Tablets and E-readers will be killed off by Notebooks

4607c57e4b473460400x1You heard it here first: despite the fact that they were all the buzz at CES this year, tablets and e-readers are destined for obsolescence.  Sadly, the fax machine may outlive them.

Here’s why:

E-readers:

The only reason e-readers exist is because it’s hard on the eyes to read text on a computer screen for long periods of time. You could argue that e-readers were invented to save paper or reduce printing and distribution costs, but if that were the main reason, then people would have been reading their books, magazines, and newspapers on their computer a long time ago.  You could go read War and Peace right now, but you won’t because it would make you feel like someone is hammering rusty nails into your eyes after the first hour.

So e-readers exist because they have cool e-ink screens that are easy on your e-eyes.  Great.  But what is an e-reader really, besides a tablet PC with a nice e-ink screen and no web-browsing?  In time, tablets will be developed with screens that are similar to e-ink, or perhaps with an “e-ink mode” that can be turned on if you want to read for a while.  And then after you’re done with War and Peace you can go back to watching the latest Lady Gaga video.  Cool.  If I had a tablet like this, I wouldn’t have a need for an e-reader.

So, looking into my crystal ball, I see a tablet with e-ink mode killing off e-readers…so how does the tablet get killed off?

Well, let’s look at the problem that tablets solve – tablets exist because people want something small, portable, and comfortable for casual use while sitting on the couch.  Yes, that’s pretty much it.  The PC industry has been trying to make tablets for years, but they’ve always failed for two main reasons:

  1. The reason everyone acknowledges is that fully-functional PCs have always been too heavy.  Only recently have we started seeing small PCs with enough horsepower to run regular old Windows, Office, Outlook, and have a few web browsers open at the same time
  2. The reason everyone has been ignoring (particularly on the CES show floor) is that the tablet form factor just isn’t all that functional.  If you’re sitting on your couch, it’s okay to use your touchscreen tablet to web browse a little, play MP3s, watch your videos, or use Facebook.  But if you’re doing any serious work on your PC like writing a letter, manipulating files, configuring complex software, using Photoshop…you will want a keyboard and mouse.  The tablet form factor is great for fun stuff, not for serious stuff.

And yes, the device that solves both of these problems is the notebook.  Notebooks have keyboards, pointing devices, and are getting lighter, smaller, cheaper, and more powerful by the minute.

We are already seeing people merge notebooks with tablets – HP has a pretty cool notebook called the TouchSmart tm2 (that’s right, I said “HP has a cool notebook”), which features a foldaway screen.  (Not a new idea, but theirs is very slick.)  Lenovo (formerly IBM) unveiled at CES a notebook with a detachable touchscreen (shown above.)  The writing is on the wall, guys – notebook/tablet combos will make pure-play tablets pointless.  And notebook-tablets with e-ink screens will make e-readers pointless.

The only question is how long this will take.  I give it 3 years.  I think the fax machine will still be around by then.

And the Oscar for Worst Tagcloud goes to…The Grammys

If you’re a regular reader here, you know how much I love (read: hate) tagclouds.  In the vast majority of implementations, they only serve SEO benefits and are almost impossible for users to read aside from the 2-3 largest links.  Most are an utter waste of space.

So when I was sent this example which demonstrates everything that is unholy about tagclouds, I had to share.

Wherever should I click...

Wherever should I click...

See it in all of its glory here.

Proprietary e-readers are doomed

time_tablet

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.

Google makes simplest homepage in the world hard to use

Google has been testing a new homepage lately that strips everything off the page except the search box and their logo.  That’s right, no “Google Search” button, no “I’m feeling lucky” button, no global navigation at the top, and no legalese at the bottom. Note: currently only some users see this new version of the homepage. And now, a week into the experiment, they’ve discovered that it’s freaking people out.  What do you do when you see a search box with no “Search” button next to it?  You probably wait a minute and wonder if the page is broken, right?  Is it still loading?  If you wait, will the button show up? So what does Google do when they see they’re confusing the heck out of people?  Rather than realizing that their old design was plenty intuitive already, they provide documentation explaining the new design.  One of the oldest rules of interface design (for simple features) is: “If you have to explain the interface, it’s too hard.” 500x_500x_firefoxscreensnapz1-thumb_08 But now, as noted by TechCrunch and Valleywag who found two different versions of the wrecked homepage, Google has included text below their floating search box to tell you that they’re actually doing this on purpose: “Hey everyone, despite how it looks, this page isn’t broken!”  Google: if you have to tell us the page isn’t broken, there’s something horribly wrong.

googfade

Kindle’s Slide Begins

Seven months before my prediction of Kindle’s slide into obscurity, Barnes and Noble today released their e-reader called the Nook.  With wifi, 3G, a color touchscreen, and several other unique goodies, the device is available for pre-order for $259, the same price point as the Kindle.  Amazon did well to jump-start the e-reader market segment, but now is the time for them to license out the Kindle software and leave the hardware to people who really know how to make hardware.

Barnes and Noble Nook

Google Wave’s Fatal Flaws

So I got my Google Wave invite a couple weeks ago.  I have been fairly skeptical of all the Wave hype lately, but I was still intrigued and very much looking forward to seeing what it had to offer.  I logged in, and…didn’t know what to do.  I felt like the first guy in the world to have email – it sounds like a cool idea, but there’s nothing to do until you know other people who have email, too.

Wave allows you to send invites out to 9 friends, so I sent some out.  And waited.  A week later, finally they started showing up, and I could really see what Wave had in store.

Wave is slick, and pretty, and for the most part fairly easy to start using, but it has too many flaws that will keep it out of the hands of mainstream users and limit its adoption to tech-savvy user groups.  My biggest issues with it are:

  • No email integration. This is supposed to be the communication tool for the next century, but it isn’t backwards compatible with the communication tool(s) for the last century.  Surely someone will write an extension to allow it to interface with email, but at that point you’ll lose all the cool Wave features, making the whole exercise moot.
  • Nothing to do until you know people who have it.  Adding an email extension would alleviate this.
  • Built by programmers, for programmers. As Lifehacker points out, “the first search command every Wave newbie needs to know (is): with:public” which will allow you to see public waves and is very useful when you have no friends using Wave yet. Really guys?  Resorting to cryptic command lines in a supposedly mainstream web app?  Let me guess, was this documented somewhere in your man pages?
  • No notifier application. If you’re not in Wave, there’s no way to know you have new Waves waiting for you.  There is a third-party app to do this, but it’s annoying that I have to have a notifier for my email and Wave.
  • Watching people type in real time. Internet “old-timers” will remember that the original tools for instant messaging over the Internet (like “talk”) worked like this.  Surprisingly, it’s not much fun to watch other people type and correct their own typos.  Really.  ICQ and AIM popularized the “wait until they’re done to send the message” model, and no one looked back (until Wave.)
  • Editing other people’s messages. If I want to collaborate on something with my friends, I’ll tell you.  Don’t just let other people edit my messages willy-nilly.  It’s fun for a few minutes to edit what your friends said, but threads can quickly become chaotic and impossible to follow.  There’s a reason message boards don’t have this feature.
  • Google Wave

    Click for larger image

    Un-novative thread presentation. In a giant leap back to 1997, Wavelets are organized by thread first and not by date.  This means that responses to any message within the wave get indented directly below that message rather than showing at the bottom of the Wave, so new messages end up located all over the place within the thread.  In long threads, you may have to scroll up and down for several pages to find the new messages.  For ‘net old-timers, you may remember that many of the first, primitive online forums were arranged like this, but somewhere along the lines everyone discovered that it was easier to follow a conversation by always posting new messages at the bottom and just quoting the message it was in response to.  It’s not as elegant from a purist perspective, but it’s much easier for the user to follow.

  • Replay. The only reasons the Replay feature needs to exist are 1) the flawed thread presentation mentioned above and 2) the fact that anyone on the thread can edit any message.  Using replay isn’t fun or interesting – it’s tedious, and it’s there to compensate for unintuitive UI and unnecessary features.
  • Worst offense: Too many things in one. Wave seemingly tries to replace your email, your IM, and your Google Docs, but doesn’t do a great job on any of them.  I much prefer using my IM client to talk to my friends, so I’m not giving that up.  Gmail is a better email client, and Google Docs and Spreadsheets are pretty great for collaboration, so I’m not giving those up. (Gmail and Docs already have messaging built-in, and it’s executed rather nicely, btw.)  By trying to do so much, it doesn’t do anything well.

I should have known we were in trouble when this was the first line of the “Getting Started” wave: A wave can be both a document and a conversation. For how many users would a statement like this make any kind of sense?  For someone like myself, that’s a pretty deep statement and worth some pondering, but how would that help my mom figure out what’s going on?

Wave is truly a technical marvel, and the fact that it works as well as it does is impressive.  It’s easy to see why the room full of developers at the Wave unveiling was in awe.  But, you must do more than impress developers to build a tool that the mass market will adopt.

Ultimately I think Wave will find some fans within tech-savvy organizations because it could be useful for collaboration and communication in situations where everyone in the company is using it (competing with Yammer), but it won’t gain any significant market penetration compared to email or IM.

Related posts:

Google Wave in the wild, almost

Google is releasing 100,000 invitations today to Google Wave, their next-generation communications tool that could replace email, IM, and collaboration software all in one shot.  I don’t have an invite yet, so…you can check out Lifehacker for a nice hands-on review.

My take on Google Wave from when it was announced

Google Sidewiki lets you help Google, for free!

sidewiki_logoGoogle today released a new version of their toolbar, including a sneaky little feature called Sidewiki that allows users to leave comments on any page on the web.  As noted by Techcrunch, it’s not an original idea; many others have tried this model, but none have succeeded.  Google has an advantage here because they are attaching the feature to their toolbar, which already has a significant userbase, but the idea still has significant challenges.

We know that people are generally motivated by fortune or fame, and Knol — Google’s last failed UGC attempt — offered fortune and fame, but failed anyways.  Sidewiki offers neither.  There’s no monetary aspect to Sidewiki at all, and you’ll only gain fame among the few other people who actually decide to turn their Sidewiki sidebar on for that particular page (Sidewiki comments only show up on the page they were added to, and do not show up across an entire site.)

So why would Google put this out there?  Because if anyone uses it at all, it gives them meta data to improve their web search.  Nothing helps Google classify a page more than text on or about a page, and by giving users one more venue to leave comments, they are looking to improve their ability to index and classify those pages.  PaidContent quotes Google’s product manager saying:

“It gives (people) a reason to come back to a page.  I’m sure some publishers will have some objections to something like this but (at the same time) many traditional publishers also objected to blogs.”

Firstly, publishers put comments on their sites “to give people a reason to come back,” so why do they need some parallel comment system that gives them no SEO benefit?  They’d be better off adding Disqus.  Second, how are blogs analogous to Sidewiki?  Sidewiki sits on the side of any page like a leech, taking conversation away from the actual page, while blogs are just independent publications that traditional publishers have no right to object to.  A more suitable analogy would be the framing of sites that publishers have objected to for years because they lose visibility into what people are saying about their site.

I’m not saying that publishers should protest this move, but it’s disingenuous of Google to position this as a service they’re providing for the betterment of the web.  They’re providing it to benefit themselves, just like the Google Image Labeler, which looks like a game but really powers Google’s image search, and their recent acquisition of Recaptcha which is a security tool that also happens to aid their book digitization efforts.

I tried out Sidewiki, and of course there isn’t much out there yet.  All I found was a self-proclaimed “Social Media Specialist” who provided a brief summary of CNN on CNN.com’s homepage.  If Google had provided the Wikipedia page for CNN, it would have been better.  Sidewiki would probably be more useful for the long tail pages of the web that could use some elaboration, but that’s exactly where it’s unlikely to be viewed because users have to explicitly open their Sidewiki window to look for comments that have been left.

I can see the system quickly becoming full of spam, self-promotion, and random chatter.  Google provides user ratings, saying it will help the good comments filter to the top, but 1) that will disrupt the order of responsive comments which are sure to arise and 2) it will be gamed because there are no moderators overseeing the system.  Wikis are powerful because they have moderators, and this system will fail in the long run because it has none.

To wrap up, I wouldn’t bother using Sidewiki – it will linger for a year or two like most of Google’s social media efforts, and when Google sees that the comments they are getting are spam and conversation, they’ll realize it’s not helping their index, and they’ll shut it down.

Adobe buys Omniture…why?

So as you may have heard, Adobe has bid to purchase Omniture for $1.8B.  For such a steep price tag, you’d expect the synergies to be more obvious.  I’ve heard various reasons for the deal…

  • “We will enable advertisers, media companies and e-tailers to realize the full value of their digital assets” – Shantanu Narayen, chief executive of Adobe
  • “May help offset declining revenues from the company’s Creative Suite of software” – Trip Chowdhry, managing director of equity research at Global Equities Research
  • “The deal will help it “transform” e-commerce by combining its content creation tools with Omniture’s online measurement and optimization technologies to help “increase the value Adobe delivers to customers.””

To get to a little more detail, one pundit posits:

video developers and agencies will build Adobe Flash creative with Omniture tracking codes implanted from the beginning. This will enable them to track the views and virality of that creative across the web, and perhaps begin to micro-charge for every view, partial view or forward of their content.” – Advertising Age

I’m afraid I don’t get it.  There are already analytics solutions that can be implanted from the beginning, such as Google Analytics, or even Omniture as it is now, so why would they need to buy Omniture to make this happen?  I don’t see HTML coding tools buying up analytics providers…why would the makers of Flash coding tools need to do so?

Not to mention, Omniture’s solutions are extremely expensive, and not accessible to most developers anyway.  Even if you can afford to use Omniture, you then need to hire consultants to set it up for you because it’s a bear to get the reporting you want out of it.  How is this going to help Adobe?

If anyone out there has a clear idea of how this integration would work and what real advantages it would have for Flash developers, please leave a comment.

HP attempts relevance with Dreamscreen, fails

294hp09-main_tab2_tab3_764x220Mashable this morning reports that HP is releasing a digital picture frame called the Dreamscreen.  At first glance this thing looks like a tablet PC or perhaps even an e-reader, each of which would be great, but…it’s really just a big iPod.  Not even an iPod Touch.

The Dreamscreen will show pictures, play music, and show movies, all things that digital picture frames already do.  It will connect to the Internet over your wifi, so you can…no, no web browsing…so you can use Facebook, Snapfish, or check weather reports.  Who doesn’t need another way to get weather reports?

HP boasts that the Dreamscreen has “touch-enabled controls” which fooled Mashable into saying it has a touchscreen, but really this just means the controls are dark and hidden until you touch them, but they’re just regular old buttons.  The lack of a touchscreen means that the virtual keyboard they provide is navigated using their remote control – you have to scroll to each letter you want to type and hit “okay”.  If tiny little phones can have keyboards, why can’t this 10″ tablet?  I am NOT using Facebook with a hunt-and-peck keyboard I control with a remote.

Ultimately, I have no idea why HP would release this thing.  The Dreamscreen just doesn’t fill any gaps in the market.  It isn’t as useful or versatile as a Netbook or tablet PC, and it’s more expensive than a digital picture frame.  The glossy UI is still quite clunky, so the approach of targeting entry level users with ease-of-use isn’t going to work.  It definitely won’t attract many buyers at $249 for the 10″ or $299 for the 13″.

If HP was paying attention to the market, they’d give us a touchscreen wifi device with almost full PC functionality (or at least web browsing and media playback), ideally with an e-reader built in, all for $250.  Many netbooks aren’t far off from this spec already, save the touchscreen.  A product like that would sure scare the Kindle team, but for now they can breathe easy.

I hope the Dreamscreen is just HP’s way to dip its toe in the water and get its manufacturing line set up for a real tablet PC…we shall see.