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Apple not so shiny

Mari Gordon, 3 February 2010

How disappointing to find out that, in one aspect, Apple are no different from Amazon. At the moment, no books are available for iBook in the UK. It seems Apple are just as behind as Amazon in negotiating publishing rights for the UK territory.

Disappointing, but understandable I guess. They're both American companies, based in the USA so it makes sense that they sort their domestic market out first. Also, as I've commented before, the iBook isn't being promoted as the iPad's primary feature anyway. It's just that, for some of us, that was what we've been waiting for! There's no way ereading will move towards the mainstream until we have a decent colour multi-touchscreen, multifunctionality and an intuitive UI. At the moment the devices on the market work for fiction (no images, minimum functionality needed) and the academic market (especially with the specialist Kindle Tablet for students). I'm looking forward to being able to browse my reading material in the way we now 'browse' the web.

It's i-read, not e-read

Mari Gordon, 28 January 2010

As predicted, Apple have launched their new product, what we were expecting to be their version of an ereader, with suggestions for names like 'Tablet' and 'iSlate'. In fact, the iPad isn't even marketed as an ereader but as a tool for engaging with media all-round. Jobs describes it as a "third category", and the promotional video highlights three aspects to the iPad experience:

  • a web browser
  • email
  • and lastly an ereader, featuring, inevitably, iBook.

Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and S&S have signed on provide content through iBook. Apple has offered a more attractive deal than Amazon by agreeing to link the ebook price to the print price. They'll split the sale 30/70. Initially publishers will still earn less from the iPad, but the agreement gives longer-term control and helps still fears that Amazon are driving prices even lower over time - and gives publishers some leverage.

Of course there are other features, and the larger touchscreen makes this a much better tool for enjoying your images in iPhoto and the most feasible device yet for downloading and watching films.

Perhaps one reason why Apple avoided positioning the iPad directly into the ereader market is the size. Although the 25cm multitouch colour screen is clearly easier to read from, ereaders have so far been promoted for their convenience, which includes being highly portable - more so than a pile of books. The iPad is nearer the size of a netbook, although at 1.25cm much slimmer (and prettier!). Another reason will be the price: although initial guesses at the cost were around 1,000$, at 499$ for the basic model the iPad is still a wee bit pricier than other ereaders, and the 3G 64GB model will be 849$.

Industry comments so far have questioned whether consumers actually want a "third category" device, especially at those prices. Publishers, however, seem to breathing a sigh of relief: at last, an attractive device and a publishing model that protects our profits. And as Jobs says, the 75m people who've bought iPods and iPhones already know how to use an iPad. The questions are, can they afford to, and do they want to?

To e or not to e?

Mari Gordon, 19 January 2010

A couple of years ago we were being told that everyone was talking about changes to the supply chain. Today the book industry "buzz" is undoubtedly ebooks. In fact, I'd bet that more words are being written about this issue than are being e-read – estimates on the size of the market are still 1%-2%, even in the USA. This first wave of users are the 'early adopters', people who habitually use new technology, whatever it's for.

First, there were the usual 'death of the book' noises, which have been emerging every now and then ever since the invention of newspapers (or probably since the invention of moveable type itself). Curiously, the fact that this premise has been discredited several times doesn't stop it re-emerging. In reality books align themsleves fairly quickly and eventually benefit from whatever was meant to sound the death-knell (remember how after VHS videos came out, cinema attendance rose?). The content crosses the platforms, whatever the medium or the technology. Newspapers publish books. Films and tv programmes have tie-ins. And publishers are exploring ways of spreading their content across online, broadcast and print. The online content adds value to the book experience, it's not yet replacing it.

Booksellers now have to find a way to maximize on these opportunities, as selling coffee and DVDs isn't the answer (just ask Borders UK – oh, you can't). Some publishers are already blurring the lines, or even eradicating the traditional route to market – booksellers – entirely. Amazon, playing cuckoo in the nest, is simply gobbling up other people's content and selling it packaged as an Amazon product. It buys rights to content and publishes ebooks that can only be read by the ebook reader Kindle – produced by Amazon. The same will be true of the forthcoming Kindle 2. And when you download your book you don't actually own it, you just sort of licence it – if it's deleted or withdrawn you lose access to the content. Imagine buying a new book from Blackwell's only for a bookshop assistant to turn up at your house some time later and take it back! (Actually that wouldn't happen if only because they don't get paid enough to make house calls. Booksellers are among the best qualified, best-informed and worst paid employees anywhere.)

The Kindle and other ebook readers are probably the reason ebook reading is still marginal to the market. The reading experience isn't great, as on the whole the screens are smallish and black and white. As pieces of kit they're expensive (average £250-£400) and limited in what they do (no video, for example). In fact most ebook users (53%) are using their laptop instead. Another common complaint is the lack of quality and range of books available. There are only 250,000 titles available for Kindle in the UK (350,000 in the USA, none in Canada); that might sound a lot but over 100,000 new titles are published every year in the UK.

For publishers, the pricing is the major issue. We can't for the life of us decide what ebooks should cost. Most existing and potential readers – over 80% - believe ebooks should be cheaper than print books. But, cheaper compared to what? Paperback? Hardback? Book club edition? And should it be available before or after the paperback release? Publishers have already seen supermarkets loss-leading on trade titles, should the value­ (not price) of their product, brand or author be even further undermined? And then there's the debate over author royalties, which the Society of Authors believe should be higher than the current 15%-20%, given the larger margins available to the publishers.

Soon, however (March, actually), a new ereader enters the market. We're going to get the long-awaited 'iPod moment'. Apple are making a press announcement on 27 January, which is expected to end much speculation and say that in March they launch their own ereader. An ereader is already available as one of the thousands of Apps for the iPhone, and it will probably be the kind of multifunctionality and style we expect from Apple that will change the ebook reader landscape, for the better, if more expensive – the Apple version is expected to retail at about admin:edit_field,000. By doing more and doing it better, Apple will bring the 'added value' to the experience that other ereaders haven't. Apple don't launch products until Steve Jobs believes they've got something special. Some years ago he said he wasn't interested in the ereader market – but, a long time ago, he said that about mobile phones… At least one very major publisher, HarperCollins, is already in talks about making ebooks available for the Apple hardware (iSlate?), possibly via iTunes.

Of course, there are still the whines of "you can't read an ebook in the bath" and so on; hey - only 6% of us say that the bath is our favourite place to read, so there goes that argument. Sustainability is a more valid concern: I wonder how much carbon we'll using as we charge up our ebook readers, what nasty materials they're made out of and what happens to them all when we thrown them away.

Once we get to know and, undoubtedly, love the iSlate, answers will emerge for some of these issues, and publishers can continue their experimenting with multiple, complimentary formats, while hopefully maintaining the true value of creative, high-quality content.

Next Webology

David Thorpe, 22 April 2009

I am an Intranet & Web Developer working for Amgueddfa Cymru and this blog entry is about The Next Web Conference held in Amsterdam 15th - 17th April.

If you avoid the tourist areas after 9pm, Amsterdam is a calm and laid back city. People are friendly and the only dangers are the thousands of cyclists criss-crossing pavements and over-enthusiastic refuse collection trucks spinning three-sixty at road junctions – I believe the trams are there to provide safe passage over longer distances.

Anyhow, the first “unConference” day was a little loose in how it was arranged, but intentionally so. I ventured to the Mobile DevCamp and Music & Bits sessions:

Steve Jang, CMO of social music service iMeem gave away one of his insights: despite Apple’s current dominance in the market, Google’s Android shouldn’t be underestimated and would provide decent mobile development/financial opportunities - I should clarify that this conference had money iconography and business models roaming all over it. 

Continuing with the music theme, Lucas Gonze presented one of the infrequent talks of the three days that tried to avoid direct business model chatter. His main reference point was Fresh Hot Radio, which allows people to propagate musical playlists and tracks in a sympathetic manor. Most of his selections appeared to be demos, third drafts found on web forums and such (all good); but his point was that the original author information was not lost through web propagation (embeds and share links). The website pages were simple, but they always tried to use the sometimes-scarce sources of artwork from the actual musician - it’s about the music after all. Jolly good.

Other sessions discussed and demonstrated musical ideas using mobile phones to aid interaction between the user and music. One example used an accelerometer as part of a university project, Mustick (PDF) - interesting because the development time was short.

There were Sun Microsystem start-up presentations intermittently throughout the next couple of days. The Mendeley pitch was engaging in that it approached the research world: organise your research papers across multiple computers and help find trends within your particular research field (museum's are full of curators and researchers). It is built on Adobe Air, I believe - the proliferation continues.

Andrew Keen conceptualised the state/ideal state of the web using both flamboyant and succinct language. I enjoyed his enthusiastic approach, even if certain conclusions appeared to be driven by the need for a good sound bite, rather than firm logic - "web 2.0 is dead, long live Twitter".

A Dave sidetrack: Andrew Keen used a Johannes Vermeer painting to demonstrate a particular intensity of human interaction: Woman reading a letter. I couldn’t recall the artist Jonathan Janson at the time, a fact that you wouldn't have known, but he created a humorous painting influenced by Vermeer: A young girl writing an email.

Turn on the radio, read a web article, visit the next web conference, Twitter is doing the rounds - that is fine and dandy. It can be used for good (twestival.com), it has an open API  - aggregate this source into your website/application. A conference recommendation to help control your Twitter action appeared to be: Tweet Deck, another Adobe Air application.

Matt Mullenweg, WordPress guy, had a similar vibe to the Jonathon Harris’ chat at the FOTB ’08, which I didn’t object to at all. The word “why” was mentioned. Fair enough I say.

Eric A. Meyer shared his love of JavaScript and how it allows developers to control browser standards: for instance, using JavaScript and CSS to enable keyboard control of flash media players. Cleaning up Microsoft Internet Explorer to make it a standards-compliant browser, from IE5 - IE8 – see Dean Edwards work. Meyer's conclusion: web standards can be forced on the web browsers without the need for plug-ins, and backward compatibly could be maintained.

Another Dave sidetrack: since leaving the conference I have wandered through the saveIE6 website. My web developer love of IE6 has been restored, I have seen the light - I shouldn’t fight it. SaveIE6

Michael J. Brown, an architectural theorist and practitioner (nice), completed the conference. He pointed out that current 3D environments have a little too much benzoic sulfinide (artificial sweetener) [Mr. Brown didn't use this kind of language] -  they fail because they are merely trying to replicate the real world. Who needs hardware? He finished with the cocoon concept, a learning pod.

Exhibition ideas:

A scaled back research project of the cocoon: It would involve three back-projected screens, a touch screen and/or blue-toothed mobile phone with an accelerometer (you’re missing the point Dave - my head is in my hands) - Minority Report on a shoe-string.

Based on the MiNiBar in Amsterdam, where you have a key to your own fridge, create an installation where you have key to a locked cabinet and people are only allowed to explore the particular contents of their chosen cabinet.

Yes, I think I’ve been affected.

Conference take-aways:

  • JavaScript is still great
  • The world of APIs and data aggregation wont stop tomorrow - disparate sources are being published somewhere as one
  • You can’t create communities, they already exist
  • The world wide web is the social network
Amsterdam on a good day
Amsterdam on a good day
Spaces - first day venue
Spaces - first day venue
Mustick
Mustick to my ears
unConference arrangments
Unconference yourself
Tagged
Tagged content
Westergasfabriek
Westergasfabriek
Registered trousers
It’s how you stand
Breaktime
Breaktime

Being Critical

Dafydd James, 12 April 2008

Yesterday I shared a lot of my time between the Crit Room and the Usability Labs. 

In the Crit Room websites are volunteered in advance for analysis by MW2008 delegates, and then ripped apart by a panel of experts! It was interesting to see how the experts saw flaws from different angles - design, usability, and access were the main approaches.

In the Usability Labs websites are submitted for testing, with certain scenarios devised so that a randomly selected user (that has never used the website) has to navigate their way to a certain area, or find information. The presenters, users, and the audience then discuss problems. This is very helpful to see where the website is flawed - it's often difficult to see basic issues when you are so close to a project.

I also went to a workshop by Gail Durbin from the V&A Museum, who have clearly done a lot of work into developing and researching social networking sites. 

It was interesting to hear how they were inundated with comments on their Kylie Minogue exhibition website, and had to change the wording to refine the information and feedback they were collecting. But it's important to keep the comments online as long as people contribute within the rules set down by the institution.

We also had a challenge to develop two web 2.0 tasks - one verbal and one visual, which was difficult to feed back on due to the number of people in the session! We were also showed the V&A's fantastic World Beach Project, I look forward to doing further research on the website when I have some time.