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RIP: Cassette Walkman

Posted on : 26-10-2010 | By : Dean | In : Gadgets

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The mix-tape is one step closer to being forever forgotten. Gizmodo reported today that Sony has killed the Walkman:

After 30 years, Sony has announced that they will stop manufacturing and selling the venerable cassette Walkman. In a poetic twist, the official death of the Walkman lands on the iPod’s 9th anniversary.
Full story

It far outlived legwarmers, but not quite Jesus. Memorex anyone?

Apple Edging to Third in Sales

Posted on : 15-10-2010 | By : Dean | In : Gadgets, Technology

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Apple is proving that customer service trumps pricing. More interesting is the growth. When will the PC companies realize that there is a direct correlation between the support and service they provide and the number of computers that they sell? When they are stunned by the fact that Apple has become the number one seller?

And that’s how a company with a terrible ethical philosophy gets ahead.

Amazon & Macmillan: Dumb & Dumber

Posted on : 03-02-2010 | By : Dean | In : Gadgets, Publishing, Rants, Tech and Teaching

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The other day, I decided to buy a copy of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, a novel that received praiseĀ  from Publishers Weekly and several other sources. I logged into my amazon account, hoping that I could pick up a digital copy, something I normally buy first, and then if I like the book, I buy the print version.

And like most readers trying to buy Macmillan books on Amazon that day, I found myself in an annoying click-loop that didn’t get me to the checkout. I had not yet read about the little war with Macmillan and Amazon.

The outcome of this war could be just plain bad, or it could potentially be a reader’s worst nightmare.

First, let me say that the kind of electronic editions of books that can be bought on Amazon aren’t really books that you own. The DRM on them basically means that you are paying for the right to read them, not own them. They can be removed from your device, and they cannot be moved from that device. It’s analogous to building a room in your house that can hold 3500 books, and after you have paid to build it, the people who built the room and sold you the books to put in it start putting conditions on reading the books you thought you owned. Pretty bizarre.

Really, the only thing that would entice a savvy consumer to buy into such a raw DRM deal would be other nifty things that Amazon could offer. And they did that. They gave us cheap pricing, a nice base of books transmitted on a free 3G network, built-in dictionaries, text-to-speech functionality (well, for a while it was nice), and customer reviews, all easily accessible. They had a good thing going with the market share that gave them.

But then Macmillan decided that an e-book should cost exactly what a discounted print hardcover book costs. You know the ones I am talking about. They’re in the windows and in neat piles on the tables at Barnes & Noble. The ones that cost money to print, use ink, paper, have fancy color images. And oh, yeah. You own them after you pay. You can give them to whomever you want. You can read them without the person who sold them to you coming to your house and taking them back (thanks, amazon for deleting my copy of 1984!).

See, there’s a difference. And the same people who argue about books going digital say the reading experience and our relationship with print books is fundamentally different, too. The publishing industry has argued that a book is a special artifact, something that is physical and touchable and that reading in print is something that we will always want to do. There is a certain mystique associated with the experience, they argue, that is ancient and quite human somehow. I tend to disagree with this notion. While I am a one of those readers that loves to read a real book, fewer and fewer younger people feel the same way I do. In fact, the success of e-readers (not just the Kindle) are the cause of Macmillan’s repricing and Amazon’s dispute with them as much as their fear that amazon is moving into their territory. The proof is in the balance sheets, and Macmillan’s decision to raise pricing can be read as an admission, of sorts, that the e-market is growing at an alarming rate, or at least one that will eat into their traditional print revenue stream.

This isn’t a unique phenomenon. The music industry has been fighting the same digital content fight for years, and they’re losing for the same reasons that Amazon’s approach will. Macmillan has actually done consumers a favor by spotlighting it.

I know a few musicians who pay the bills making music. They are quick to point out that their record sales are dwindling. Most of their money is made on concert ticket sales, promotional material, bags, shirts, ring tones, you name it. And the ironic thing is that the corporations who produce these records do very little to manage those alternative revenue streams. These are the same companies who have made the same arguments that the book industry is now making. They once claimed that there was “something about a record” that people liked. It was something that you could hold, something tangible–which is exactly why there are hundreds of millions of Americans maintaining their phonographs! Or not.

DRM has been and is currently destroying the music industry. We recorded albums on vinyl and gave them to our friends to listen to, then we recorded tapes and did the same thing. Miraculously, people still made music and record labels still made money. That’s because the average person likes to pay freely for things that they find valuable and (this is important and what the industry doesn’t get) that they own.

It’s obtuse for the publishing industry to try the same failed approach. And it’s worse with print books. Talk to any writer with any of the big publishers. Ask him or her about how book tours and promotions work these days. Writers are free to do them, pretty much at their own expense, except maybe the top one or two percent. Why don’t these companies get that their services in the future won’t be merely (or maybe even primarily) the production of books any more than, say the music industry produces records? or more aptly, in the case of companies more suited to adapt to the shift in content delivery, the movie industry is solely is in the business of producing DVD’s.

Rather than get creative, the publishing houses are taking the low road. They will start by trying to muscle e-books out of existence by not only speaking dreamily about how lovely it is to curl up with a book, but now by trying to make the problem go away by charging the same for the book and the limited license to read the book. The latter is equivalent to producing a booklet of color photos on nice paper, with a nice cover, and then producing a series of jpegs of those photos, and then trying to make the insane claim that they cost the same. Anyone who has made a photocopy and downloaded an image knows that one of those two has no real production cost.

And let me guess. Once the readers react to the pricing on books they don’t own by finding places where they can get the real rights to their texts, the industry will react by trying to legislate p2p e-book transfers out of existence. They might even give the company that they sue a face, maybe one with nice little cat-like Napster ears.

Today, the Author’s Guild and Literary agents lauded the move by Macmillan as one that will be good for the industry. Of course it will. It will nearly double revenue on something that costs zero to reproduce. I am guessing that amazon won’t fight too hard on that score. They have nothing to lose by charging more, really. The readers will pick up the bill.

Kindle 2: Product Review

Posted on : 18-06-2009 | By : Dean | In : Gadgets, Tech and Teaching, Tech Reviews

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I own both the Kindle 1 and now the Kindle 2, and I was impressed with both from the moment that I purchased them. The convenience of having an entire library of books in a device that weighs less than a pound was fantastic for both my job as a teacher (less lugging around a bag full of books) and my appetite for books as a pleasure reader (the ease with which I can switch between three or four books on the fly is nice!). And each of the devices delivered what they advertised. However, I find myself torn between the early features of the device that I find fantastic, personally and sub-par professionally. As such, I find myself reviewing the device from two very different perspectives. And while I have to grant that neither the Kindle 1 or 2 were marketed as educators’ tools, discussing what would make them so is constructive in light of the announcement of the Kindle DX, which is more like a larger clone of the first two devices (with a few software differences) than a real breakthrough in the e-reader’s functionality in the classroom.

Kindle and Books

When you purchase a Kindle 2, you get exactly what you pay for, and you pay quite a bit ($349.00). However, that price includes the “whispernet” 3G wireless delivery system and limited internet access to pages like wikipedia. It also allows for free delivery of major newspapers, journals and even blogs. The publications themselves come at a cost (even blogs, which doesn’t make much sense since they are free on any computer), but the delivery system comes without a charge. this might seem like a small thing, but in fact, in an age where the model is to make the hardware cheap and lock users into long-term subscriptions (think cell phones and net books) the flat price is somewhat offset by what could be far more expensive under a subscription model.

Some of the features are simply great for the every day reader, but each of them need improvements to be viable and I would argue potentially essential classroom tools.

The Kindle Dictionary

Kindle Dictionary

What’s Lit: The built in dictionary is a wonderful tool, and it’s an upgrade from the Kindle 1, where the reader was forced to highlight and entire line and then scroll through the available words in that line to find the one he or she wanted defined before clicking through to the “full definition” page. The Kindle 2 improved this feature with a movable cursor that can be positioned in front of any word that the reader wants defined.

What’s Spotty: The cursor is a bit slow. It doesn’t respond well to the controller, especially in getting it to appear on the page initially.

Homework for the Classroom: Pronunciation would be a great add to the dictionary feature. TheFreeDictionary.com does a great job with pronunciation audibly, and with the success of text-to-speech on the Kindle, it seems like a no-brainer. Adding names would be a big plus. Then even freshman would be able to properly pronounce “Michel Foucault.” A thesaurus should also be added, since the potential for e-readers should stretch beyond mere reading in the classroom, to editing, note taking, and collaborating on documents.

Annotation

Kindle Annotations

What’s Lit: It’s nice to be able to add a short note to a highlighted passage, and the ability to call it up instantly from a list of annotations is a nice touch, too. The full keyboard is very nice, and the fact that it is button driven, rather than touch screen, is practical. It’s a nice little feature for the average reader or someone who participates in book clubs.

What’s Spotty: Even though the buttons are more practical than touch screen, they are a little stiff, making it difficult to type. But without a doubt this feature poses some very practical problems for anyone who wants to actually discuss a book with a non-kindle reader. The lack of page numbers or some feature by which the Kindle user can guide the non-kindle reader to a passage is a serious problem. In fact, this problem renders most of the functionality useless, unless a Kindle owner who wants to find the print page numbers by purchasing a print edition (which beg the question, why get a Kindle, then?) or convince others to drop the $349 on their own Kindle (not very reasonable).

Homework for the Classroom: The annotation feature needs some kind of cross-reference to print edition page numbers in order for it to have any effective value in the classroom. Not all students will have Kindles (nor will all teachers, many of whom are more resistant to change than students), and no university will enact policies that implicitly exclude students. Some might argue that textbooks are a cost and the cheaper price of e-books will pay for the Kindle by the end of the student’s college career, but that argument assumes entire universities will require devices for all students. As member of several committees myself, I know just how impossible it would be to pass such a policy. I posted this concern on the amazon forums and was told by another Kindle owner (obviously not a teacher who has to deal with actual class time) that a teacher could get a student “close enough” to a desired passage. It’s hard enough to get 40 students on the same line when they have the page, let alone telling them to look “around chapter 7.” And I also sent an email regarding this feature to amazon support. My reply was a form letter with changes that included misspellings and grammar issues.

And it’s not only the pagination issue that will make or break this feature in the classroom. It’s going to be about the software, web access, and applications. One of the main concerns from students trying an e-reader (Sony’s equivalent) in a recent study at Northwest Missouri State University was the trouble students encountered with note taking. That’s because there are no real applications that are centered on the college student who is required to quickly and effectively tag, clip, annotate and cross reference material that is being discussed on in real time with the text itself. Some of the clipping, bulleting, numbering, and tagging features offered in Microsoft One Note would be very nice additions to the Kindle interface and students who are required to collaborate would benefit from some of the features that Google is promising with wave. In addition texting and other communications features would help in collaborative work between teachers lecturing and their attending students. And embedding things into texts would be great. Yes, it sounds a lot like a blog or any number of the other current web interfaces, but these things are what students know already. Finally, opening the Kindle or any e-reader to user application development is going to be crucial to capture market share. Put simply, different disciplines within the university have different needs when it comes to the applications that are used. Chemistry students need access to formulas, atomic weights and other such information that the English student doesn’t require. Applications and plugins will be required to address these needs.

Text-to-speech

Kindle Font Size and Text to Speech

What’s Lit: This is one of the features that has the Kindle in front of the competition. Like most potential buyers, I was wary of the mechanical voice and whether I would be able to stand it for more than a minute or two. But it’s really not bad. And not a single person that I have let listen to it has been put off by it.

What’s Spotty: It’s a bit buggy. It mispronounces when the context is unclear (it reads the word wind in “the wind blew” and “I had to wind the old clock” the same way), and it sometimes reads the source code or the css formatting before a paragraph. But these are minor annoyances. The real troubling news is that amazon has started to disable text-to-speech on many of it’s books remotely because of publisher complaints. A good article on the potential loss of text-to-speech on the Kindle can be found at Boing Boing.

Homework for the Classroom: This feature needs to remain a part of the Kindle, and it should be a feature on all readers, not only because there is nothing illegal about text-to-speech, but because it is built-in feature that has the potential to help students with visual impairments in addition to those who want to study during their commute.

In Sum

There’s little doubt that e-readers will be used in the classroom, and amazon has a large market share already with the Kindle. However, they shouldn’t assume that because they are the first to arrive they will hold that market share. I’ll be testing the Kindle during the Fall 2009 semester, but I anticipate many problems with it, even though I think the device is great for my own day-to-day use and show it off whenever I can. And amazon has not been very receptive to the feedback from educators and those with legitimate questions about their device. The author of the article in The Chronicle linked above wrote that the choice their school made with regard to the Sony brand had less to do with the features of the device than the fact that amazon wasn’t very receptive to their queries about using the Kindle.

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