diego's weblog

there and back again

Monthly Archives: November 2007

mike’s looking…

Mike is leaving AdMob, which means he’s looking for the next cool mobile thing to do. Emphasis on cool. And mobile. In both cases, he knows what he’s talking about. Just call him up. But hurry, there’s only one of him! :-)

tim != bill

Tim O’Reilly is thankful he’s not Bill O’Reilly. Hilarious.

Kindle, take 3

Okay, after some more time with the device, here’s a few more thoughts (Prompted by Kyle, who started asking questions on IM. So it’s really his fault :)). Again, in no particular order…

  • The navigation buttons are really really well positioned. It’s very natural to use one side or the other to navigate forward and back, even if when you first look at it (and even when you first use it) you think “this ain’t gonna work.” It does work. Very cool
  • Newspapers are not good for the Kindle yet. Three big problems:
    1. Each day’s edition shows up as a new “Book” in the main tab, which sounds great at first, but after the first week half the screen is New York Times editions. Then you have to go into the content manager and start deleting… not great. They should automatically go away, otherwise it’s a pain.
    2. Another problem (less worrisome than the other one) is that with a lot of small articles you have to use the navigation more, which is less than ideal–and there’s a dearth of pictures, which makes the newspaper be a little less interesting.
    3. Finally, the updates. It gets updated with the actual contents of the printed edition. At the beginning of the day. After that, no more updates. Come on! What’s the point of the always-on EVDO if you don’t get daily updates for the newspapers? Newspapers are real-time these days. This bad mix of digital and meatspace is not great.

    So, the newspaper subscription is not going to work, I may try it again in the future. On the plus side, you get a 14-day trial, so I can cancel it without harm done to my bank account. :)

  • Magazines. Two types here: image-heavy, like Time, which don’t really work given the screen and the fact that, well, there are almost no images in the “Kindle edition”, and those like The Atlantic which have long articles and few images, which are perfect for the device. The Economist (if it was available) would be another great choice methinks.
  • Blogs. No, I didn’t even try subscribing to a blog. I will though, just to see what the UI is, but I’m not paying $2 a month to read rants. Sorry. 20 cents a month? Maybe. $2 is too much.
  • Power. A final interesting point is that I normally, as I do with the Sony reader, I’d leave this on all the time, since the screen draws no power. However, Amazon has decided to put in a screensaver on the thing, so if you leave it on it does suck the amps, few as they may be. I suppose that it’s inevitable given the always-on wireless, but a screensaver? Probably one of those things where you have to pretend that you have a screensaver to avoid support calls from people worried that the display would be “burned” with the current image (not possible with eInk). Anyway. As a result of the screensaver I find myself turning it on and off, which is a bit unnecessary. I haven’t charged it in a week, and it still has about half the charge :).

Separate from all this, I keep wondering what the best solution is for web navigation. Mowser gets close, but the display is so particular (given the slow refresh time) and the navigation of the device so fascinating (to me, at least) that I keep feeling this cries out for a specific solution. Maybe I’ll try to hack something together one of these days.

md5 hashing and google

Using Google to Hash MD5 Password. Shocking, and yet strangely appealing.

Kindle, take 2

Okay, so after a few hours of playing around with the Kindle here’s some further thoughts on the device, in no particular order. :)

  • The display is clearly better than the one on the Sony Reader PRS-500 (first gen): faster refresh, better contrast. I imagine it is on par with that of the PRS-505.
  • The navigation metaphor is really interesting, and quite unique. There’s this metallic-looking strip on the side that identifies lines/paragraphs/sections (depending on context) and that provides visual feedback of operations that take time. In particular, it seems to draw the eye’s attention while the page is “flipping” which as I mentioned before is slightly distracting at first (but then is not noticeable). The strip is probably quartz-based (like the liquid crystal in digital watches) since it updates too fast to be an eink variant.
  • Specifically, the navigation metaphor mixes the physical with the virtual in a strange, but appealing way. There’s the idea of “moving” this almost physical marker (in the form of the metallic strip) to select what you want and then click or press enter to “activate” it depending on context. This is in contrast to the navigation Sony did in their reader, which uses the ink itself to mark selection and is clunky and slow. I don’t know yet if the Kindle’s navigation is genius or folly yet, but it’s definitely original, and it’s worked well so far.
  • The purchase system is so simple, it’s evil. :) Just click, click, and you’re done. The book is there in seconds and you’ve spent the money (they do have a link in the final page that lets you back out of the transaction if you want, which is great). Between this, the auto-configuration (the device came pre-configured with my account out of the box) and wireless connectivity included and working out of the box, Kindle sets a new bar for out-of-the-box experience, even going beyond iPod (and I don’t say that lightly). Great job guys!
  • Speaking of out-of-the-box experienceMike was wondering what happens if you buy the device for someone else. Well, by default it’s tied to your account, but as soon as you buy it you get access to a page that lets you “unlink” the device and then you’d have to “link it” to the other Amazon account (not sure if “linking” and “unlinking” are the terms Amazon uses, I don’t think so :)).
  • Also cool is that you can link more than one Kindle to a single Amazon account, in effect sharing books across them, say for the whole family.
  • Web navigation is decent, if limited. Russ came over and we geeked out with the device for a bit, looking at the user agent (Mozilla-Compatible, NetFront) and other headers it was sending. Amazon is proxying the content, which isn’t a surprise. Net access is fairly fast (and free!), and Mowser works great on it! Faster even though in effect it’s going through two proxies (Amazon, then Mowser).
  • In Default Mode, the browser ignores CSS/styles, and it behaves more like a limited-capabilities mobile browser. But turning on Advanced Mode enables them. Oh, and you can turn on Javascript support too! (off by default).
  • Emailing content in works really well: just send an email to your chosen email address for the kindle with an attachment that is the document/images you want to send, and after a few minutes it shows up in the device. It’s also available, properly transcoded, in your Amazon online library. Really well done. There’s a $0.10 (10 cent) charge to do that, but you can also do the transcoding for free and upload the file manually through USB.
  • USB mode is simple: just plug it in, and it shows up as a disk, disabling any other functions in the device. You can dump PRC, MOBI, TXT, and Amazon’s own AZW files (whatever those are). As a quick test I downloaded the PRC version of Cory Doctorow’s “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” put it in the documents folder, and presto, there it was.
  • You can also download the AZW files from Amazon’s digital library to your PC and then manage them from there, adding them/removing them to the device through USB. Very interesting. Amazon is acting as a sort of automatic backup, but in theory you could do away with Amazon completely.
  • Oh, and yeah, some of the navigation keys in the border tend to be pressed a bit too often by mistake. Probably something I’ll snap out of, but if it was me, I’d make them not go all the way out to the edge, which exposes them more.

Phew! That’s it for now. Overall, a great little device, if slightly odd-looking at first, you completely forget about that in 2 minutes. Now to ponder the question of how to automate the process of converting content for it in an easier way…

Kindle!

So yesterday morning I ordered a Kindle (as one of my first conscious acts of the day :)) and it arrived a few minutes ago.

Lightning Quick Impressions

  • The Packaging is cool, very Apple-like. It’s like a book! Nicely done.
  • The device has charge out of the box. Boot it up, and it already knows my name. Yes, some corner of my mind says that there’s privacy concerns in there somewhere, but there’s something incredibly cool about opening a box, turning on a device and having it know who you are. I’m sure I’ll recover and think it’s creepy later. Or maybe not.
  • Flip pages. There’s seemingly two dozen “next” and “previous” buttons and ways of navigating. I wonder if I’ll be hitting them by mistake all the time. That’s definitely very much notlike Apple.
  • A couple of excerpts and the NYT, which I had configured yesterday, are already in the device, synced. Nice.
  • Finally, I go to the “Experimental” menu (the menu bar selector is weird, but cool!) and choose Basic Web Browser. Enter my blog’s address. It loads it. Holy moly. Fast. No configuration. Nothing. I have to collect my jaw from the floor. There’s something to be said for seamless, and this rivals apple.

More later after I play with it some more!

why eink readers haven’t taken off yet

Russ continues in his vein of reviewing products that he hasn’t used based on reviews that others have done and photos from the web :-)), and explains that eink-based ebook readers like the Sony PRS-500 series haven’t taken off because they’re not pure black text on white background.

Well.

As it happens, I own -and use although less than I want to, for reasons I’ll explain later- a PRS-500 (the first generation, the photo that Russ has in his post is of the PRS-505).

Here’s a photo of the PRS-500 next to a paperback book under natural light that I just took a few minutes ago (sorry for the quality, but image sharpness is not the goal here).


Is the paperback black-on-white? No.

Is the eink display darker than the book? Yes.

But is the difference enough to “turn me off” from reading? Absolutely not.

Keep in mind this is a first-gen device, a year old (it was first shown publicly at CES on January 2006, and released in the Fall), and that the new PRS-505 has more levels of grayscale (8, vs. 4 in the original) and even higher contrast.

The difference is, in fact, negligible. Under direct light, which is how most of us read, there is basically no difference at all. In any case, books are not Black on white — the best background is a brownish-light-gray and if you pick up any book and look at the background you’ll see that they rarely have pure white background (tech and academic books being the main exception).

Another red herring that people that “use” the device for 30 seconds at a store mention is how you can see the screen “flipping” the page, which is definitely a little disconcerting at first. When you’re actually reading for extended periods, this becomes completely a non-issue.

So, if not because of the screen, why haven’t these readers taken off yet?

First, choice — there aren’t many products like this. There’s basically the Sony Reader and I think one more random manufacturer selling one (I seem to remember seeing it, but can’t really say for sure, which means I probably made it up).

This means there’s no competition in the market, and in particular lower volumes for a new technology like eInk which keep component prices high.

Second, price. $300-400 is nothing to sneeze at, but crucially the price of books for these devices is just ridiculous. They cost the same as the physical versions and they come with DRM which limits where you can use them. The book publishers are facing the same problem as the music companies and movie studios and they’re reacting the same way, trying to fight digital instead of embracing it (and the lower distribution costs it entails) instead plunging their heads in the sand and hoping that the storm will pass. Yeah, that’s not gonna work.

Finally, uploading arbitrary text content sucks. This one is a bit more subtle and in my mind perhaps the one that gets to be close to a “deal breaker”. Say I have a PDF of something that I’d like to throw into the device to read. I have to fight with the software, which in the case of Sony is a pathetic iTunes knock-off that looks as if it was put together by a bunch of 5-year olds with crayons (yeah, it’s that bad, also Windows-only), but more importantly, the reader is not smart enough to do the right thing with arbitrary PDF. It scales the PDF down until the whole page is visible, margins and all, which means, in 99% of the cases, that a PDF created for letter-sized paper gets shrunk down to paperback. Not very usable. Exporting the thing as text and then uploading that works marginally better, but you end up with sentences broken in the wrong places as well as a lot of extraneous content such as page headers showing up in the middle of a page (lots of Project Gutenberg files are like this). Similarly, converting webpages, etc, is a massive pain. Ideally I’d just take web content and drop it on the device for reading later, but that’s not how it works, and it completely gets in the way of me using it more often. (As an aside, being able to take notes is something I find myself wanting to do all the time, I do that with post-its on real books, so a solution for that would be nice as well).

If books where cheaper, and I mean significantly, than they are today, and if taking web/other content to the device was a no-brainer, then we’d be much closer to seeing these portable readers become accepted and used by many more users.

happy birthday Erik!

As I come out of my self-imposed electronic ban, Happy 40th to Erik! Have a great day!

opensocial: not just about one company

Dave comments a bit on OpenSocial, and mentions his concern about Google keeping data locked up. Marc Canter points out (correctly) that user account data would remain on each social network (‘container’) that implements opensocial.
I’d go a bit further to point out that very little about this announcement is about open data or not open data. I happen to agree with Dave (and Marc) that data should be open. Just to be clear, I’m not just saying this: at Ning, we’ve been open on that front (if not great about documenting it fully :)) from day one. Today, you can easily cook up a script to take your personal data and take it with you, re-analyze it, do whatever you want. It’s your data after all. Part of the reason we could implement OpenSocial support so quickly is due to the fact that Ning is at the core a very large set of XML/JSON APIs — the benefits of being open are not always obvious, but this is definitely one of them.

I think Dave was focused on the Data aspects because prior (incorrect) rumors about this announcement implied that Google was going to announce something to gather data from multiple social networks.

But I digress. What I wanted to add to the conversation was that Dave put a quote in there that struck me for how well it applies to OpenSocial.

Quote:

How much happier we would be if instead of crippling each other with fear, we competed to empower each others’ creativity.

And that’s what OpenSocial is about, at the core–regardless of whether that was the intention all along or not, that’s what it’s become. A set of common APIs in Javascript, using HTML for display and XML for component wrapping that everyone supports in the same way, with all the benefits that entails.

OpenSocial is much less about Google v. Facebook than the announcement makes it seem. Everyone focuses on the Facebook angle, but if Google just wanted to take on Facebook, they could have done that, no? Is the Facebook thing a factor? Sure. But instead of joining a Google v. Facebook API deathmatch, Google chose to create and gather support for a set of standards that benefit everyone. They have done a great job of catalyzing the effort and getting it going, but this is now bigger than just one company announcing some APIs.

The main reason this is true: market forces.

As I said in my previous post — no doubt there will be extensions, but the nature of this market is such that if you deviate too much developers won’t support your platform. Developers in this market (iLike, Flixster, RockYou, Slide) have little if any direct ties to the container providers (Ning, Orkut, LinkedIn, Facebook), so developers really have the power to maintain things sane, since they will certainly optimize to make as few changes as possible and maximize exposure of their apps. It’s been a while since a wholly new, truly competitive market where the users have a lot of “say” in the distribution (which generally happens across notifications and Activity streams) has emerged.

It’s one of those rare ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ situation. For developers, service providers, and, more importantly, users, who get more choice in terms of what site they use, without having to sacrifice on features.

And I think it’s great news. :)

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