Category Archives: Kindle

iPad, Nexus, Kindle Fire – which tablet should I buy?

Compare the ipad, nexus and kindle fire tablets

What a crazy time to be shopping for a tablet computer. There are so many, many choices. Which tablet should you buy? I have some advice — and please give me your intelligent feedback in the comments section below — on the biggest sellers, all of which I have personally used: Apple’s iPad line, Google’s Nexus family and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD offerings.

Unlike past years, the competition at the beginning of 2013 is hotter than ever, making a decision more complicated than ever. To to simplify, let’s review three basic factors and then I’ll have some advice at the end.

budget | content | uses

budget

How much do you have spend for a new tablet? If you want to hit that magic $199 price point or less, it’s between Amazon’s 7″ Kindle Fire HD and Google’s 7″ Nexus. If you can go up to the $300 to $400 range, you can reach the 10″ Nexus, the 9″ Kindle Fire and the 8″ iPad mini. Heading to $500 and over, you reach the full 10″ iPad.

Adding a mobile broadband radio, which you may want if you plan to travel a lot with your tablet, costs more:

+$100 to the minimum Nexus 7 (also doubles your memory) = $299

+$200 to the entry level 9″ Kindle Fire HD (and more memory) = $499

+$130 to iPad mini = $459

+$130 to the big iPad = $629

(The Nexus 10 and 7″ Kindle Fire HD aren’t sold with built in mobile broadband)

content

A lot of people will tell you that the easy way to decide on a tablet is to review your so-called ecosystem, or the existing collection of digital music, books, movies and TV shows along with any premium apps you have bought. Just stick with your ecosystem, they say. But I think it’s not nearly so simple anymore. Ecosystems matter less than ever.

First, for music, the vendor is all but irrelevant. Music files now a days are no longer locked to any company’s devices with digital rights management, or DRM, software and can be easily (and legally) trafficked among the brands. The new cloud services, Apple’s iTunes Match, Amazon’s Cloud Music Player and Google Music, all keep track of your songs and let you download them onto multiple computers and devices. And how important is owning all your music? At least in my house, the kids today are far more interested in using subscription music services like Spotify and Rdio, which work great on all the devices, too.

Next come ebooks, which sadly do still carry DRM locks. But even here, for most users, ebooks can travel onto many kinds of devices. That’s because the two leading sellers, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, provide software to read their ebooks for all the different platforms. I’m a Kindle fan and I’ve read my ebooks on devices not just from Amazon but also from Apple, Google and BlackBerry. Google offers ebook software for Android and the iPad but Apple sticks just to iOS (for what it’s worth, I think that’s reason enough to avoid them completely).

Apps are an in-between case. Many are free or cost just 99 cents, so the lost investment of switching platforms is pretty small. Remember just a few years ago when switching, say, from Windows to the Mac meant spending hundreds of dollars just to restore a few key apps like Microsoft Office. In tablet world, this so-called “applications barrier to entry” is almost non-existent.

And many of the most popular apps are available on all three platforms. Amazon has the most limited supply and Apple tends to have the best new apps. But if you’re wondering, it’s pretty easy to see which apps you may be able to keep if you switch platforms by checking the web stores of Google and Amazon.

There is still one area where you might have serious investments locked to one ecosystem: movies and television shows. Apple’s iTunes store has been around for a decade and I know we’re not atypical with our vast holdings of hard-to-transfer iTunes videos. Likewise, movies and shows bought from Google won’t play on the iPad or Kindle. Amazon has built an app to let you watch its videos on the iPad, though not yet on Google’s Android devices (you can watch via the web site on the Nexus if you are willing to install Adobe Flash software).

Like music, however, video is an also an area where the ownership model is slipping away. Do you watch most of your shows on Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go or some other subscription service app? Those apps are offered on all three platforms.

A final consideration is Amazon’s amazing deals for anyone subscribing to its $79/year free shipping service known as Prime. If you pay for Prime you get access to a ton of movies and TV shows for free. That can save a lot of money in the future in addition to any savings by buying a Kindle Fire now.

So take a survey. Ignoring music, do you have tons of video and possibly ebooks that you bought from Apple for your iPhone or iPod touch? And is it the kind of stuff you want to come back to and watch or read over and over again? That could be a lot of lost value if you switch tablets just to save a little on the upfront cost. On the other hand, Amazon’s ebooks and video can play on the iPad (and sort of on the Nexus) and you get all the free stuff if you subscribe to Prime. Google’s ebooks but not video play on the iPad.

There’s also the rest of our digital life’s ecosystem to consider. For file storage and syncing, calendars, contacts and email, some people are deeply embedded in Apple’s iCloud. Others are all Google, all the time. What do they say about Harry Potter and Voldemort? Neither can live while the other survives? Apple-istas will do best sticking with the iPad. iCloud doesn’t do Android. Google-ites? In the past, I have found syncing Google data to iOS devices to be a huge pain and subject to major limitations, but I should point out for more experienced users, Google has made the process easier recently, as explained by TheVerge. Nexus devices, obviously were made for it. You can also sync your Google account with the Amazon Kindle Fire’s calendar, email and contacts apps but, again, nothing for iCloud.

usage

What are you actually doing with your tablet? When I reviewed the very first Kindle Fire, I said it was a good deal because it could do most of what you wanted to do on an iPad for less than half the price. And that’s still true today. If you want a tablet for mostly web surfing, reading ebooks, watching video, playing the occasional game and doing light email, the Kindle Fire HD line is hard to beat. Amazon has a smaller but more cultivated app store than Google and lags far behind Apple. But the actual hardware devices are pretty nifty, with really good screens, and at a bargain price. They also have the most innovative child control software by far.

Are you going to be doing “real” work or using your tablet as a laptop replacement? In this case, the Kindle Fires are a lot less appealing. They don’t play as well with other platforms. The iPad has plenty of software for writing, making presentations, editing photos and all that plus it benefits from the widest choices of keyboards. The Nexus works really well if your work is often via Google Docs and other Google services.

What about sharing a device or and handing one of these tablets off to your kids? The iPad stinks for sharing, absolutely stinks. Signing in and out of email accounts, iCloud accounts and the like is inconvenient and apps and movies and what not can’t be shared between iTunes store accounts. Given how annoying it already is to move and arrange apps just the way you want them on iOS, having other people move your cheese is no fun either. The Nexus is much better in this area — a recent software update added true multiple user accounts. And the Nexus is smart, storing only one copy of an app or other content that appears in more than one user’s account.

Amazon’s child control feature, called Freetime, brings sort of, kind of the notion of multiple user accounts to the Kindle Fire. It does offer by far the best and smartest child controls of any tablet if a kid is the primary user. The iPad child control screen is a nightmare.

And how much traveling will you be doing? While it’s possible to use the wifi hot spot feature on your phone to connect your tablet, it’s so quick and convenient to have built-in mobile broadband. It’s not free, typically adding about $20 a month to your cell phone bill, or $10 if you have a family plan on AT&T or Verizon. There’s nothing like the feeling of flicking on your tablet and getting right to work without having to mess with wifi sign ons or other devices to get connected.

bottom line

If you’ve considered all the the issues above, you may have already come to a realization about which tablet to buy. People deeply invested in either the entertainment or business-y ecosystems of Apple or Google probably have the most obvious answers. If not, I would suggest that for the most budget-minded, for those planning to use their tablet mostly at home and for more for entertainment purposes, the Kindle Fire HDs are a great bargain. The savings come not just in the lower price but also with all the free content you can access from Amazon.

If you are looking to get some business done, it’s time to spend a bit more for the iPad, which not only has a far more robust and diverse selection of apps but also a better selection of accessories like keyboards, cases and other add-ons (blood pressure monitor anyone?). The Nexus line is second best here by a fair margin but totally workable and far better in the realm of Gmail, Google calendar and voice and all that.

As far as whether to go for 7″ to 8″ screens or the larger screens, think again about your budget and your usage. Small screens are cheaper and work best on-the-go. They’re also good for reading. Try holding a full size iPad in one hand for more than a few minutes – forget it. I don’t love the screen resolution of the iPad mini — both the 7″ Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 are much sharper. But after a short time using a lower resolution screen, it seems not many people can even tell the difference, so I wouldn’t get too hung up on that one spec.

By the way, if you can’t even decide whether to get a tablet versus a laptop or e-ink electronic book reader, I have looked at that question as well.

Best apps for Amazon Kindle Fire tablets

Looking for the best apps for your new Kindle Fire HD tablet? Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t give you easy access to the Google Android app store with its hundreds of thousands of offerings. Instead, you get just what is in Amazon’s much more limited store, missing plenty of good stuff especially Google’s own apps. But there are still many solid choices. I’ve had the 8.9″ Fire HD for about a month now and I have some recommendations for great apps. I’ve provided links to Amazon’s online web app store when I could find them but some apps can only be downloaded from on board the Kindle Fire itself.

Kindle Fire HD tablet

You may have purchased a Kindle tablet just to get easy access to Amazon’s pretty good collection of free and rentable video selections but there are also apps to access video from other services you may subscribe to, including Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Go. If you have any movies on the Hollywood studios Ultraviolet system, you can watch them using Flixster. For music, I had no problem matching my entire iTunes library to Amazon’s excellent Cloud Player — Apple, for the love of god PLEASE copy Amazon’s simple “cloud/device” interface — but there are other options including Spotify, Rdio and Pandora.

Among games, our family is currently obsessed with the brain teaser Flow Free, which requires that you draw lines or “pipes” to connect dots on various size grids. Sure, it starts easy but it gets harder and harder. Race against the clock and then hand off to someone else in your family to get the adrenaline pumping. On a different note, the latest version of Need for Speed lets you race around the world in exotic cars while pushing the Kindle Fire’s graphics capabilities to the max. On a more relaxing note, I am zoning out with the “Zen like” puzzle game Quell lately, on sale for 99 cents. Finally, I really don’t need to go through the motions and give you links to Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Words with Friends and all those other super popular titles you can easily find yourself, right? Well, I do love Sudoko.

There are gazillions of weather apps, not surprisingly. I prefer Weather Bug Elite (it’s $2) for the full featured interface and ease of switching locations. Weather Geek Pro ($3) is also cool, offering the real weather symbols and some simplified models used by meteorologists so you can track storm systems and make your own predictions.

On the finance front, I’ve noticed that more and more of the big banks have converted their apps to work on the Kindle Fire including Bank America, Wells Fargo and Chase. It took me a long time to find a good stock tracking app, though. A lot of the apps are junked up with distracting backgrounds to misdirect you from noticing the limited functionality. One clean and simple app is Wikivest HD. It can import your current holdings from dozens of firms or you can enter stocks yourself and it has simple charting and news functions.

I’m a new junkie so I have plenty of apps loaded up to keep me informed. I use the Pocket read-it-later service and their free app is excellent. There is an official Twitter app but it’s not particularly great in any way. I have switched around a couple of times, starting with Tweetcaster, which is a little busy for my taste, before switching to Tweetcomb, which is only available from inside the Kindle Fire’s own app store. For my Google Reader RSS needs I have gReader and for Reddit, I use the popular Reddit is Fun reader app, $2 without ads. I am also trying out the more tablet-y BaconReader Premium, also $2, which seems to do better in landscape mode. There are also apps from the big players in news and I especially like NPR and the Huffington Post. ESPN Sports Center is here, of course, but I am also using ScoreMobile for its sports blogging links. My employer, Reuters, has no apps here yet which is a real shame.

Speaking of work, I rely on Evernote for work writing, blogging and generally keeping track of any scrap of important information in my life. I am also a big Google calendar user so I bucked up and spent $6 for the versatile Calengoo app. You can also just sync Google Calendar to the built-in Kindle Fire calendar app for free. Astrid is an excellent and free to-do list manager syncing with Google Tasks. I also sucked it up and paid $15 for the full version of Documents to Go, which I have been using on different portable devices for what seems like a decade to read and edit Microsoft Office documents. You can also use it to read PDFs and for your Google Docs. The official WordPress app works great as a blogging tool.

Some popular apps available on iOS and Google Android have yet to reach Amazon’s app store but there are unofficial substitutes. Instafire lets you access your Instagram photo flow. It’s $3. The Chrome Browser is not here but Chrome Sync will bring your Chrome bookmarks over to Silk for 99 cents.

I’ll update this post as new apps arrive and impress me. Feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments. Thanks.

Amazon is discounting ebooks, whenever it’s allowed to, unlike Apple

Some really silly journalism covering the ebook marketplace today. It starts with this really bad, no good article in the New York Times by David Streitfeld. The headline gets off to a completely wrong start — “Little Sign of predicted E-Book Price War” — and it goes down hill from there, as Streitfeld asserts there was going to be a “ferocious price war over ebooks.” Who was ever saying that? Of course, it was the made-up nightmare scenario that publishers were screaming about after they got sued for illegally conspiring to raise ebook prices. Streitfeld never explains that and actively seeks to mislead the reader, writing those expectations were “fueled by Amazon.” It’s a bad set-up that only gets worse.

Next, he asserts that prices have “selectively fallen but not as broadly or as drastically as anticipated.” No data, not a shred, is offered to back up this bold assertion, not even the usual misleading average price of all best-sellers publishers have sometimes cited in the past (an average which included all the sales of 99 cent independently published ebooks). Even a brief look at Amazon’s prices compared with the high price leader, Apple, makes it pretty obvious that a ton of discounting is occurring. It is limited because two of the big six publishers are still banning discounts and another, Penguin, just settled and is not yet allowing discounts, either. But on ebooks where Amazon can discount, it is doing so to the tune of 15% or more.

Compare, for example, ebook prices of the New York Times fiction best-seller list on Amazon and Apple. On four of the top 10, both carry the ebooks at $12.99. And, no surprise, in all four cases the publishers are still banning all discounting. Another older book is priced at $9.99 on both and, again, discounting is banned. On the other five, Amazon is discounting every single one, with the average price $10.93 versus $12.19 for Apple. It’s the same if you go deeper down the list or look at non-fiction.

The biggest laugh-out-loud line comes next:

“The $10 floor that publishers fought so hard to maintain for popular new novels is largely intact.”

See the old switcheroo there? Publishers hated the $10 price — the whole point of their illegal, price fixing scheme was to kill the $10 price. They weren’t trying to maintain a $10 floor — they were trying to push the “floor” up to at least $13 to $15. And that effort has failed. Amazon itself wasn’t trying to get below $10 for best sellers. In fact, even before the illegal price fixing, Amazon often priced best sellers between $11 and $12, just like it’s doing now. Jeff Bezos was going around back in 2009 and saying he intended to make a profit on ebooks as a stand alone business. And that’s right back where Amazon is pricing. Not to mention that we still don’t have a true free market for ebooks as even publishers forced to allow some price cutting retain the ability to limit the amount of overall discounting. Also left out of this narrative is the massive growth of independently published ebooks at prices well below $10. The price fixing conspiracy certainly fed the growth of this part of the market and gave Bezos plenty of cheap offerings for Amazon customers looking for bargains. That wasn’t true back when the Kindle first started.

Streitfeld then picks the one book on the best seller list that’s discounted the least by Amazon as his example. Prices of the other discountable titles are all cut by more. Lame. My favorite example, if we’re going to cherry pick, is JK Rowling’s new novel, A Casual Vacancy, which the publisher was selling for $18 as an ebook, now cut to $12.74 by Amazon.

Then come a couple of wacky theories to explain the lack of discounting, which obviously have to be pretty wacky since they are meant to explain a non-existent phenomenon. It’s the slow down in ebook buying growth rates. It’s the demise of Borders (a true WTF). It’s Amazon holding back. Blah, blah, blah.

I love the next bit where Streitfeld cites an ebook market forecast from two years ago as “typically ebullient.” It’s James McQuivey calling for $2.8 billion of ebook sales in 2015. Crazy? Insane? Hmm, maybe right on. Ebook sales last year hit $2.1 billion and up some 34 percent this year, according to Streitfeld, thus reaching — wait for it — $2.8 billion.

The finish is, of course, the most wrong: “this might be as cheap as ebooks will ever be.” That’s pretty unlikely given that Penguin is about to allow discounting again and Macmillan is being prosecuted in court for its recalcitrance.

A second, slightly better piece from Laura Hazard Owen needs a few corrections, too. She buys into the data-free assertion that prices haven’t fallen and the headline is off-base. But she’s correct to point out that not all ebooks were sold at $9.99 before the wave of price fixing in 2010 — though I’m pretty sure she has previously gone along with publishers assertions that Amazon cut everything to $9.99 in the bad, old days (I’ll have to double-check). And she explains that Amazon’s ability to discount now is still limited, as I explained above.

Ironically, it’s the element of competition that she seems to get wrong. Apple isn’t discounting to match Amazon. It’s sticking with high prices. So whereas when Amazon was the only major player, it used $9.99 as a kind of promotional advertising, a psychological sweet spot, now it has a simpler task of undercutting the actual prices of the competition. No need for psychology, there’s a whole ebook marketplace consumers can see. And in the new market where Apple likes to sell for at least $13 when it can, a discount to $11 looks pretty enticing.

But Owen doesn’t get it as she writes: ” These retailers have all shown themselves willing to match Amazon’s price drops on ebooks. The prices aren’t always exactly the same across stores, but they are at least close enough that there is little incentive to switch retailers if you’re already using a platform you like.”

That’s the chuckler in her piece. Prices are not that close. And there’s less platform lock in than ever — it’s easy to switch around. Amazon offers free ereading software for almost any platform including the iPad, iPhone and Mac. Ironically, it seems to be the higher-priced competition that’s having the biggest impact on Amazon’s pricing, creating a price umbrella that has eased the pressure to price at $9.99.

Instapaper isn’t Instaworth it anymore – switching to Pocket

I think I was one of the earliest fans of Marco Arment’s ingenious Instapaper service. I even wrote up a rave review back in March, 2009. This is the original thing that let you save long web articles to read later in your browser or on your phone or ereader. The amazing feature that first hooked me was Instapaper’s ability to compile a bunch of saved articles into a personalized newsletter and email it once a day to my Kindle. Genius. Just think how many trees have been spared by the reduced volume of printing out long web pages.

But times change, competition grows and it’s now time to move on from Instapaper and its $12/year subscription fee (not to mention the bucks spent on separate iPad and iPhone apps as well as unofficial and finally official Android apps).

The main reason to leave is that competing products are more than good enough and cost less. Pocket, for example, has entirely free apps and a free service. It does almost everything Instapaper does that I need and it looks good, too. Adding the oddly named crofflr service to do the Kindle emailing trick costs a one-time fee of $5.

I’ve switched over to Pocket for the past two weeks and have had no problems at all on my iPad, iPod Touch, Galaxy Nexus Phone and Nexus tablet. Everything syncs nicely. The apps look really good and have enough font sizes to let me read in all conditions. Instapaper has a greater range of font choices but that’s not a critical issue. Pocket’s single serif and sans serif fonts are “good enough.”

To ensure that my reading material is downloaded to each app for offline use, I did need to tweak a setting. Under the “Offline Downloading” section of each Pocket app’s options, turn OFF “Download Best View” and then turn ON “Always Fetch Article.” Otherwise, Pocket sometimes wants to download an article from the web when you go to read it instead of keeping a cached copy available all the time.

Pocket also has those little snippets of code known as bookmarklets that you can slap on your browser’s bookmarks bar to instantly send the current web page over to your Pocket queue. And it has an array of other helper bits, like an extension for Chrome, to do the same. I’ll insert the usual Android brag here: just by installing the Pocket app on an Android device, you can send web pages from any other app directly to Pocket via the sharing menu.

The site’s extensive FAQs and discussion forums offer tips for connecting to other services. I wanted to have Pocket show up on the “send to” menu of Google’s online Reader, for example. A quick Google search found the instructions here.

There are, of course, times when we all pay more than we absolutely must for a product or service because of other benefits we receive or maybe just because we want to support a place we like. I often shop at local stores like Wellesley Books and Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton, even though there are places to buy books and liquor cheaper, because I value their selection and service and I want to support local businesses and local jobs.

With Instapaper, though, it’s just the opposite. Marco Arment, who I once dubbed “the Mouth of Brooklyn” back in the day, is a one man mis-truth squad when it comes to too many of Apple’s competitors. His wacky theories and misstatements about Android are legion and he’s over-the-top on Amazon’s Kindle products, too. Personal favorite? When he whined about the build quality of a Kindle USB cable because, you know, Apple never has build quality issues or ships new hardware with imperfections or whatnot.

So — much credit to Marco for his beautiful and innovative reading service but time to move on. Sayonara and happy trails.

A Casual Vacancy, a serious rip off?

There’s a bit of a surprise in store for you if you go to buy the electronic book version of the new J.K. Rowling novel, “A Casual Vacancy.” Despite it’s best-seller status, the ebook’s price is not $9.99 or $12.99 or even the high-end of best-sellers brought to you by the price fixing cabal of $14.99. Nope. At Amazon’s Kindle store it’s $17.99. And it’s the same price at the Google Play store, at Barnes & Noble and at iTunes.

How could this be? After all, the Justice Department smashed the price fixers and three of the big publishers, including Hachette, which sells the new J.K. tome, agreed to settle all charges and allow discounting to resume. The answer, it seems, is that “A Casual Vacancy” hit at just the wrong time.

Under the settlement, Hachette almost immediately had to cancel its contract with Apple’s iBooks store, the one that would have automatically priced the ebook lower while banning any discounting. But it didn’t have to renegotiate its contracts with others ebook sellers at the same pace. Laura Hazard Owens at PaidContent says it could be 60 days or so before new deals must be in place with other retailers. Once the deals are done, Amazon will be allowed to discount again. The giant online book seller already has a new deal with HarperCollins, for example, so ebook versions of Mitch Albom’s “The Time Keeper” are only $9.99 on the Kindle. But until all the deals are done, only Apple has price flexibility and it has little interest in discounting when all its competitors must sell at the high, Hachette-dictated price.

Some have gone so far as to argue that the high price shows consumers will be hurt by the DOJ price fixing settlement (see some of the comments on the PaidContent piece linked above). But when the only ebook retailer given price flexibility is the one that was among the accused price fixers and the one that hates to discount, it doesn’t prove much of anything.

Still, JK’s ebook is selling. It’s number 2 among paid ebook best sellers at the Kindle store as of right now. For a book with such high expectations, it’s hard to say if that’s actually a success or a disappointment. But assuming discounting resumes shortly, many folks may be holding off until the $9.99 version arrives. And while they wait, they’ve got plenty of time on their hands to ding the book with one-star reviews, it looks like.

UPDATE: On October 13, I checked again and the publisher on its own has cut the ebook price to $14.99. That may be because the book was slipping down the ebook best seller list at the original price. Then, at the end of December, with discounting back in Amazon’s control, the ebook price was down to $12.74.

History will show journalists missed the big Amazon story today: ebook discounting is back

There were a gazillion Amazon headlines today across virtually every news site, tech blog and twitter feed I follow but almost none had the truly important news development about Amazon today. While everyone was gorging on the announcement of upgraded “Kindle Fire” tablet computers, U.S. federal judge Denise Cote in New York approved a controversial settlement to the massive ebook price fixing scandal.

The settlement requires three of the biggest book publishers in the world to soon terminate their so-called agency pricing arrangements over ebooks and allow Amazon and others to resume discounting ebooks. Two other major publisher and Apple were bitterly opposing the settlement. But the judge went with the Justice Department and major consumer groups. The law seemed pretty clearly on the side of the government and the settling publishers, as I wrote last month.

This will very soon benefit tens of millions of ebook buyers. And the long-term benefits of a slightly cheaper, slightly fancier tablet? Less so.

Update: Making my point further, the New York Times buried the story inside the business section and it’s not given prominent play on their web site, either. But their blog post about the ruling is the number one most emailed story right now. And, wow, the second-day coverage in the paper is embarrassingly bad, too. The Times story in print, link unseen, aside from various spokespersons, quotes a long-time publishing industry consultant, the head of the Author’s Guild and a publishing industry lawyer. The Wall Street Journal is no better, quoting the same lawyer and the AUthor’s Guild. Come on, people. You can do better.

 

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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Review: First 24 hours with the Amazon Kindle Fire

It costs less than half what an iPad costs but it does more than half of what an iPad does.

That’s the bottom line.

The new Amazon Kindle Fire is no iPad but it is a slick little gadget that is frequently delightful and worth $199.

Sure, the Fire has a smaller screen, slower processor and less storage than Apple’s cheapest iPad. But most people won’t care. The Fire also has a nice sharp screen, comfortable grippy sides and sufficient processing power and applications to make a device that’s great for watching movies and TV shows, reading books, listening to music, catching up on email and doing light web browsing.

Surely, Amazon made compromises but it feels like they made all the right compromises. No camera? The camera on the iPad is terrible and I have my phone’s camera with me all the time. Less memory? Lots of free online storage and streaming media services. It is a bit on the chunky and heavy side — you wouldn’t want to hold it in one hand for very long — but it still has a nice feel.

The Fire is at its core an Android device — a very important part of its appeal because it runs thousands of Android apps. So there are plenty of games and diversions available. It doesn’t run most Android apps directly (those which haven’t been approved by Amazon), however, so there are also many holes. My daughter was pleased to find all the gaming biggies here like Angry Birds, Cut the rope, Fruit Ninja and so on. Among the missing are lots of nerdier fare like super useful 1Password. UPDATE: 1Password is available now. Over time, I’d expect the gap to narrow, especially as the Fire becomes more and more popular. You can also install apps not in the Amazon app store through a somewhat complicated process called “sideloading.” The Fire also does without Google’s native apps for Gmail, mapping and other useful services, which is a shame.

The software has typical version 1.0 hiccups, as many reviewers have pointed out. Sometimes you have to tap just so on the screen to register a click and the Photo Gallery app automatically downsizes your pictures without giving you any other options, for example. But I didn’t find any show stoppers and the bugs are mainly the kind of thing you get used to so quickly that they all but disappear from conscious view.

Some pundits have waved off the Fire as a vending machine for buying stuff Amazon sells. It’s one of those nerdy, in-the-know put downs that is irrelevant to real life customers. It’s very easy to watch free, rented or for-sale videos from Amazon on the Fire but it’s also easy to use the Netflix or Hulu apps to watch non-Amazon video. And the Fire’s video player is compatible with a couple of different formats including H264, MPEG 4 and VP8. You can hook the Fire up to your computer and drag and drop in any compatible videos you’d like.

It’s much the same for music. Music you already own elsewhere can also be loaded via the Internet and Amazon’s free cloud player. I bought Adele’s album on iTunes, had Amazon upload to its cloud server one night, and downloaded to the Fire today. The Fire also has its own email address so you can email documents and other files right to it, as well.

I really prefer the Fire’s organizational metaphor, which is much like Apple’s cover flow. I’ve complained many times about how frustrating and useless I find Apple’s iPhone and iPad method of organizing apps — the endless sea of rounded corners. On the Fire, everything is mixed together in a scrollable display of pictures which are larger and more detailed than typical app icons. The scrollable display includes not just apps but also ebooks, music albums, magazines, movies, personal documents and TV shows. For some apps, like the browser, the picture shows a mini version of what you were doing last. At the top of the screen, you can choose to filter instantly the scrollable list to include just books, songs, videos, documents or apps. There’s also an easy to reach spot for stashing favorites.

The Fire’s considerable appeal is lessened when you’re out of range of a Wifi signal, however. There’s only limited storage for offline viewing and the super-convenience of having everything stored out on the Internet on Amazon’s servers is eliminated.

One thing struck me as odd but nice. While Apple, Amazon and others are hoping that putting everything in their particular cloud storage will make it harder for you to jump ship, at this moment there’s a funny confluence of services between the competitors. If you buy all your music on iTunes, you can use Amazon’s Cloud Music uploader to sync it to all your non-Apple devices for free. And if you buy a lot of music from Amazon’s MP3 store, where it’s often cheaper, you can now use Apple’s $25/year iTunes Match service to propagate it across all your iPhones, iPads and Macs.

It’s highly unlikely Amazon is planning to sit still with its Fire line-up, a point some pundits seem to have missed. Even if this initial version is way behind the iPad, the next version will close some of the gap. Apple will be improving the iPad as well.

But the nature of computer-powered gadgets is that the gap from cheapest to most expensive in any category shrinks over time because of Moore’s Law and all its corollaries. Many times a “good enough” level is reach that eventually renders more expensive models unnecessary. Apple has done a great job over the past decade side-stepping the “good enough” level through its innovations. Whether that will continue in hotly contested markets like tablets remains to be seen.

Rock, paper scissors: Should I get a Kindle, iPad or MacBook?

Well, we’ve been Amazon Kindle owners for almost four years now at our house, we’ve had Apple’s iPad for almost a year and we’ve had Mac laptops since too long ago to remember. So we’re getting asked a lot now: Should I buy an iPad or a Kindle? Can I use an iPad instead of a laptop? Do I need a computer to use my Kindle? With all three products hot right now, the answer is sort of like the old game of rock, paper, scissors. Each has different strengths and weaknesses not to mention very different prices. Let’s review some of the basic strengths of each, starting with the cheapest.

Amazon Kindle  (3rd generation)

$139 with wifi or $189 with free mobile wireless for life

You are a reader. You always have at least one book on hand, sometimes several. When you finish a book, you simply move on to the next. The Kindle has been carefully honed to meet your needs.

You use it to read in any place you would read a book in the way you would read a book: hold it in one hand, read outside, read inside. There is no backlighting, so if you are in bed at night, you need a lamp. The black and white screen is incredibly easy to read and easy on your eyes — you will never feel the eye fatigue you get from staring at a computer screen all day. And when your eyes are already tired after that long work day, you can adjust the size of the Kindle’s type on the fly.

You want a bring it and forget it device. The Kindle fits in a purse or jacket pocket, weighs practically nothing, the battery lasts for weeks on end. You never need to sync it to a computer ever. Because the wireless connection is built-in and free (it runs on Sprint’s network but you don’t need to know that) you can access the bookstore anywhere, anytime. You can also grab any ebook you’ve ever bought any time from your personal online library maintained by Amazon. Any ebook you buy can also be read on other Kindles you own or on special apps available for most smart phones and computers — or the iPad.

The Kindle has a primitive web browser that works on the free wireless connection. It may be perfect for catching up on news, blogs or other text content but no video or complex stuff at all. There is also a mini-sized built-in keyboard. It’s handy for searching for ebooks in the store, taking a few notes but not much more. Your fingers would cramp and die trying to write the great American ebook novel on this thing.

New versions of the Kindle have historically come out around the holidays so you’re safe buying one now.

Apple iPad 2

$499-$699 with wifi, $629-$829 with mobile wireless (plus monthly contract)

You want to enjoy digital entertainment like music, movies and web sites when you’re not sitting at your desk. The iPad loves to be in the family room, the living room, on the train, at the coffee shop. Its crisp full-color screen, much larger than the Kindles’s and fully back lit,  is great if you like watching a lot of video. It also works as an ebook reader with apps for Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Apple’s iBooks (though there is some danger Apple is going to banish its competitors later this year). The back lighting lets you read in bed with no lamp, a feature much appreciated by sleepy spouses.

The iPad is perfect when you need to pull it out quickly and use it for 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there — waiting at the doctor’s office or to board a plane, say. There is no boot-up time, it’s instantly on and, with the mobile wireless models, connected immediately almost anywhere. Great for taking the train to work, waiting at the doctor’s office, 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there.

There is a full strength web browser built in. It’s absolutely great at almost everything but won’t play Flash content (more on that below). You will pay extra, considerably extra, over a Kindle for the iPad models with a mobile wireless connection. You can choose AT&T or Verizon but monthly plans are going to add several hundred dollars a year at least to your total cost of ownership. AT&T’s plans start at $15/month and Verizon’s at $20/month. One way to avoid the bill is to buy the wifi-only model and use your smart phone’s tethering capability or a mobile hotspot like the Verizon mifi.

The iPad can be used like a computer with its on-screen keyboard but it’s best for writing short notes or emails. There is no feeling of physical feedback from pressing each key on screen as there is with a normal keyboard, of course.

The iPad is great with web-based email services like Google’s gMail or Apple’s MobileMe. The built-in iPad email app for old-fashioned email accounts where you download all your mail, however, remains rather limited. Compared to Apple’s desktop email, the iPad version lacks basic features like spam filtering and folders.

The iPad is a great device to review or present large documents, spreadsheets or PDFs. It’s not bad for typing documents but has only limited formatting options, which can cause huge problems if you are planning to move files back and forth with a PC. And it is pretty darn horrible for spreadsheets, which cry out for a mouse and full keyboard.

The iPad is at its best showing off personal photos and home movies to friends, offering amazing slide shows anywhere you happen to be. I mean really great. The feeling of pulling up photos, zooming in and out and flicking around your albums all with your fingers in comtrol is constant fun. The iPad is less great for organizing or editing photos but you can do that on your computer and sync them over.

The iPad is part of Apple’s vast and growing iOS app ecosystem. There are thousands of great games and zillions more apps to do all sorts of things, guide you through the Louvre, track your eBay bidding, download digital comic books and on and on.

We have found that the iPad is the perfect second computer if you already have a computer for work. Get your personal life off your company’s computer (really, you should!). The iPad is light enough that you can travel with both. It now has a built in camera so you can do video chatting on the go, too.

The iPad is also kid-proof and there are lots of kid friendly games. It’s like letting the kids play in a sandbox — they can’t mess it up the way they inevitably seem to mess up full-powered computers.

There are a few weaknesses versus the Kindle or the MacBook Air. The iPad is too heavy to hold in one hand so it doesn’t work if you’re standing up on the subway or trying to use it in a cramped space where the Kindle is great. Also unlike the Kindle, the iPad does want to be synced to a computer. That’s the only way to back up your stuff and the only sane way to re-arrange your app icons if you have more than a few. And storage space can easily get tight, requiring that you sync big files like movies or TV shows back and forth with your computer.

The battery lasts for a day, maybe even for two, but then needs to be recharged. And, without getting too deep in a matter of some controversy, the iPad is not compatible with Adobe Flash so there are web sites that you cannot see (like those for some high-end restaurants and hotels) and you cannot view flash videos or play flash games (hello Club Penguin). And Apple does not let you add your own favorite web browser to your iPad.

The updated iPad 2 came out almost a year after the first iPad and while there are some vague rumors of an update in the fall, again I think it’s a pretty safe time to buy now.

The 11″ MacBook Air

$999-$1299

Another contender in the mobile and useful computing category is Apple’s new MacBook Air with an 11″ screen. It is about the same size as an iPad though almost twice as heavy (2.3 lb versus 1.3 lb).

The MacBook Air is one of the most powerful and capable laptops in the history of the category we used to call ultraportable. It has a full-size keyboard and is ready for serious writing, document creation, photo editing, pretty much any task you want to throw at a regular computer, all in a super-portable package. Load up a full copy of Microsoft Office, Adobe Lightroom or Apple’s Garageband and get to work. Spreadsheet jockeys will be happy with the trackpad. You can easily do serious emailing using Apple’s email or whatever software you like.

The web browser on the MacBook Air is a full-powered browser capable of displaying, with the correct plug-in, all flash-based web sites. You can also choose to add any browser you prefer like Firefox of Chrome.

But it’s also small enough to make for a fine movie player on the couch or in bed. You can run the Kindle ereader app for Mac and use it as an ereader, too.

Battery life is reported at 5 hours. There are no built in mobile wireless options but it’s easy enough to get a mobile wifi hotspot like Sprint’s Overdrive or Verizon’s Mifi for on-the-go connectivity.

MacBook Airs have gone a long time between updgrades so even though the current model came out almost six months ago, I’d also put this in the safe to buy now category.

Rock, paper, scissors:

As you may have gleaned from the above discussion, there is plenty of overlap in the uses and capabilities of these three great gadgets but also some major gaps for each. The Kindle may be the “paper” covering the iPad “rock” if you want to read on the subway, but that same iPad “rock” may break the Macbook “scissors” if you want to watch YouTube videos instead. Hence, if you have the budget, you might be well-served with more than one or even all three. And remember, a family with kids that owns an iPad is a family shopping for a second iPad. And a family with kids and two iPads is a family shopping for…well, you get the point.

Additional links of interest:

CNet’s Brooke Crothers has a good piece looking at an iPad2 versus the Macbook Air for all his mobile computing needs.

Google eBooks review: Liked the rough edge, not much else

Google’s long-awaited electronic bookstore has finally arrived with the promise of great “openness” for all. But in the end, Google’s offering is merely another in a long line of ebook platforms that offers some pluses and minuses but in no way, shape or form revolutionizes the market. Whether you want to talk about pricing, selection, business model, organization, availability on different PC and mobile operating systems or any other basic criteria for comparison, Google eBooks is either a little better or a little worse than its predecessors. Bottom line? Very little innovation here but a set of features that may be appealing for some consumers.

Basically, Google has opened an ebook store stocked with about 200,000 commercial books comprised of the usual stuff you find in stores. That compares with about 300,000 commercial ebooks from Barnes & Noble¹ and almost 800,000 in Amazon’s Kindle store. I can’t figure out how many books are in Apple’s iBookstore but it appears to be a lot less than Amazon or B&N. Availability of recent and popular stuff in the Google store seems pretty good.

Prices not controlled by publishers (aka not on the “agency model”) are higher that Amazon’s in all cases I could find. For example, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Ice fantasy series, A Game of Thrones, is $7.01 at Google and $6.29 at Amazon. The start of the world’s most romantic teenage vampire series, Twilight, is $9.99 at Google and $8.99 at Amazon. Of course, four of the big five publishers have worked hard to wipe out discounting with agency pricing (which lets them set a uniform price across all ebookstores), so Amazon’s price advantage is much less significant than it used to be.

And though Google has added a vast repertoire of reader reviews thanks to a partnership with Goodreads, the ebookstore web site itself still seems awfully spare and lags far behind B&N’s or Amazon’s in fit and finish. For example, ebook search results can only be sorted by relevance or date published, while Amazon also offers sorting price, sales rate and star rating. Amazon recently added gifting to the Kindle store, another cool feature so far missing from Google.

Google emphasizes that they also have some 2.8 million older, out-of-copyright free ebooks, the vast majority of which are useless effluvia with a few tens of thousands of volumes previously widely available for free on other ebook platforms (think Mark Twain, Jane Austen or Herman Melville).

Like Amazon but unlike Apple, Google stores all your ebooks for you in a virtual library that you can access from myriad apps and platforms. So far, you can read Google ebooks via any web browser that has javascript enabled, dedicated apps for Android and Apple iOS and any ereader device compatible with Adobe’s latest Digital Editions digital rights management, or DRM, system including both the Sony Reader and Barnes & Noble Nook. Notably absent so far  are apps for Blackberry, Windows Phone 7 or HP/Palm’s WebOS.

Purchases must be made with a Google checkout account, which can be added to a typical Google account you may already have for gmail or other services. This could be a hurdle for the adoption of Google’s ebook platform because I’m increasingly convinced that the failure of Google’s payment network to gain much popularity is holding back the company’s Android app store for paid apps. Apple through iTunes and Amazon through its vast web site already have payment info on tens of millions of consumers, so they can easily tap existing customers for new offerings. Google not so much.

One aspect that has been largely overlooked in all the discussion of Google eBooks is the powerful push it could potentially give for adoption of Adobe’s “Digital Editions” DRM. Previously used by Barnes & Noble and Sony but ignored by Apple and Amazon, the Adobe DRM allows consumers to buy from one ebookstore but view with a reader from another ebookstore. That is, you can now buy an ebook from Google and read it on your Nook or buy an ebook from Sony and read it with one of Google e-reader apps. Well, that’s true at least in theory — there are inevitably technical snafus that have to be resolved whenever a new vendor comes aboard. Google’s entry adds more platforms and apps for B&N and Sony ebook buyers as well as opening a new supply of ebooks for those devices.

If you check out the page Adobe maintains that lists “Digital Edition” compatible devices, you’ll discover that Sony, Koboi and even Barnes & Noble’s Nook can now read ebooks bought from Google. Their press release touting this compatibility is here.

The Google app's natural spacing

It seems like the Google effort is great news for Sony ereader owners, since they have the worst ebookstore, the highest ebook prices and the fewest platform choices of apps. Likewise, people who become big fans of the Google ebook ecosystem may be well-served by buying Sony hardware.

What about a simple comparison of the iPhone/iPad app? I’m a big user of the Kindle and its app generally has more features than Google’s app, including highlighting, looking up words in a dictionary and so on.

But the Google app does have one setting that makes me incredibly jealous and that’s allowing for a non-justified right margin, a jagged ending of words from line to line that makes reading easier on the eye (or maybe the brain). In the Kindle app, you’re stuck with ugly justified lines and uneven spacing between words. Yuck.

Footnotes:

¹It’s really hard to tell how many of the 2.1 million ebooks B&N has when you search for everything are in-copyright, modern books. I’m estimating by adding together the categories of “Under $10″ at 202,000 plus another 100,000 or so listed in the “$10 to $25,” “$25 to $50,” and “Over $50″ categories. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to tell how many ebooks are in Apple’s iBookstore.