Trouble finding the best blu-ray versions of Harry Potter

I’ve written before about the difficulty of finding blu-ray movies that look good and avoiding those that look worse in high-definition. Certainly, the modern and lushly filmed Harry Potter film series looks good in blu-ray. But which edition should you buy? Regular blu-ray disks or the pricey ultimate editions.

Unfortunately, the Warner Brothers studio has made this choice a lot harder than it should be by changing their ultimate edition playbook midway through the release schedule. The first two ultimates, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, included extended movies with deleted scenes added back into the full flick. They also had copies of so-called digital editions that you can load directly onto an iPod or other portable devices.

But the next two ultimates, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, veered away from the fan-friendly model of releases one and two. These editions shuffled the extra scenes to another disk, so no “extended” cut of the movie is available. And the iPod-friendly digital editions have to be downloaded off the web.

Not surprisingly, the two later disks have been hit by a one-star rating campaign on Amazon. These kind of campaigns can bite, as we saw recently with the Lord of the Rings blu ray disks.

Depending on your blu-ray budget, it also may be worth factoring into your decision equation that Amazon is selling a bundle of the basic versions of all six movies for under $70 while each of the first four ultimate versions costs at least $34.

Earlier Coverage: One star boycotts may be working (10/4/2010)

Free Kindle apps getting magazines, lending coming too

I’m not sure what Kindle whiners are going to have left to whine about by next year (well, yes I do, DRM, but I digress…). Some big news emerged on Amazon’s Kindle discussion board the other day.

First, the Kindle team revealed that you’re soon going to be able to read electronic newspapers and magazines on any of the various Kindle apps. Right now, you can only read subscriptions on a hardware Kindle. That’s going to be huge in establishing Kindle’s position as the leading e-reading ecosystem. Many is the time I have wished to read a New Yorker article on my iPhone but my Kindle subscription won’t go there. The post explains:

“Our vision is Buy Once, Read Everywhere, and we’re excited to make this possible for Kindle periodicals in the same way that it works now for Kindle books. More details when we launch this in the coming weeks.”

In addition to being a great feature, this goes right to the heart of a common misunderstanding of the Kindle ecosystem. Amazon is running both the hardware reader business and the e-bookstore business as separate, money-making operations. It’s not a razor blades and razors business.

The second big change sounds great but will likely be less great in practice. Starting soon, you will — in theory — be able to lend out ebooks you’ve bought to anyone else who has a Kindle acount. Loans last for 14 days and you can’t read an ebook during the period you’ve loaned it out, obviously.

Why great only in theory? Amazon has to give publishers a say in whether the lending feature will be available on any particular ebook. Based on how few ebooks support Kindle’s read-out-loud feature, I’m guessing most major publishers will be hitting the “no lending” button all the while continuing to spout off about the value of books. Blech. They’d have a lot more credibility if they treated customers with respect and offered the same economic bargain available with print books, including lending and resale rights.

Newest Kindles are the iPods of reading more than ever

What the iPod Nano is to music, the Kindle is to reading.

Jon Gruber, Sept. 21, 2010

It’s been almost three years since Amazon introduced the Kindle, a groundbreaking electronic reader that — just as the name promised — ignited the long smouldering e-reading revolution. Way back then, I wrote a blog post for Businessweek predicting that the Kindle would be the iPod of books. Today comes confirmation from a top-drawer Apple and iPod authority, Daringfireball’s John Gruber.

I’m not posting to gloat but rather to put the focus on Gruber’s tweak to the analogy. Kindle 3’s not just analogous to the iPod but to the iPod Nano.

To me, both devices share some of the same strengths and weaknesses. Most notably, both have an excellent focus on doing one thing perfectly (music playing/reading) while doing other things poorly or not at all. There’s also the attractively low price point and the trade-off of small size forcing less-than-great controls.

The Kindle 3 is all about reading and acquiring books. It’s smaller and lighter than the prior models (and competitors) with better screen contrast and faster page turns. It’s easy to hold and operate with one hand, it’s easy to read in direct sunlight and it’s easy to purchase and download new ebooks on the go.

kind-1.jpgAs far as weaknesses, there aren’t a million apps, web browsing is text only and there’s not much more to say. The controls are good but not great. I was a fan of the huge page turn buttons on the original Kindle and since then the buttons have steadily become less great. On Kindle 3, the buttons are too small and don’t have enough feedback or clicky-ness to help you know when your push has registered. At least there’s a page forward and a page back button on both sides of the Kindle, a key omission in round 2 for lefties like my wife.

Although some anti-Kindlistas used to claim Amazon would never sell enough ereaders to cut prices, that argument never made any sense and we’re fast approaching the killer price point of all time: $99. In less than three years, the Kindle price has dropped from $399 to $189 including lifetime free mobile wireless service and the new wifi-only version is all the way down to $139.

And maybe that’s the most like a Nano. It’s pretty easy to justify a purchase, even an impulse purchase, of a $100 or so gadget you’re going to use day in and day out for a couple of years.

Amazon Kindle ad not at war with iPad

Who is it that said all markets are conversations? Seth Godin? Robert Scoble? I can’t remember. But the new Amazon Kindle TV ad which debuted today immediately reminded me of the phrase.

In the ad, a nerdy guy at the pool can’t read an ebook on his spiffy new Apple iPad because of the sun glare while a cute, bikini-clad lady is just fine with her Kindle. The only points the ad tries to score are that the Kindle can be read in sunlight and costs only $139.

Here’s the ad (tip o’ the cap to Crunchgear via Techmeme):

I think it’s an effective ad since those are the two salient reasons why people still might want to buy a Kindle. It’s a lot cheaper and it works outside. Maybe the much lower weight (8.5 ounces versus 24 ounces) is worth mentioning as well and that is implied by the visuals in the ad.

Otherwise, the Kindle can claim few unique advantages. In part, that’s because Amazon has a pretty good iPad/iPhone app for reading Kindle ebooks on an iPad.

And in fact, that’s just what happened in our family. We have iPads, we had Kindles and we got a new Kindle. Now we use them all constantly.

But unlike a lot of the commentary, I don’t think this is Amazon going to war against the iPad. Instead, I think it’s a cheesy if perhaps effective attempt to surf in the wake of the iPad’s popularity and publicity. What better way to get more attention for your ad than to compare yourself to a product that seemingly everyone, everywhere is talking about?

UPDATE: Apple watcher John Gruber of DaringFireball fame appears to agree: “Taking the iPad head-on as an e-reader: cheaper and works in bright sunlight. Note also that the woman is holding her Kindle easily in one hand. Good ad.”

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.

Insane eBook rip-offs — I tried to warn you

Back when the major book publishers joined with Apple to go to war against Amazon and ebook consumers, there was some serious p.r. spin coming from the publishers’ camp and their toadies. In this bizzaro world, Amazon was hurting consumers by “forcing” an inflexible maximum ebook price of $9.99. If only publishers could get control of pricing — something that was likely illegal before an ill-conceived 2007 Supreme Court decision that Consumer Affairs called “legalized price fixing” — why consumers would surely win.

Almost none of the spin was remotely true — there was no maximum price and many ebooks were sold for more. But if you did fall for it, the big publishers have now dropped a ton of insane ebook price increases on your head like a pile of bricks to demonstrate what they’re really up to.

Today’s example: I was reading some various and sundry recommendations on Seth Godin’s blog including a 10-year-old novel by Chip Kidd called the Cheese Monkeys. Sounds good – clicked over to Amazon where I find that this books sells for $11.19 in paperback or $16.99 (!!!) as a Kindle ebook. That price, under the big publishers’ new agency model, was set not by Amazon but by “Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc.” Please, anyone, explain how this makes any sense? Really, seriously? Anyone?

There is only one explanation. I tried to warn you. And then I tried again. The big publishers don’t like ebooks and they want to kill off the market, plain and simple.

p.s. This is hardly the only example. I recently saw a recommendation for Stefanie Pintoff’s historical thriller “In the Shadow of Gotham.” Already out in paperback for $10.19, the Kindle ebook is $11.99. Thank you, Macmillen.

Kindle for Mac review: Just the basics (updated)

(Updated 10/19/10) Well, the free Kindle application for Macintosh computers has finally arrived. The press release is here, which repeats the promise that there will be an app for the iPad as well. It’s pretty much what you would expect, with all the flaws and strengths of the prior apps, starting with the iPhone/iPod Touch app released about a year ago. Like the earlier extensions of the Kindle platform, many some features are curtailed or missing in the Mac app but it’s still a great if basic ebook reader.

First off, it’s finally possible to read your Kindle ebooks on a Mac without any need for the Kindle device. In fact, it’s now easier than ever to start buying and reading Kindle ebooks without ever buying the Kindle.

Start the program and you get a standard screen of ebooks you’ve previously downloaded to the computer. A quick click away is your entire library of Kindle ebooks stored on Amazon’s servers in the “cloud” (see picture below). It’s handy and convenient but still no access to files you’ve loaded manually on your Kindle device, ebooks from other vendors or any of your blog, newspaper or magazine subscriptions. I did look to see if there was some way to send subscriptions directly to the program instead of to your Kindle device but struck out.

Pages of text look great and you can switch font sizes and change the margin width with a click (see picture below). You flip to the next page by clicking with your mouse, hitting the right arrow key, enter key or space key on the keyboard or using a scroll wheel on a magic mouse. Page turns are instantaneous. And the app syncs all books to the last page you’ve read on any of your Kindle apps or devices.

But, like all the other application versions, it’s still not the holistic Kindle experience I’d like to see. Click on the big, friendly button that says “Shop in Kindle Store” and what happens? Your web browser opens separately and goes to the Kindle store web page. Likewise, if you click on the drop-down menu item “Manage your Kindle…” you get whisked off to the web page via your default browser.

There is a convenient notes and bookmarks bar that jumps off the right side of the page if you click on the “Notes & Marks” button. And you can add new bookmark spots with the Mac application.

UPDATE: And with the updated version released in October, 2010, you can finally highlight text for a clipping and add new notes. You can also now search within the book you’re reading though not through your entire library like you can on the Kindle hardware.

You’re still stuck with the usual Kindle organization issue — there are no folders and no way to see your library of ebooks except sorted by how recently viewed, author or by title. I do love the colorful icons depicting the book jackets.

Amazon says, as of October, they are “thinking about” adding the dictionary look-up and “a new way to manage, organize, and search your content,” whatever that means.

So progress for us Mac heads but no revelations in the new Kindle app for Macs.

Apple’s iPad may be the perfect computer for kids

I’m excited about Apple’s new iPad for a couple of reasons. While a lot of the iPad’s features and services had been leaked in advance, I found myself gasping along with the audience in San Francisco when the price was announced. This is a product that is going to have vastly more impact for under $500 than it would have had at $800 or $1,000. And as I’ve pondered the iPad’s possibilities for the past day or so, one particular use has begun to dominate my thinking and that’s the iPad as the perfect starter computer for my pre-teen kids.

The three kids in our family are a pretty tech savvy bunch, with their iPods and Nintendos, PSPs and Wii. They’re also happy for all the time they can get with mom and dad’s laptops, desktops and the Kindle. They know how to work Tivo, download from iTunes and find stuff on YouTube. They need a lot of supervision and we’re seemingly forever in search of the perfect parental controls and web filters that will let them access all that’s good and fun while protecting them from all the garbage and viruses and worse.

But I have to say, the more I think about it, the more perfect the iPad seems as a solution. One of the biggest problem the kids have is dealing with the complexity and fragile nature of our current computers, running either Mac or Windows. It’s just too easy for the mouse cursor to get lost, file systems to overwhelm and key settings to get munged. On one computer the kids use, flash was somehow disabled one day and won’t come back no matter how much re-installing and uninstalling I’ve done. Another laptop last only a few weeks before they had it unable to boot. It’s not maliciousness or ignorance on their part. Modern PCs just remain pretty darn delicate and temperamental beasts.

The iPad does away with much of this complexity and hides much of what ails the modern PC. Simple is good. No mouse — use your finger. No searching for missing files — they’re all inside each application just when you want them. And no complicated and mysterious settings and system files just waiting to be accidentally deleted. Some people call the iPad/iPhone software platform a “sandbox” due to its limitations but what better metaphor for the kind of computing environment my kids need than a sandbox?

The kids get homework but they hardly need a full-powered copy of Word or Excel to complete it. The iWorks programs look more than adequate. They need a physical keyboard, I’d expect, for the occasional short essay but thankfully Steve Jobs has seen fit — finally — to let use Bluetooth keyboards with the iPad (a feature that would REALLY come in handy with the iPhone, but I digress). And they need a browser but one simpler and safer from malware than the average copy on a PC.

Of course, like all their little digerati friends, the kids are both big consumers and producers of digital media. They take pictures and make movies, record their own songs and even try their hand at blogging. They watch shows downloaded from iTunes or the Tivo or on YouTube or other sites. They play with Ze Frank’s funny frog, use Club Penguin and all the wonderful games PBS has created to accompany its television shows. Flash limitations aside, I think they can do most or all of this stuff on the iPad. And once Amazon ports its Kindle app, they won’t even have to borrow mine anymore. Hallelujah.

I’ve got a couple of months to keep thinking about this and I’m interested in your thoughts as well as the likely stream of additional information that will be flowing out of Cupertino. On the parental controls front, for example, I’m disappointed with what Apple offers for the iPhone/iPod Touch platform and I’m hoping for far more on the iPad. For homework, we’re really going to need to be able to connect to a printer, too. So please weigh in if you have any thoughts and stay tuned for more details.

UPDATE: Over on Twitter, Mark Nikolewski says his four- and seven-year-olds mainly use web sites with embedded games and videos that rely on Adobe’s flash plug-in. There’s no flash on the iPhone and so far none on the iPad. This is a problem but maybe Apple and Adobe get with it? Wired, John Gruber and other Mac followers are less than optimistic. Web sites could, however, offer alternatives if the iPad caught on. They already do so in some cases for the iPhone. Why wouldn’t Disney, with Steve Jobs on the board, want to make an iPad app version of Club Penguin, for example?

UPDATE2: A couple of other folks channeling this same idea include Warren Buckleitner over on the New York Times Gadgetwise blog and, surprisingly, Dallas Mavericks owner and frequent Internet buffoon Mark Cuban. He’s right on when he writes:

It will be the product that kids of this generation grow up with and look back on with affection just like we did with the first video games. Video games changed how we grew up. The iPad will change how kids today grow up.

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.