Category Archives: iPad

Post PC Vacationing: kids, cameras, iPads but no laptops

Ocean Beach in San Francisco

Just back from a short family vacation to San Francisco where much fun was had. We traveled light, or at least light-ish, for this wired day and age. We took smart phones, digital cameras and iPads but we didn’t bring a laptop. For the most part, everything went well. The iPad makes a great travel companion, whether it’s providing maps for driving around the city, instant web searching for cool spots to eat or an ebook or movie for entertainment during down time at the hotel.

Apple has thankfully worked to make the process of using an iOS device the iPad without a computer easier and easier. We downloaded apps and music right to our iPads and never needed to sync anything to anything. Email is all “in the cloud,” so we could access important messages with our travel confirmations from any of our devices. It was all very smooth.

On our first day tooling around the Bay Area in our throwback, sky blue Crown Victoria, we wanted to find Bette’s Ocean View Diner in Berkeley. An iPad 3 with built-in LTE and GPS proved a trusty navigational aid taking us over the Bay Bridge and right onto 4th Street, Berkeley’s more swich shopping district away from the UCal campus. My wife, Whitney Connaughton, is an expert at parking honking large vehicles so we nimble-y parallel parked despite crowded conditions. Unfortunately, by 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, the wait at Bette’s (which really does have the world’s best pancakes) was over an hour. So we had to make due with the excellent Mexican style Cafe M around the corner. I was snapping photos mainly with my Samsung NX200, a relatively pocketable mirrorless digital camera that takes very fine shots. Later, we checked out the college campus, grabbed some amazing doughnuts in Oakland and headed back to San Fran for a burger and shake dinner.

When I wanted to review my pictures for the day, I grabbed the iPad and attached the SD card adapter from Apple’s Camera Connection Kit. You may be familiar with this trick — you can import photos directly into the iOS photo gallery off your camera’s memory card. Once I had the pictures aboard, however, things were not quite so great. You can only do a few, limited things with pictures like upload to Facebook or post to Twitter. Upload to Flickr or post to App.net? See you later. With my laptop and Adobe’s fabulous Lightroom program, I have plug-ins to send my pictures to all the services I choose. I tried using some of my other services’ iOS apps, like Zenfolio, but it choked and crashed without uploading my pictures.

treesThe next day, we traveled down to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, an amazing place-out-of-time wilderness area with huge stands of Redwood trees, many more than a thousand years old. On the way, we discovered a limitation of navigation by iPad. Driving up into the mountains where cell phone signals are sketchy at best, the iPad’s maps app lost track of where we were, couldn’t download maps and generally left us blind. We thought we’d be okay since we’d asked the app to get the directions list while we still had a good signal. But we stopped for lunch and let the iPad screen go blank. Logging back in, we discovered that the directions hadn’t been saved, even though no other app had run. Luckily, we were near the park at that point and a few helpful road signs were all it took. Inside the park, iPads stayed in the trunk of the car and we enjoying the gorgeous and lush Redwood forest unwired. If we’d gotten our directions the old-fashioned way (from Google maps on a laptop web browser), we’d probably have printed them out back at the hotel, avoiding the out of service issue.

As far as keeping in touch with friends and family, the iPads and phones were plenty suitable for reading and writing emails, Facebook posts and future blog entries. I kept up with the sports news back home via BostonGloble.com, checked out restaurants on the SF bulletin boards of Chowhound.com and almost finished the latest ebook in Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series.

At night, back at our hotel, everybody wound down with a little technology. Watching video on the go can be an a problem with our 3G and LTE-enabled iPads, however, and we had to be very careful. Sitting in your hotel watching a couple of episodes of the “House of Cards” series on Netflix, for example, can burn through more than half of your entire month’s  broadband usage allowance. And downloading a movie for rent from the iTunes store will actually use up the whole pie and send you into the land of overage charges. Hotel wifi was expensive, slow and limited us to one connected device per room per 24 hours. Ugh. I keep a gazillion movies on my laptop and an accompanying external drive but we didn’t have access to that bounty on this trip.

Golden Gate BridgeNo one among us took any pictures with their iPads, thankfully. Casual snapshots were all iPhone and Galaxy Nexus and I used my Samsung camera for the important stuff. As I mentioned, it’s quite light and — with its pancake 30mm lens — even pocketable in my jacket. It does suffer from a lack of truly great lens, a problem for almost all sub-DSLR size camera systems. That meant some of my low light shots didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped and I didn’t get the kind of mind-blowing semi-focused photos a great DSLR can take when paired with a great (yet still affordable)  lens. I used to rely on a combination of a relatively tiny Canon S-100 and a bulky, full size Canon DSLR. Sometimes the tiny camera let you down, but as long as you didn’t mind carrying around the bigger camera, amazing photos were easy. After this trip, I’m rethinking my switch the middle ground and its lack of upper-end greatness.

The iPads also served ably on the airplane trips out and back. No need to worry about power. Unlike a laptop, an iPad easily lasts for a full cross-continental flight, even showing videos the whole time. That’s a big relief when JetBlue’s multi-channel video system is showing reruns of Seinfeld and movies you don’t want to see.

In the end, I’d call our Post-PC vacation a success with just a few minor hassles. No need to lug that laptop around the world with you anymore. An iPad can set you free.

The agony and the irony of Tim Cook

Steve Jobs and Tim CookWhen Tim Cook took over as permanent CEO of Apple in 2011, he brought his unmatched, incredible decade-long track record as the Mozart of supply chain management. Under Jobs II, Apple got rid of its factories and outsourced all its manufacturing to quicker, cheaper Asian builders. Overhead was slashed, flexibility enhanced. As the iPod business grew into a titan, Cook was striking better deals, setting up faster supply chains, keeping the trains moving on time and frying it up in a pan.

And so when Cook took over as CEO, the fears and warnings were about everything else — how would Apple’s sense of style and design survive without Jobs? What would happen to innovation and creativity? Would there ever be another massively market disruptive product like the iPhone or the iPad again? No one — NO ONE — said wow, I wonder if Cook is up to the task of scaling Apple’s manufacturing and supply chain to deal with its tremendous rate of growth.

And then came the fourth quarter of 2012. Apple had an amazing, record breaking three months but it was not as big as it could have been and not as big as some Apple shareholders wanted. Listen to Cook on the company’s call with stock analysts today¹. What happened with iPhone sales? Supply constraints hampered sales, even of the older models. What about iPads? Couldn’t make enough iPads to satisfy demand. And even the lowly iMac? Took too long to bake ‘em.

Cook emphasized the pent up demand. He wants you to think that all those unsatisfied customers are waiting, sitting on their hands (and credit cards) until Apple catches up. And I’m sure that’s true in some cases. But this was the holiday quarter, the quarter with Black Friday so named for as the day when the frenzy of sales pushes retailers into profits for the whole year. A lot of those iPads, iMacs and iPhones that were going under the tree (or the menorah), got replaced with something else, be it a Galaxy Tab, Coach briefcase or North Face winter running outfit.

For what it’s worth, I buy the explanation. I don’t think that the Apple gloom and doomers have it right, at all. This wasn’t the beginning of the end for Apple, not by a long shot. But irony of ironies, Cook aced the innovation, offered much sought after new products (maybe too many, introduced too close to the holidays, though) and then flunked the execution worse than Tom Brady’s fourth quarter comeback attempt against the Ravens last week. Ugly.

Notes:

¹”We did have significant shortages due to robust demand on both iPad mini and both models of the iMac that persisted the entire quarter. And we are still short of both of those today as the matter of fact. Additionally, supply of iPhone 5 which short to demand until late in the quarter and iPhone 4 was short for the entire quarter, we believe that we can achieve a supply demand balance on iPad mini during this quarter and on iPhone 4 during this quarter. On iMac, we are confident that we are going to significantly increase the supply, but the demand here is very strong and we are not certain that we will achieve a supply demand balance during the quarter.” -Tim Cook, Jan 23, 2013 conference call

 

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.

 

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.

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.

Finally, serious Lightroom photo syncing on the iPad – no iPhoto required

Old workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from my camera to my iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad and export to a folder on my hard drive. Drag said folder into iPhoto. Make newly imported photos into a new iPhoto album. Hook up iPad for sync via iTunes. Place check mark on new album in iTunes iPad photo syncing tab. Wait.

New workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from camera to iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad, drag to Photosmith publishing service, hit sync.

What a great program, though it does cost $20. What I’ve just described, using the app to send pictures or albums right from Lightroom onto your iPad, is worth more than $20 to me. You also have to install a free Lightroom plugin on your computer to make to all work.

But the other side of the app is for doing field work on photos using just your iPad, which I have not done much in the past but may get more into. Using Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, you can import photos right off your camera into the Photosmith app, rate them, tag them, flag them for deletion etc. You can also directly upload them to a couple of services such as Facebook, Flickr and Dropbox. Then just get near your Mac, open up Lightroom and sync back to your computer. Sweet.

photosmith app screen shot

Annoying limits I’ve encountered so far?

You can’t sync iPad screenshots back to Lightroom. That’s because the iPad makes them in the PNG format which Lightroom doesn’t support. But a fix is coming.

It seems like you can’t use the iPad app to re-arrange photos imported from Lightroom among your collections or make them into a new collection and have the changes sync back to Lightroom. Only new photos imported directly from a camera to the iPad (or taken with the iPad, god have mercy on your soul) sync back to Lightroom.

 

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.

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.

How to get Internet access in Rome – and how not to

Relaxing in Rome

I had an awesome vacation in Italy this summer with my awesome wife, Whitney Connaughton. Highly recommended. But ugly American that I must be, I made too many assumptions about getting online, thereby frustrating my ability to…get online.

It all started so well. Just off the high tech marvel that is Italy’s high speed train from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to the city center, I smiled at the gleaming shops full of stylish clothes, delectable pastries and, obviously, mobile phones galore. Well, not quite. There was no sign of the biggest Italian carrier, Telecom Italia Mobile, also known as TIM. But no worries. Down on the lower shopping level was a store for Three, a brand I’d recently considered in London. I strolled in with my guide book knowledge of the local lingua and an aging but unlocked Samsung Nexus S cell phone in need of a SIM card. And so started my quest to find Internet access for a week in Roma.

The guys at Three had a quick answer for me: no. Seems my phone runs on globally widespread GSM and third-gen HSDPA networks and they were selling somewhat obscure GSM-ish UMTS compatible service. They told me I needed to get a card from the Wind store down the hall.

The Wind guys were happy to supply me with a free SIM card, a brand new Italian phone number and a 20 euro month-to-month data package. Sweet.

I got back to our cute rented apartment in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum, put in the card and waited for activation. And waited. And waited. After about 36 hours, I made an unhappy discovery plumbing the depths of my Nexus S phone’s settings screens. The Wind network was also the obscure and incompatible UMTS. Ugh.

It turned out that only the TIM folks had real GSM cards. Grabbing a wee bit of wifi at a coffee bar, I searched for nearby TIM outlets — second floor of the central train station. Easy as pie. But not so fast. When I went back to the station, I discovered that the store was closed for renovations.

Italian mobile phone store is closed

A few days went by with me all offline and getting very mellow and gelato-filled. Eventually, on a Saturday night, I passed another TIM store that had just closed minutes earlier. And it was closed all day on Sunday. And it opened at 10 am on Monday, an hour after we had to grab a train to Naples. So I never actually got my phone online.

What about regular old free wifi, you ask? Surely, there is some easy way to get wifi in the middle of one of Europe’s busiest cities? Well, yes and no. Yes if you can decipher this screen you could in theory get free wifi in Rome. Actually, they do have it in English, too, but I couldn’t get to that link somehow when I was Italy. I did manage to get to the sign-on screen. Free wifi required a sign up process that I could not navigate without translation. And of course translation wasn’t available without Internet access. Catch 22? Pretty much.

Back home and researching this post, I found travel writer Jessica Marati’s incredibly helpful guide to getting on the free Roman wifi network. It only requires a cell phone number and, hey, I managed to get one of those, even if I couldn’t actually use it on my phone. Next time?

So what are the lessons for other travelers looking for cheap or free Internet access in Rome? Prepare ahead of time. After having such a ridiculously easy time in London a few months back, where a simple vending machine at the airport offered multiple brands of SIM cards for all kinds of phones and tablets, I assumed Rome would be similar. It was not.

If you’re not carrying a UMTS-compatible phone, be ready to go data only. In fact, both carriers I visited were selling cheap wifi hotspots (kind of like Verizon’s mifi in the United States) and I could have made do with just that. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

And, yes, please use the comments to tell me — and anyone else who stumbles across this page — what I should have done. But be kind.

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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