It’s not about the specs – dumping my fancy pants camera

relectFor the past year or so, I’ve been taking pictures with one of the most well-reviewed and highly spec-ed out digital cameras on the market, the Sony NEX-7. It didn’t come cheap and a couple of additional lens added to the bill but this was supposedly one of the great cameras out there. Considerably smaller and lighter than a D-SLR, the mirrorless NEX-7 had a largest-in-class sensor to pick up tons of detail, a real view finder, extensive video capabilities, a built-in flash and a highly customizable array of dials, buttons and other controls.

There was only one problem: I couldn’t seem to get it to take the pictures I wanted. Despite the accolades and endless list of killer specifications, the Sony was a beast to actually use — more like a complicated, poorly thought out computing device than a camera. Too many of the dials and buttons were poorly placed leading to frequent accidental changes in settings. Otherwise, the whole process slowed down as you hit a button to lock our changes, then unlocked the lock out to make changes, then locked out again. The video button was a particular villain in this regard. There were other significant issues too, especially the lack of great, affordable lens. That amazingly detailed sensor cries out for great glass, but Sony was deaf to the need.

So the other day, I put the NEX-7 up for sale on eBay. And, after a ton of research, I bought a much simpler camera that hardly compares on paper with the Sony, a Fujifilm X-E1. The Sony has a bigger sensor with way more pixels, higher ISO range, more autofocus points, more video settings, a larger and higher resolution LED screen on the back, weighs less and on and on. But the Fujifilm is one well-designed mother fucker, no two ways around it.

Instead of covering the camera body with a bevy of blank-faced, multi-function, programmable doo-dads like Sony, Fuji chose to have just a few dedicated controls on the X-E1. On top, set the shutter speed and exposure compensation. On the lens, set the F stop. Done. Both dials also have an automatic setting, which means no more messing around with “aperture priority mode” and “exposure priority mode.” And because the dials are labeled, you can see with your own eyes instantaneously how the camera is set for the next picture. I feel like I am taking pictures again, not trying to remember how to work some crazy-complex gizmo. It doesn’t hurt that the camera came with a great prime lens and a fast zoom lens, neither of which were available for the NEX-7 (at least in my price range).

And, as you can see above, now I can take the cool pictures I always wanted to get with no muss and no fuss — and I’m having fun doing it.

Fail Fail Fail iPad

Checking out the 20 inch luggable tablet from sony“If the heap of new products that Microsoft showed here Sunday is any indication of the future of computing, the desktop PC is old news,” or so read the lead story from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Yeah, desktop sales are tanking. Tablet sales are exploding. Yeah, desktops are old news, right on. Oh wait, that’s the lead story from PC World’s report on CES in November 2000, more than 12 years ago.

I offer this little historical gem as a bit of perspective and, perhaps, counter-prediction to much of the snarky and dismissive commentary emanating from this year’s CES. Sure, there are some great targets for comedy, like bragging about a phone you can take in the shower (“The Xperia Z can even survive being dropped in the toilet” – great, does it dispense hand sanitizer after that?). But with the entire computer industry in the midst of a transition from boring old form factors to exciting new varieties, that ugly dog you laugh at today may become best in show in a few years.

Looking back at earlier efforts to build tablet computers, you can see the ideas and the technologies evolve. Slowly, the expanding computing abilities of tablets enabled more and better uses and at more affordable prices. The iPad only came along after many, many duds and failures, including even from Apple (although the ill-fated Newton did produce one of the funniest bits ever in Doonesbury).

It wasn’t obvious from the start which features would be most compelling. Bill Gates’ original vision focused on a hybrid of the features of computer applications and a pad of paper. In the first couple of years, the big manufacturers all got on board and built tablets but in a dizzying array of different forms — folding tablets, hybrid tablets with keyboards, many of the same form factors that have shown up again this year at CES, oddly enough. None had mobile broadband and most weighed as much or more than laptops.

I’m not trying to argue that we will all one day be playing virtual air hockey on our computers. But there is some merit to the larger tablets and luggable touch screen computers that will only increase as they get lighter and more powerful.

The other day, my eight-year-old daughter and I were in a local Best Buy perusing one of these weird new form factors — Sony’s Tab computer. That’s it pictured at the top of the post.  It’s your basic all-in-one desktop computer with a 20″ screen. But by adding a small battery and touch sensors, Sony’s also created a giant, luggable tablet. It weighs about 12 pounds and the battery lasts for only an hour or two, but you can see where it’s going. My daughter enjoyed the drawing program, sorting photos and editing photos was a whole new experience and it’s a fine way to watch a movie.

So maybe it’s time to reconsider that most infamous 2001 prediction Gates made about tablets — “within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” After being claim chowdered to death on that one, now it seems he was just a bit optimistic on the timing.


One of these things is not like the other: Apple store, Microsoft store

Boston Apple store I was an hour early for dinner with fabulous wife Whitney Connaughton and friends last Friday so I thought I’d tool around the local Apple store for a bit. The Back Bay Apple store in Boston is a thing of beauty — and it only took two years to get Boston’s historical commission to approve the design.

It’s a typical big format Apple store. I took some cool pictures and got to meet Ron Johnson back in 2008 when it opened. Spinning off the central spiral staircase, the store is spread over three floors with computers mostly the focus on one, iPhones, iPods and accessories on two and training space and more accessories on three. I needed to get Whitney a keyboard for her iPad and selected this lovely one from Logitech. I was surprised to discover that there were no wandering, wireless cashiers in the store. I actually had to go back down to the second floor and wait in line — the horror — to get to a regular register to pay.

One aspect was completely consistent with every other Apple store visit I’ve ever made. Not only were there tons of people in the store, there were tons of people buying stuff — all kinds of stuff — in the store. It’s one of those amazing retail chains like Target, Costco and Whole Foods where there just seems to be something in the air that makes people want to empty their wallets and purses at high speed.

Mission completed, I crossed the street to the Prudential Center mall where I was surprised to see, right at the very center of it all and in the highest foot traffic spot, a brand new Microsoft store. On first glance, it looked just as busy as the Apple store.

Boston Microsoft store

I cruised around the store and noticed a few things right away. Although well staffed and attractive, it was a lot more cramped and harder to move through than any Apple store. Also, the tables featured a wide mix of brands. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but I noticed laptops from Acer, Vizio, Samsung and all-in-one type PCs from Lenovo and HP, I think. Most were running Windows 7 although there were a few computers and tablets running Windows 8 to try — not to buy. They definitely did not have the Lenovo X1 Carbon I have my eye on, however. Phones from Nokia and others were all running older versions of Windows Phone, not the new 8 system.

There were also XBox stations set up at each end of the store and lots of people were playing or watching others play. All of the accessories, like laptop cases and boxed software, were set on shelves at the two ends of the store. Yep, right below the XBox television screens thus requiring a potential customer to get in way of all those people focused on the XBox playing. So the physical layout left a lot to be desired.

But the punchline, of course, was that in the 20 minutes I spent perusing the store I did not see a single person buy anything. Not one thing. Why would that be? I’m open to anyone’s theories. A couple of things occured to me:

  • Lack of consistency: At Apple, distinct areas of each store are dedicated to one thing, such as iPods or laptops. In each area, there’s just a whole bunch of the same machines to play with. The message is pretty clear and there’s not much comparing to be done. At Microsoft, too much was jumbled together and yet everything was split apart. I am in the market for a laptop. Should I go to the table called “laptops,” “ultrabooks” or “entertainment laptops”? And each table had a half dozen compeletly different models each with its own tiny sign filled with tiny print showing the specs.
  • Poor layout: As I mentioned above, everything felt cramped, packed together and in the way of everything else. I went to look at the laptop cases but quickly realized I was blocking the view of some people watching an XBox player on a big screen TV on the wall above where the cases were. Embarrassing. And where would I pay? No idea. It made me feel confused. So cramped, embarrased and confused. Not emotions I associate with a positive buying experience.
  • Mixed branding: People see Apple ads on TV or otherwise decide they want to buy an Apple product. So they head to an Apple store. Makes sense. I see a Samsung ad on TV. Where do I go? Is there a Samsung store? What do they have to do with Microsoft? Is Samsung’s Android phone there? I want a Lenovo laptop running Microsoft Windows. It’s actually not here.

Other thoughts?

p.s. Dinner was at Bin 26 Enoteca, an upscale Italian place on Charles Street near the Boston Common with good food and a ridiculous wine list. Recommended.

Reality Bites: DOJ takes down Apple, publishers ebook defenses

Since the Department of Justice stood up for fans of digital books a few months ago and sued the major publishers and Apple over their 2010 conspiracy to raise prices, the amount of whining, spin and flat out lies emanating from some of the publishers and Apple has been both impressive and depressing. That so many journalists and bloggers who should know better repeated much of this truthy crap storm is even more depressing.

So it was like a breath of fresh air yesterday when the Department of Justice released, along with some 868 comments it received, a powerful and straightforward brief refuting much of the garbage that lately passed for analysis and history of the ebook market. The whole 66-page brief (PDF) is worth reading — actually should be required reading for reporters and bloggers covering the issue — so I’ll limit myself to highlighting just a few key points. To start, the brief offers a simple, concise explanation of what went wrong:

When Apple launched its iBookstore in April of 2010, virtually overnight the retail prices of many bestselling and newly released e-books published in this country jumped 30 to 50 percent—affecting millions of consumers. The United States conducted a lengthy investigation into this steep price increase and uncovered significant evidence that the seismic shift in e-book prices was not the result of market forces, but rather came about through the collusive efforts of Apple and five of the six largest publishers in the country. That conduct, which is detailed in the United States’ Complaint against those entities, is per se illegal under the federal antitrust laws.

It’s really as simple as that.

Among the many detailed refutations and take-downs in the brief, the main one I want to focus on is about the role of Amazon. Recall that for more than a decade, the ebook market was nearly moribund. It wasn’t until November, 2007, when Amazon introduced its Kindle ereader and related ecosystem that the market exploded. A critical component, of course, was the deep discounts Amazon offered on some Kindle books, although that was far from the only innovative and important feature that helped the platform succeed where so many others had failed.

Publishers and their allies have centered their defense on outlandish claims that Amazon was simultaneously discounting them to death (even though they still had full control over how much Amazon paid them) and creating a monopoly to rip off consumers (even though Amazon’s entire business was predicated on low prices).

The Justice Department’s brief offers at least three powerful rejoinders:
-Amazon wasn’t do anything wrong
-The ebook market was vibrant and competitive
-“He hit me first” isn’t actually a viable legal defense

First, the Justice Department noted that it investigated allegations against Amazon and found no evidence of predatory pricing or other illegal conduct. Amazon’s ebook effort was consistently profitable, as only some ebooks, such as best sellers, were sold at $9.99, the money-losing price point so hated by publishers.

“Loss leaders,” two-for-one specials, deep discounting, and other aggressive price strategies are common in many industries, including among booksellers. This is to be celebrated, not outlawed. Unlawful “predatory pricing,” therefore, is something more than prices that are “too low.” Antitrust law prohibits low prices only if the price is “below an appropriate measure of . . . cost,” and there exists “a dangerous probability” that the discounter will be able to drive out competition, raise prices, and thereby “recoup[] its investment in below-cost pricing.” Brooke Group v. Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp., 509 U.S. 209, 222-24 (1993). No objector to the proposed Final Judgment has supplied evidence that, in the dynamic and evolving e-book industry, Amazon threatens to drive out competition and obtain the monopoly pricing power which is the ultimate concern of predatory pricing law. The presence and continued investment by technology giants, multinational book publishers, and national retailers in e-books businesses renders such a prospect highly speculative. Of course, should Amazon or any other firm commit future antitrust violations, the United States (as well as private parties) will remain free to challenge that conduct.

Second, the agency reviewed some of the history of the ebook market after the Kindle arrived and before the illegal price-fixing conspiracy, which has been the subject of some of the most ridiculous propaganda from Apple and the publishers. And what was the condition of that market? Highly competitive and filled with innovation. Barnes & Noble, for example, not only had already introduced its popular Nook reader and garnered over half of ereader sales, but Google and Apple were far along in planning to launch their own offerings as well. Color ebooks, to pick one particularly silly example offered by Apple, were coming soon whether or not publishers colluded to raise prices.

The idea that somehow Amazon could now gain a monopoly is even sillier. The company has only a fraction of the profits and cash flows of its competitors, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Sony. Barnes & Noble was in a bit of financial turmoil earlier this year but got a $300 million injection from Microsoft as part of a wide-ranging alliance and remains a highly competitive number 2 in the market.

Third and finally, even if Amazon was in the midst of some heinous scheme to monopolize the ebook market, U.S. law still does not permit a bunch of companies to get together and agree to raise prices.

When Congress enacted the Sherman Act, it did “not permit[] the age-old cry of ruinous competition and competitive evils to be a defense to price fixing,” no matter if such practices were “genuine or fancied competitive abuses” of the antitrust laws. See United States v. SoconyVacuum Oil, 310 U.S. 150, 221-22 (1940); see also, e.g., FTC v. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Ass’n, 493 U.S. 411, 421-22 (1990) (“[I]t is not our task to pass upon the social utility or political wisdom of price-fixing agreements.”). Competitors may not “take the law into their own hands” to collectively punish an economic actor whose conduct displeases them, even if they believe that conduct to be illegal. See FTC v. Ind. Fed’n of Dentists, 476 U.S. 447, 465 (1986) (“That a particular practice may be unlawful is not, in itself, a sufficient justification for collusion among competitors to prevent it.”); Fashion Originators’ Guild of Am. v. FTC, 312 U.S. 457, 467-68 (1941) (rejecting defendants’ argument that their conduct “is not within the ban of the policies of the Sherman and Clayton Acts because the practices . . . were reasonable and necessary to protect the manufacturer, laborer, retailer and consumer against” practices they believed violated the law (internal quote omitted)); Am. Med. Ass’n v. United States, 130 F.2d 233, 249 (D.C. Cir. 1942), aff’d 317 U.S. 519 (1943) (“Neither the fact that the conspiracy may be intended to promote the public welfare, or that of the industry nor the fact that it is designed to eliminate unfair, fraudulent and unlawful practices, is sufficient to avoid the penalties of the Sherman Act.”). Thus, whatever defendants’ and commenters’ perceived grievances against Amazon or any other firm are, they are no excuse for the conduct remedied by the proposed Final Judgment.

No excuse, indeed…

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New AppleTV may be great but it solves nothing

“I, for one, do not think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.”

Steve Jobs gives great gadget and he was in fine form on Wednesday introducing new iPods, a revamped iTunes and a completely overhauled AppleTV. Can the mighty Jobs finally jump-start the digital living room entertainment future? I don’t think so. While there’s a lot to like about the new AppleTV, it still fails to address the major impediments. We remain, sadly, stuck in a convoluted and costly transition period.

If you’ve followed the home theater hijinks on the this blog, you may remember that my high definition TV gets one (expensive) set of programming from Verizon cable with tuning and DVR capabilities from a Tivo box. Blu-Ray and DVD come via a separate Samsung player. And downloadable and streamed Internet video from iTunes and web sites arrive on a connected Mac mini. Monthly fees go to Verizon and Tivo with extra charges to iTunes and disc retailers. Occasionally we buy downloadable content from Amazon on the Tivo, too. That’s three boxes, four remotes and a big mess o’ cash.

Digital TV programs and movies come and go from these different platforms, sometimes disappearing to protect other distribution outlets (and revenue streams) while carrying inexplicable price differences and incompatible DRM locks.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Music fans can choose from among millions and millions of songs to buy from a bunch of competing retailers that can be played on any device of their choosing. Or, they can pay a modest monthly fee and get access to the proverbial jukebox in the sky. Sure, the music labels have too much control over pricing but competition among retailers means songs go on sale all the time. We’ve built up a gargantuan digital music library at this point that we can listen to in any room in the house, in the car, on a business trip and so on.

Plenty of folks have great ideas about the real answer should be. Don MaCaskill has a detailed blog post (“What the AppleTV should have been“) seeking a far more open model, with content makers and distributors allowed to hook in and set their own business terms (ie HBO makes programs available only to HBO cable subscribers, Hulu streams to anyone). Khoi Vinh is thinking along the same lines, hoping content makers and gear makers can all get on the same page and simplify (“Apple Blinks in the Living Room“).

Another thing that would help would be a truly converged device. Long ago, Tivo allowed other manufacturers to license its software. We had one of these first generation boxes, made by Toshiba, that included a Tivo plus a DVD player and burner. This eliminated the need for a separate DVD player though it did not have a cable tuner and required a jerry-rigged cable box controller. Since then, Tivo boxes have incorporated cable tuners but eliminated disc players.

So what’s holding up video? To paraphrase the Spinal Tap quote above, I do not think the problem is with the gadget makers. I think that the problem is the entertainment and cable industries’ dwarves trampling on our TVs and iPads and smart phones. And because the old ways of selling and distributing video entertainment remain incredibly lucrative, nothing Apple does is going to be much help. The annoyingly limited, fragmented, inconsistent and costly realities of the digital video marketplace look to be entrenched for the foreseeable future. For anyone with even the slightest bit of optimism about this situation, I’m afraid it’s going to be a long, long wait.

What Steve Jobs actually said about iBooks market share

There’s been a bit of controversy about what Steve Jobs said yesterday (video here) in regard to the market share of the new iBookstore. To recall, Apple opened a new front in the electronic book wars when it introduced iBooks alongside the iPad two months ago. iBooks, sold in a proprietary DRM-locked format only at Apple’s iBookstore, can be read only on iPads right now with an app for iPhones and iPod Touches coming soon. Here’s what Jobs’ said yesterday in San Francisco:

I’ve got a few stats today for you. In the first 65 days, users have downloaded over 5 million books and that is about two and  half books per iPad which is terrific. The other interesting thing is the five of the six biggest publishers in the US who have their books on the iBookstore tell us that the share of ebooks now that are going through the iBookstore now is about 22 percent. So iBooks market share now of ebooks from five of these six major publishers is up to 22 percent in just about 8 weeks. And, as we ship more iPads, that number is just going to keep going up and up and up and we’re really thrilled with it.

So, Jobs did properly limit his description of iBooks “market share” as being just about US sales of ebooks by the five big publishers participating in Apple’s offering. With one biggie opting out so far (Random House) and no global sales included, the 22% figure obviously wildly overstates Apple’s real market share in ebooks.

So why were some people confused? I’d say it’s all Apple’s fault. First for not streaming Jobs’ keynote live to everybody and, second, for including the slide pictured at the top of this post which simply says “Share of total eBook sales.” That’s not accurate.

Steve Jobs’ ebook logic: I win, All of you lose

Soon we’ll know just what Apple’s new tablet will really do, how much it will cost and whether it can save the world from global warming. Okay, just joking about that last bit — I think. In any event, many believe the tablet will shake things up in ebook world where Amazon’s Kindle is the leader followed by improving entries from Sony, Barnes & Noble and others.

Today, The Wall Street Journal has yet another story about Apple’s ebook strategy and efforts to woo book publishers. There’s something kind of wacky about the situation, however. The only party that comes out better under Apple’s apparent strategy is…Apple.

Start with readers, aka consumers, aka you and me. We get to read ebooks on cool Apple mobile devices. Oh wait, we can already do that on the iPhone and iPod Touch. What we do get is higher prices. $9.99 is out and the new normal is $12.99 or $14.99. Sounds kind of like last year when Apple caved to the record labels and hiked music prices across the board. I’m still waiting for all those 69 cent songs I was promised.

Okay, so we lose but what about publishers. They’re bitterly complaining about Amazon and it’s terrible prices that devalue books. So they must make out? Well, actually, no. As the article points out, Amazon pays them half the cover price of a digital book, which in most cases is more than the $9.99 retail price Amazon charges its customers. Say the hardcover price is $24 — Amazon pays the publisher $12. Amazon is subsidizing the ebooks, losing money on most of those sales. But Apple is only to pay publishers 70% of the two price points I mentioned, which means they get $9.09 0r $10.49.

So why would they do that? The Journal coimes up with this nonsensical rationale:

But there is nevertheless a strong draw: In adopting the Apple model, the balance of power would shift at least partly back to publishers, which regain control of pricing. In setting higher prices, they could provide a level playing field for all e-book retailers. The potential for publishers is that the device may generate greater volume for e-book sales.

Now, publishers could generate a greater volume of sales to tablet users through the existing crop of ereader apps, if they wanted to. They don’t need Apple for that. But how would the “balance of power” shift to them on pricing? As the article already noted, Jobs is pushing two retail price points and a fixed 70% payout. It’s also very unclear how this results in a “level playing field” for ebook sellers. In fact, publishers would be charging Apple less than they get from Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble. It’s a sweet heart deal that benefits…you guess it, Apple.

If I had to put a stake in the ground, I’d predict that this poorly thought-out pricing model ignores what customers want and does little to help the publishing industry. It will get vast amounts of attention and hype but will end up a dud in the marketplace.

Will Apple continue to allow competing ebook reading apps?

There are many, many unanswered questions about Apple’s forthcoming tablet computing device, or the “God tablet” perhaps I should call it. For those of us particularly concerned about the future of electronic books, I have one pointed question for Apple. Will the company, which at times acts against its own customer interests, allow competing ebook vendors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony onto its new tablet? Or will it boot the competition in favor of its own iTunes ebook store? You know, one ereader to rule them all and in the darkness bind them…

There’s little question among the Mac-erati that the tablet will follow the software model of the iPhone/iPod Touch and not the Mac itself. That is, customers will not be allowed to load any software they want. Customers will be limited to software offered at Apple’s iTunes app store. Apple has been much and rightly criticized for its slow and ham-handed management of the app store approval process.

But at least for right now, Apple is letting all of its potential ebook competitors offer ebook reading apps. The Kindle iPhone app is usually the top-ranked download in the book section and B&N’s app is usually second or third. If Apple sticks with this policy and just adds its own ebook store, likely with its own proprietary digital rights management lockdowned formatting, I don’t think Apple is going to have much impact on the ebook market.

Why no impact? After cozying up to the music labels and granting them an unprecedented 30% price hike last year, Apple now appears to be sucking up to book publishers. Apple will reportedly let publishers set prices and conditions for sales of all ebooks on its new platform. That’s a recipe for disaster with consumers. Publishers want to keep prices high and further reduce the value of ebooks by limiting the ability to share or resell them, prohibit computerized audio reading and generally delay the inevitable as long as possible.

To see just how little traction this kind of strategy is likely to garner, recall Apple’s former darling ebook app vendor, Scrollmotion, and its hideously overpriced Iceberg reader app. Given prime stage time at last June’s World Wide Developer Conference, Scrollmotion charges full print retail prices for ebooks that can only be read on the iPhone. I’ve rarely seen any of their editions on the top 100 best-selling apps in the books category and you don’t even hear them mentioned by Apple or publishers anymore.

But – here’s the big but – what if Apple yanks ebook competitors out of the app store. There’s some slight precedent for that after the Google Voice debacle, when Apple not only declined to approve Google’s app but went back and yanked a few minor apps that also worked with GV. On the other hand, federal regulators are looking into the GV debacle, so there may be too much pressure on Apple to pull another fast one.

If Apple does pull competitors off the entire iPhone platform, then you’d have to give their publisher-loving, consumer-hating ebook strategy more of a chance. I think it would have more of a chance of holding back the whole market than taking over the whole market but who knows.

Publishers could also “help” if they follow what I call the “slow boil a frog” strategy. That was the Barnes & Noble strategy in the 1990s when it was opening new superstores all over the country. Start with big discounts on everything for a few years to wipe out lesser competitors. Once most of the independent books stores are gone, eliminate most of the discounts.

One final aside: as I’ve said before, book publishers are clearly following the music industry’s template for getting leverage against an entrenched, market leading digital retailer. Amazon won’t do what they want to they’re going to try and help some smaller players with the ultimate aim of getting Mister Number One to cave in to their demands. Ironically, in the case of music, Apple was the leader under attack and the industry made a sweet heart deal with Amazon.

UPDATE: As the always useful Teleread blog just pointed out, GearDiary’s Carly Z was on this topic yesterday. She sounds a touch more optimistic than I am:

So who wins when Apple gets involved in ebooks? Overall, the consumer with no library tie-ins is probably going to be very happy. Assuming the pricing is reasonable, Apple will no doubt pull a rabbit out of their hats and ebooks for some time now, it’s probably going to be a mixed bag. As great as it is to see a tech giant like Apple involved in ebooks, it means big changes are no doubt in store, and it is going to be a very bumpy ride along the way.

Nook Delays: Why Barnes & Noble hates its customers

features_einkv4Back in October, when Barnes & Noble finally took the wraps off its Nook E-Reader, I expected to see David Pogue, Walter Mossberg and the whole rest of Gadget World publish their reviews within a few days. After all, Barnes & Noble was happily taking customer orders (and customer money) on their web site. At that point almost no one had seen the Nook except at the press conference. Barnes & Noble was promising early orders would be in customers’ hands within a month and working models would be in stores soon.

But then nothing happened. There were no reviews. There were no working models in stores. There were no units delivered to customers. October turned to November. November turned to December. And only now, fully seven weeks since the Nook was introduced and no doubt after tens or even hundreds of thousands of pre-orders, has Barnes & Noble put working Nooks in its stores and, more importantly, handed out review copies.

And the reviews are pretty savage. Here’s just a smattering:

Overall, after testing the Nook for about a week, I don’t think it’s as good as the Kindle, at least not yet. At launch, the Nook has the feel of a product with great potential that was rushed to market before it was fully ready. –Walter Mossberg

Those missing features are symptoms of B&N’s bad case of Ship-at-All-Costs-itis. But the biggest one of all is the Nook’s half-baked software. To use the technical term, it’s slower than an anesthetized slug in winter. And it’s buggy. –David Pogue

I’m glad I didn’t pre-order. Disappointed, but glad. If the Sony Daily Edition or the mythical Apple Tablet can’t top this, then I’ll just stick with my Sony 300 and iPhone ’til things have had a chance to mature. Being a gadget hound isn’t all that fun if the gadgets don’t behave to function… –Jean Kaplansky on TeleRead

If Gadget World had its own justice system, B&N would be tried and convicted of heinous abuse of its customers and sentenced to years of solitary confinement. So does Barnes & Noble hate its customers or what?

And just to throw one more log on the fire roasting the Nook, before you buy a Nook be sure to check out the comparison Inkmesh did of ebook prices. Out of some 11,604 ebook prices they checked on a handful of sites, Amazon had the lowest price by itself on 3,263 and tied for the lowest price on another 5,329. B&N had the lowest price on a whopping 463 and matched low prices on 4,837. Sony was by far the worst, showing the lowest price just 18 times and matching low prices only 423 times.

N.B. Thanks, as always, to the excellent Teleread blog for linking to all the reviews and generally keeping us up-to-date on all things e-bookish.

With growing Apple tablet excitement, misguided Kindle whining returns

imagesWe’re coming up fast on the 2nd anniversary of the introduction of  Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. Yet despite the many improvements and price cuts in KindleWorld, we’re still subject to the same weird, off-base complaints we first heard back before anyone even had even gotten their hands on one. Recently, my favorite Mac guru, John Gruber, and my favorite, favorite curator of interesting web matter, Jason Kottke, offered their own takes of the same-old, same-old. The usual quality of these fellows’ writing makes their anti-ereader rants all the more puzzling. Gruber’s most recent post was very short, though it’s hardly his first¹. Here’s Kottke at greater length:

But all these e-readers — the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, et al — are all focused on the wrong single use: books. (And in the case of at least the Nook and Kindle, the focus is on buying books from B&N and Amazon. The Kindle is more like a 7-Eleven than a book.) The correct single use is reading. Your device should make it equally easy to read books, magazine articles, newspapers, web sites, RSS feeds, PDFs, etc. And keep in mind, all of these things have images that are integral to the reading experience. We want to read; help us do it.

His final point – no good rendering of images – is at least a fair criticism given the lack of color e-ink screens. But the rest is more than a bit off. Mind you, we don’t even really know what the user experience will be like on the Nook or Sony Daily Edition.

Even if you grant Kottke his weird premise that book reading shouldn’t be the primary focus of ereaders², he’s still missing the target, particularly for the Kindle. It’s incredibly easy and pleasing to read magazine articles, blogs, miscellaneous web postings, RSS feeds and PDFs on my Kindle DX. I subscribe to The New Yorker and love how it gets delivered Sunday nights with all the stories and tidbits and even the CARTOONS. I regularly use the included browser and FREE mobile 3G access to read RSS feeds on the mobile version of Google Reader. There’s also the much-loved Kindlefeeder service, though I don’t use it personally.

And have I somehow not raved enough about how incredibly useful Instapaper‘s “Send to Kindle” feature is? Well, some but clearly not enough. Super short version: Find a long article or posting on the web you want to read later on your Kindle. Hit your “Read later” bookmarklet. Turn on your Kindle. That’s it. Brilliant. B-R-I-L-L-I-A-N-T. And p.s. Instapaper (and Tumblr) developer Marco Arment, in his own post shooting down Kottke, mentions that he’s about to unveil a “much better version” real soon now.

So I guess the question is why are they so off? Sure, there’s been a lot of hype around the new Nook and Sony’s revamped ereader line-up and hype naturally draws a backlash. But I think the deeper answer is the rumored, imminent Apple tablet which some people think will slay Kindle and Nook and all their single-focused brethren. It seems like some usually bright commentators have been fixating on how great the tablet will be that they have already decided that it’s is a “Kindle Killer.” And since the tablet is still vaporware, with exact pricing and features unknown, that precognition is seeping out into general dissing of the current crop of ereaders. Too bad, because taken on their own terms, ereaders are a great product. And they’re best suited for avid readers who buy a lot of books and sometimes read on the go. That’s likely not as many people as own iPods or cell phones, but its multiple tens of millions of people.

Prior coverage:

Apple still isn’t going to kill Amazon’s Kindle, or any other ereader (9/12/2009)

Instapaper’s instantly useful for sending articles to Kindles (3/17/2009)

The Kindle is for readers, the Kindle is for readers (6/20/2008)


¹Gruber’s been wrong about the Kindle since Day One: “After chewing it over all day, I’ve concluded that Amazon’s Kindle is going to flop.” He also pointedly disagreed with my more optimistic view that day.

²I’m not a big fan of the “what about my needs” school of product criticism.