October 01, 2009

New Media Overview

by Alan Beatts

The response to my question in the last newsletter about interest in a column about ebooks and related stuff was unanimous and so, you asked for it and you've got it.  This will be the first one.  I'm going to start by doing updates divided by manufacturer and business but, when the month's news deserves general commentary (and I have something half-way clever to say), I'll put something at the beginning of the article.

Apple -- Their rumored tablet device continues to but just that, a rumor, but it's looking like they've been working on it for quite a few years.  None of the prototypes have gotten Steve Job's seal of approval so they haven't hit the street.  The current iteration is also lacking the "go ahead and make it" stamp from Jobs and so it still may never happen though, if I was going to bet, I'd bet that it's going to come out and sometime in the first half of next year.

If it does come out, there has been a fair amount of discussion between Apple and magazine publishers about possible electronic distribution of magazines.  That could be pretty important since, to do a magazine justice, you have to have a color display and Apple product is the only one that's close to distribution incorporating both an ebook form factor (i.e. smaller than a laptop and very thin) with a color display.  And just think about the advertising possibilities if this tablet has a wide-area (i.e. cell phone type) wireless connection -- interactive ads that allow direct purchase of products directly from the "magazine".

Amazon --  Not much good news for my favorite big-brother company.  They paid out a $150,000 settlement over their remote deletion of Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm which cost a student all his notes (which were deleted at the same time).  Most of the money will probably go to the lawyers but still, ouch!

Also, the response of students who have been using Amazon's large screen Kindle DX at schools around the country this year has been less than enthusiastic.  Comment like, "slow", "clunky", and "irritating" have been common as have student who've returned the (free) devices in favor of regular books.  One other, very practical, reason for the displeasure has been the comparative slowness of taking notes and highlighting on the Kindle as compared to a printed book.

Sony -- Relatively quiet on that front.  They've made some deals with electronic publishers like SmashWords and and Author Solutions who specialize in getting quasi-self-published work on the net and they're creating a "publisher portal" to make it easier for smaller publishers to get their books into Sony's store.  All this may pay off big time since the rush to build content for ebook readers and stores is just starting but, in the long run, it'll be critical for the success of reader manufacturers (the more content that works with your reader, the better chance someone will buy it) and ebook sellers (if you have the most and best content, the buyers will come to you first).

I talked to some people in the book business and found out something interesting -- you know all the smart moves that Sony has made in the past few months that I've complemented them on (i.e. getting readers into indi bookstores, making a reader with wireless, and moving to an open format (EPUB) from their old, proprietary one)?  Seems that most of those ideas came from the American Bookseller's Association not internally at Sony.  Which is kind of neat but also a little disturbing -- I know that ebook are coming but does it make sense for the ABA to speed their adoption (and the impact that they'll have on physical bookstores) in exchange for making sure that indi booksellers can get some of the profits?  Seems like a bit of a Devil's bargain to me.

iRex -- One of the pioneers in ebooks just announced their new ebook reader target at consumers.  The iRex DR800SG (no cute name here) has a bigger than usual screen at 8.1 inches (the Kindle is 6" and Sony's are 5, 6, and 7" depending on model), will sell for $399 and has both wireless (through Verizon's network) and a touch-screen (that only works with a stylus, unlike Sony's which will accept finger touch).  It's going to hit the street this month and will be sold at Best-Buy.

Best-Buy -- And speaking of them, they're training employees to sell ebook readers like crazy and have added a special area to all their more than 1000 stores to showcase the iRex and Sony Readers.  It's going to be interesting to see which wirelessly connected reader does best for the holidays -- the Sony Daily Edition or the iRex.  I'm betting on the Sony because of their reputation but I think that people are going to be happier with the iRex.  The bigger screen is nice but more importantly the Sony uses AT&T's wireless network and the iRex uses Verizon's.  If you know anyone who has an iPhone (or if you do), you'll know that they have problems with dropped calls, bad reception, and missed calls / messages.  The problem is not so much the phone but the network which seems to be overloaded by the sheer amount of data traffic that the iPhone generates.  And what network is that?  AT&T.

Barnes and Noble -- B&N are busy building their on-line ebook store, which has gotten a lot of attention after they did a big advertising push.  The catch was that, without a paired ereader, they got a lot of visits but few sales and not many return visits.  That will probably change since they are iRex's vendor of choice for the new DR800SG reader (see above).  In short, if you're buying books wirelessly with the iRex, you're going to be buying them from B&N, who's ebook sales should jump upwards once the holidays are here, people start buying the iRex reader in droves at Best Buy and need to download content.

That's about it except for one last thing - part of the bottleneck with ebook availability is the process of converting the files into the right format.  It can be slow, expensive, and generally a pain.  But perhaps not for EPUB format anymore.  DNAML has just released Pdf to ePub, a $99 piece of software that, in theory, allows simple conversion from PDF to EPUB format.  And, since PDF is the default format for much of publishing now, this may mean that it just got much simpler to be an electronic publisher.

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