Wednesday, January 27, 2010

When you're your own biggest competitor

I think that most of the choices that Apple made for the iPad (no camera, no videochat, no voice calls) can be explained by the assumption that they see the iPhone as its biggest competitor, and that they were acting in order to avoid a situation where people might try to use the iPad as their only device: phone, writing/correspondence, and media library all in one.

If users could combine that functionality in one easily portable object, then the iPad would be the Holy Grail of 21st century computing. But I think Apple knew better than to attempt such a thing. They're good, but not great, at durability. My iPhone 3g could have used a new battery by the time it was about a year old; and I don't use it heavily in all three of those areas. For consumers who do, I anticipate that the battery would show obvious signs of wear much sooner.

Then again, the emphasis on the green, easily recyclable materials may well indicate that Apple is thinking about a future where people upgrade and replace their tech on a quicker cycle than even the three years implied in the AppleCare warranty.

I'm very happy with my MacBookPro, purchased about six months ago, and even if I weren't, lack of videochat functionality is a dealbreaker for me.

I do find the tablet computer enticing in general though, and the Mac version in particular, because it moves backward as well as forward in a couple of interesting ways:

Touchscreen kills the mouse:

1) it removes the mouse as middleman, making computing a more sensory experience.

I think I could phrase this better; I'm not sure that sensory experience is the phrase I want. But I still remember the first mouse tutorials that I took in 5th grade on an Apple IIGS, which, wonder of wonders, was a computer that lived in my classroom. (Before, there had been three Commodores in the school library.) In that tutorial, one of the first things you learned was that sometimes it was necessary to pick the mouse off of the trackpad, and move it backwards, in order to get more room in which to manipulate it. This is still true of touchpad mice, and it creates a disconnect, however subtle, between you and the data you're manipulating. Making the screen touch-sensitive brings users closer to the experience of being physically involved in a way that's more like moving tangible data.

Of course, we've had this functionality with the iPod Touches and iPhones for a couple of years now. Will it make a difference to people if they're able to go 90-100% touch based? Will it make computing feel different to them? I think it might. It's purely intuition on my part, but it feels to me like it will make a difference. I can imagine learning to let one hand bounce lightly over the screen keyboard, but it's equally easy to imagine typing on a separate keyboard, and reaching up to cut/copy/paste with my hand. And it feels appealing. Tremendously so.

Back to the book
The idea of Apple competing with Amazon's Kindle was so exciting that even recently, I heard today's press conference being described as the point at which Apple would introduce a tablet reader that would compete with the Kindle. In itself, the fact that we've reached the point where a new eBook reader unveiling could be as exciting as a new computer unveiling is an indicator of the progress that eBooks have made in our reading life (if the Kindle sales (and Kindle book sales) hadn't already established that).

The headlines I saw (and the statements from the press conference itself) present the iBook capacity of the iPad as going "a little further than the Kindle" -- by which they mean that it has a "bookshelf-like" store, and that there are a variety of ways that the pages can be turned: not just by tapping, but by dragging the corners of pages; almost like you would with a printed book. For that matter, it looks like iBooks can display like printed books, with two facing pages at a time.

It's an interesting choice. Is it a smart one? Maybe. People with whom I've talked about the iPhone Kindle in the last year have usually wrinkled their noses. "I just can't imagine reading from a Kindle." Then, if I show them the little application, and teach them how to tap pages back and forth, their perspective changes. It looks a lot like a "real" book, they say. They mean, of course, that the b/w (or sepia/cream) contrast looks the same, at first glance. Much more appealing than clunky greyscale.

I was wary of the Kindle for a long time specifically because of the grey scale -- but then I spent a few days reading exclusively on the iPhone Kindle, and nursing the killer eyestrain headache that came with it. I'll keep my greyscale, thanks -- and along with it, the functionality of being able to adjust not only text, but column width. But plenty of people might not read as much as I do, and might not feel that way. For them, the iPad might be the thing that tempts them just enough to try electronic, rather than printed texts, because it looks more like the tradition that they're used to.

Incidentally, a couple of the first questions that entered my mind had to do with academic usage: if the iPad is positioned to be at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, will iBook texts have better support for footnotes, and citations? Will the question "How do you cite page numbers on a Kindle?" be answered with "Get an iPad, where the page numbers are stable."? For the record, I care more about the footnotes than pages, and I wouldn't mind a little bit of pressure being put on Amazon to improve the footnote linkage systems.

But this is a gamble, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. I still see criticisms of the Kindle format as too-proprietary, not convertible, but I don't think that's really true anymore. Sure; you couldn't export your Kindle library to a Sony Reader, but as long as you have a Mac or PC, you're set -- and I have a hard time imagining that Amazon will refuse to add another Kindle application if a new type of system (neither Apple nor PC) emerges, or that your Kindle books won't be compatible with it. And that raises an interesting question about the different styles between Amazon's and Apple's media storefront. Once you download an mp3 from iTunes, you can transfer it, but there's no cloud-based storage or cookie that allows you to redownload if something goes wrong -- unless you beg and negotiate with Apple. (Note: I haven't tried this before, and can't confirm it.) By contrast, once you've paid for a book at Amazon, you can delete it and reload it as many times as you like (albeit within the limit of only having it on five devices at once.) Apple hasn't been keen on this method with iTunes (unlike competitors like eMusic and Audible) -- but perhaps the restrictions on space, and the connectivity with the cloud will cause them to change their strategy?

While the touchscreen entices me (I suspect that Stephen Fry is right on the mark here), the iBook store doesn't. Five publishers signed on, and only one (Penguin) publishes books that I'm inclined to feel are vital to my research. In comparison, at Amazon, Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago and other academic presses have started releasing their titles in Kindle format. Mind you, they're mostly not well-priced. Mary Poovey's Genres of the Credit Economy, at 9.99, was thrilling. The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol, which I would love to own, is 72.00 (marked down from the print price of 90.00). Romanticism and the Gothic is 45.00 (marked down from 99.00)

There's at least one academic Kindle text priced at over 200.00. What I want to know, however, is how the academic presses are responding to this new pricing hierarchy, in which they shift from getting 35% of sales revenue to getting 70% -- provided the book is under the 9.99 price ceiling.

It's not clear, not entirely, whether entering this new pricing scheme is mandatory, or whether you can still sell books at the old 35% of sales revenue system. And I can't predict what the presses will decide to do. Currently, Oxford should be taking home 25.20 every time someone buys The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol in Kindle format; and if they price it at 9.99, they're only taking home approx. $7. It all comes down to how many people aren't buying a 72.00 eBook, and how many people (how many academics) might buy a 9.99 one. Three purchases would get Oxford $21; four would get them $28.

I own Genealogy, but in print. I'd like to own it in electronic format. How many other people feel the same way (but not so much that they'd spend 72.00? Are there enough of them that the academic presses would see it as a good investment?

In today's demo, the iBook offered for sale was an NYT bestseller priced at 14.99 -- so, $5 up from what it would cost on Amazon. Not terribly appealing -- but people may see that higher price as paying for qualities they like. Whether it's a typical price for Apple's plan is something I'm still waiting to find out. And likewise, I'm looking forward to hearing about whether, as the producers of a gadget that they're associating with the liberal arts, they have goals for sales agreements with Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago, NYU, and everyone else in the academic text market.

"With Apple, under a formula that tethers the maximum e-book price to the print price on the same book, publishers will be able to charge $12.99 to $14.99 for most general fiction and nonfiction titles — higher than the common $9.99 price that Amazon had effectively set for new releases and best sellers. Apple will keep 30 percent of each sale, and publishers will take 70 percent."

Interesting. If I were a publisher who had to choose between the two, based on what I know, I'd have to go with Apple. But it remains to be seen what choice the presses will make.

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