow suit by developing their own e-readers.

Building an e-reader makes sense for a lot of companies, e.g. Amazon, HP, Dell or Amazon, companies that focus on hardware and developing platforms for which others can develop software or content.

However, we’re now seeing other companies jump into the game who have no business making their own e-readers, specifically content publishers.  Time recently gave a preview of their e-reader, showing off its capabilities with content from Sports Illustrated.  It looks pretty cool honestly, but what if I want to to read Road and Track on it?  No such luck.  It’s built for Time Inc. magazines – People, SI, Fortune, TIME, etc.

So no Road and Track, but what if I want to read PC World or Popular Science?  There’s an e-reader for that.  Bonnier, IDG, and MIT have teamed up with Plastic Logic to create an e-reader for their lineup of technology-oriented magazines.

So now, when I’m sitting on my throne and want something to read, I don’t flip through my magazine rack, I flip through my e-reader rack until I find the e-reader with the magazine I want to read.  Awesome.

This must stop. Now.  We, the users, are trying to simplify our lives with e-readers, not complicate them.  I should be able to have a single reader with all my magazines on it, not a half-dozen different e-readers with different interfaces and control schemes.  Any publisher making their own e-reader for their own content is doomed, and needs to be stopped before they hurt themselves.

What would happen if NBC, CBS, and ABC broadcast their shows so they could only be seen on proprietary devices?  “Let me turn on my other TV so I can watch NBC.”  Yeah, that’d fly.  These guys rely on the TV and HDTV standards that make their entire business models possible.

We have seen format battles in the past like VHS vs. Betamax or Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD, but ultimately those are open formats – available for all content producers to use.  This is analogous to the battle between the Kindle, the Sony e-reader, and the rumored Apple iTablet or whatever it ends up being called.  But for a content producer to make hardware that solely services their content is just insane.  Stop now, guys, and leave hardware to the professionals (as Condé Nast is doing) before you bankrupt yourselves trying to swim in the deep end of the pool.

Kindle will be history within a year

As sick as I am of hearing about the underwhelming Wolfram Alpha, I’m even more sick of hearing about the product-that-shouldn’t-be, Amazon’s Kindle.  This machine is destined to be obsolete within a year, so Amazon should quick-like get back to ecommerce and leave hardware to companies that know something about it.

Here’s my problem with the Kindle: when I look at it, I think “that’d be cool if I could also browse the web on it, watch movies on it, play music on it, or use it as a digital picture frame,” but despite it being essentially a small computer, it won’t do any of those things.  A netbook can do all of these things, and it costs less.  

For a few laughs, let’s look at Amazon’s pitch for their latest model, the Kindle DX:

  • Holds up to 3,500 books, periodicals, and documents – Amazon downplays the fact that this is only 4GB of storage, a pathetic number for any modern netbook.
  • Beautiful Large Display: 9.7″ diagonal e-ink screen reads like real paper; boasts 16 shades of gray for clear text and sharp images – Are you kidding me?  16 shades of gray?  Sure, that’s better than the Newton, but this isn’t 1992, guys.  Any modern netbook offers 32 bit color, giving millions of colors.  If I want to read a text book or a blog post on my Kindle DX, you better believe I want color.
  • Auto-Rotating Screen: Display auto-rotates from portrait to landscape as you turn the device so you can view full-width maps, graphs, tables, and Web pages – We’re only down to the third bullet point, and this is the best you can do?  This is truly trivial, and easy to do on a netbook
  • Built-In PDF Reader: Native PDF support allows you to carry and read all of your personal and professional documents on the go – PDF readers are free to download on any PC.  Just because this is better than the original Kindle doesn’t make it cool.
  • Wireless: 3G wireless lets you download books right from your Kindle DX, anytime, anywhere; no monthly fees, no annual contracts, and no hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots – if you really need to download a book while you’re outside of wi-fi range, apparently this is the device for you.  If you don’t have a Kindle, just download the book to your smartphone, then transfer it to your PC.  
  • Books In Under 60 Seconds: You get free wireless delivery of books in less than 60 seconds; no PC required – You can also download an ebook to your netbook in less than 60 seconds, no Kindle required.  Fail.
  • Long Battery Life: Read for days without recharging – Who reads for more than a couple hours at a time, anyway?  Non-problem solved.
  • Read-to-Me: With the text-to-speech feature, Kindle DX can read newspapers, magazines, blogs, and books out loud to you, unless the book’s rights holder made the feature unavailable – Now you can have A Brief History of Time read to you in the author’s own voice.  Awesome! 
  • Big Selection, Low Prices: Over 275,000 books; New York Times Best Sellers and New Releases are only $9.99, unless marked otherwise – This has nothing to do with the device and will surely be available on any PC very soon.
  • More Than Books: U.S. and international newspapers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, magazines including The New Yorker and Time, plus popular blogs, all auto-delivered wirelessly – Again, I have a PC and a cool new thing called a “web browser” for this. 
The only things that make the Kindle superior to a PC for the purpose of reading are:
  • It’s lightweight with a super-compact form factor
  • Um…that’s about it.  I guess this isn’t much of a bulleted list.

And Amazon wants $489 for this piece of…technology.  For that kind of money I can almost get two netbooks, each of which have 9″ full color screens, 1GB RAM, 160GB hard drive, built-in webcams and mics, wifi, memory card slots, 3 USB ports,  and weigh in at 2.5 lbs (2 times the weight of the Kindle DX.)  With the Kindle, I can read an ebook.  With two netbooks, my wife and I could video conference with the in-laws, watch movies (chick flick for her, dude flick for me), organize our photos, play online games against each other, or…we could read ebooks.  Where to spend the money is pretty obvious to me.

 

Asus Eee Top PC with 15 touchscreen

Asus Eee Top PC with 15" touchscreen

So, I’m calling it: within one year, someone else will have an ebook platform that will be far more robust and versatile, and it will be cheaper, and Amazon will exit the game to focus on selling ebooks.  Perhaps the Kindle-killer will be Apple’s rumored iPad, perhaps Microsoft will get their Tablet PC act together, or perhaps Asus will mate their Eee PC with their Top PC to create a Kindle-beating love child.  I don’t know who’s going to do it, but the PC industry is going to put the Kindle out of our misery, and the sooner the better.  

Podcasting: The Fax Machine of ’06

Within 5 years, you won’t hear the word podcast. You’ll forget the word podcast. It will go the way of the fax machine because it’s not a technology. It is a black hole of technology, sucking in all that is truly interesting and innovative. It’s the 8-track of the Internet.

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First off, I hereby resolve never to use the word podcast again. It doesn’t have anything to do with Apple’s iPod, and there’s no “casting” or broadcasting involved. More on this later.

Remember when you got your first cassette recorder with a microphone and you and your friends sat around recording each other talking? That’s (almost) exactly what a podcast is, except it’s cheaper to make copies of your mindless babble. The “pod” came from the fact that Apple is dominating the portable audio player market, so most people were listening to their audio downloads on their iPods. If we were any more sheep-like, we’d be calling operating systems “Windows Systems.”

Then, the fact that you can download this recorded audio somehow became known as casting, although broadcasting is generally accepted to be the distribution of a signal, like through television or cable, that can be simultaneously received by the watchers or listeners. But podcasts are downloaded on-demand, whenever the listener wants, or as the tech types like to say, asynchronously. It is not sent until the user requests it, and then it is only sent to a single user. Nothing casty about it.

So what we’re talking about is really an audio download, or as I like to call them, loadios (LOW-dee-ohs). These are not to be confused with loadeos (low-DAY-ohs), of course, (video downloads.)

So why are loadios destined to join Betamax and the upcoming PlayStation 3 on the scrapheap? The technology to make loadios obsolete is already here. The whole point of a loadio is that you can download it and play it whenever you want on your portable audio device. But perhaps you’ve noticed that every cell phone and PDA released in the last couple years has a wireless Internet connection. As those connections get fast enough, there will be no reason to download and store loadios because you’ll be able to listen to them on-demand, whenever and wherever you like. No need to have an iPod involved or to save the loadio anywhere – just ask for it, and you’re listening to it. Naturally, you’ll be able to save them if you want to your phone or PDA or ‘net-enabled audio player, but would there be any reason to call a saved audio program a “podcast” at this point? It’s just another saved program, like on your Tivo. This streaming, on-demand paradigm is not far away. It may even make iPods obsolete, but you can be sure Stevie Jobs is adding ‘net capabilities to his Pods as we speak.

Incidentally, what’s so “I” about the iPod? Usually that “I” stands for Internet, but any connection an iPod has to the Internet is purely incidental in that the computer you plug your iPod into may have an Internet connection, although there’s really no need for that unless you want to download music files to your computer where you can THEN transfer it to your non-Internet enabled iPod. I love marketing folks.

Of course, downloadable audio files are useful still. It’s cool that people can record their own little radio show and distribute it to their friends and listeners. But we’ve been able to download audio files on the Internet for 10-15 years now, so it just doesn’t seem that important, new, or revolutionary. The fact that you can put these files on a portable audio player like an iPod is cool, but just not all that new or exciting. And how the word “podcast” came to represent this activity, I have no idea. Perhaps some underground marketing from Apple? I look forward to a time when I don’t have to download files to my portable audio player and when I can pick and choose which programs I want to listen to on-demand.

So yes, I give podcasts *ahem* loadios another 2 years of any sort of relevance, and then another 3 years until they’re completely forgotten. People will listen to streaming audio (streamios) and watch streaming video (streameos) on any device they like, whenever they like. Check back with me in 2011 and we’ll see.