Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Kindle Reviewed

There was an amusing, very watchable, but unkind review of the Amazon eBook reader by Robert Scoble

The review is rude and harsh to unfair (and Scoble admits as much), partly because he doesn't dwell on the good/interesting points. He does however say that he read two books on the device, serious books (at least one of them was since it was by Greenspan). That seems to me an important plus for the Kindle. He had lots to complain about but he read two books.

A more thoughtful review comes from Ars Technica. John Timmer gives a convincing account of what it is like to use the Kindle and he introduces the fruitful concept of a 'Reading Model' (different media influence how the text they contain gets read in different ways). You should read the whole piece but you will get the flavour of the discussion from this:

I'll leave it to you to ponder the reading models of newspapers and magazines in order to focus on the Kindle's reading model, which is largely enforced by a combination of the E Ink screen and the underlying operating system. Like a book, the Kindle enforces arbitrary page contents based on what can be rendered in a single screen, and is read left-to-right.
There are only a couple of cases where books probably won't work well. One is with books that feature heavy use of illustrations or pictures, as not all images display well on the E Ink screen. The delays involved in flipping long distances forward or backwards page-by-page means that books without a good chapter structure or readers that constantly shuffle around their book will have problems with the Kindle's reading model. Otherwise, Amazon clearly has the book thing down. [Ars Technica]
This review gives insight into what its like to read with the Kindle. Its very helpful that John Timmer has tried to define the style of reading to which this machine lends itself (he guesses that commuters will like it). We have the impression that the pagination of a book on the Amazon Kindle is not the same as the pagination in print (clearly the newspapers and magazines are 'repurposed' and lose their print pagination). That is a pity. But the Kindle may have a more promising second coming when the engineers have absorbed Scoble's usability strictures. In mid 2008 it will probably look and feel a bit more like the iTouch/iPhone!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Magazines for Christmas

From today you can buy subscriptions to Exact Editions magazines as gifts.

Suppose that you want to give your best friend a sub to AnOther Man. You go shopping for the magazine.

Now you have a choice, so you click on the link 'Buy as a gift'. You will need your friend's email address and you have the opportunity to sent a suitable message, and you should tell us when to dispatch the email alert which will open his/her subscription. You could also buy him a subscription to AnOther Magazine or any other magazine and then he will have two magazines in his account. Choices, choices.....

Only 30 digital-shopping days to Christmas!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Reading Books or the Web

The USA's National Endowment for the Arts has produced a report based on a survey of american reading habits. Respectable blogs, Resource Shelf and Print is Dead included, have been giving its conclusions more weight than the report deserves. The surveys on which the report is based, do not attempt to measure the massive growth in consumer and educational use of the web, and employ a definition of 'reading' which seems to presuppose that the only form of reading worth measuring is the reading of (printed) books. No serious consideration is given to a contemporary understanding of 'literacy', which now includes using the web as a reading and information-giving resource. The researchers were continuing a questionaire-based survey which was probably poorly formulated when it was first conducted in 2004. Too much attention is given to TV, not nearly enough to the web, and to the extent to which web interactions are literary.

If we want to understand the reading habits of today we have to do so in the context of the reading teens do on the web (not just email and blogs, but eBay, Facebook, Google and even YouTube, where comments and tags are crucial to navigation). Most web interaction is heavily reading-impregnated.

The pedestrian quality of the report is rather betrayed by this excerpt:

Opinions aside, there is a shortage of scientific research on the effects of
screen reading—not only on long-term patterns of news consumption, but more
importantly, on the development of young minds and young readers. (A good
research question is whether the hyperlinks, pop-up windows, and other extra-
textual features of screen reading can sharpen a child’s ability to perform sus-
tained reading, or whether they impose unhelpful distractions.) Some of the
difficulty stems from the constantly evolving nature of information technology...
(To Read or Not to Read p53)
Perhaps the person who wrote this sentence had a premonition that their report had missed the key issues. [It is news to me that a hyperlink is an 'extra-textual' feature. Nothing about the web is more deeply textual than the links of which it is composed]. Reading has been moving to the web since 1994 and more research needs to be done on what cultural and educational issues that poses. But not by the team that have produced the NEA report.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Amazon versus Google for eBooks?

If Amazon have made a false move with the Kindle, who benefits? One beneficiary is surely going to be Apple. The iPhone and the iTouch are already very text capable and they will only get more so as Apple extends the touchscreen interface to larger systems. But the other big gainer, in the long-term perhaps the biggest beneficiary, is going to be Google. Google with its Book Search program and its alliances with publishers and libraries is going to occupy the place that would otherwise appear to be Amazon's of becoming our preferred source of access to published literature. Amazon seems to have taken a wrong turn in supposing that distribution, rather than access and search, is the key challenge for digital print.

The TeleRead blog has been giving the most thorough all-round coverage of the Kindle and Sony eBook readers. David Rothman who blogs many of the TeleRead pieces admits to being close to being a Kindle supporter; he probably would be, if only it eschewed DRM and embraced the .epub Open eBook standard. But what would Google say to the .epub format? Google will ignore .epub, which is inimical to their advertising business model. The Google Book Search approach makes downloads irrelevant (the downloads GBS provides are very clunky, much less usable than the online GBS), in fact, for Google, downloads are just as outmoded and uneccessary as DRM.

Google and Apple, between them already have the solution for eBooks (and its not a download solution). Read and search on your iPhone and access via a web browser, anything in print can be handled that way. More to the point: everything in print can be handled that way. Everything will be searched via the web, everything will be accessed via the web. Downloads are pretty much of an irrelevance. The question is: what do authors and publishers plan to do about that?

Answer: "Maybe the publishers should themselves try selling/granting access direct". Aside from Google with its Book Search, the publishers are the other variable in the market-place which has a promising opportunity if the Amazon Kindle download system bombs. Evan Schnittman at the OUP blog nearly gets there. After all, scientific and technical publishers have made a reasonable fist of creating a digital market for their STM periodicals. Book publishers need to create access opportunities and figure out how to sell digitally direct.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Content Serving and Guanxi

The Exact Editions content management service is being used by a good number of publications and organizations to showcase their literature. These applications may have nothing at all to do with the consumer magazines service which is hosted at

But our servers, our scripts and our databases are doing the work and we have a capacity to deliver these third party services so that the content served is branded for the publisher. This is an interesting set of features.

Here are a few examples of our silent third party work. The Scientist magazine is now providing open access to its current issue, and supplying an alert service to its 'controlled circulation' audience. You can sample the current issue here:

In fact, I particularly recommend the current issue which has an intriguing article on 'Open Access' by Joe Esposito. He offers this arresting thought

Note that this particular issue will only be on open access till the December issue appears. After which time clicking on the clipping above will take you to a log-in page.

Another service which shows how the content can be delivered with a completely different look and feel is available from the international charity, INEE (the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies:
Note from the Table of Contents that the icons, the surrounding 'furniture' of the page, and the highlights for page numbers, have been adapted to the colour scheme of the sponsor.

For well over a year we have been powering an open access version of The Publican magazine. The substantial archive is available at The current issue has a fascinating piece about a brand extension of which I was completely unaware 'Pimms Winter'.

'Pimms in Winter' its pretty much an oxymoron. Do you think they had to go to Henley or Ascot to shoot the teapot with its snowy field?

The last example of Exact Editions providing a content service for a third party that I want to mention is for Guanxi, business and culture newsletters for the Chinese market.
I have absolutely no idea what the ideograms that accompany the title mean. Presumably they mean 'Guanxi', whatever that means! ('Savoir faire' may be one of the closer European approximations.)But it is very reassuring that our system picks up the ideograms from the PDF file and uses them appropriately in the title legend, and in the crawler bar. We none of us speak a word of Chinese but its encouraging to see our software doing the right things by, with, and from, Unicode in the PDF.

An ideogram in a JPEG is just a collection of bits, but the right ideogram in the metadata, now there is a small but significant step on the way to the universal digital library that all publishers are building. If we treat print right, respect it, use it and enhance it, Gutenberg-stuff will work better in the digital sphere -- really its a matter of guanxi.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Reading a URL

One of the Exact Editions foundation stones is that in this digital platform each print page has its equivalent web page. Our platform systematically turns magazines, books etc into collections of ordinary web pages. If you had nothing better to do you could learn to read these urls. For example, here are pages from trial issues for Le Monde Diplomatique :


In these urls '373' refers to the publisher/owner Le Monde the company, '409' to the French language edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, '2,657' refers to the July number and '1' at the end to the page number. If you replace the '2' by a '3' you jump to the larger page size whereas you will land up in the 16-pp view if you replace the '2' by a '1'.

Queries also have a quasi-readable syntax. Here is a search for 'Paris' in the trial issue of the English LMD:

Reading urls is not an exciting business, but it is important that all of the pages and all searches in the Exact Editions system have distinct urls. This way readers can bookmark articles of special interest and they can share search results, citations or references with anybody who may have access to the same material. Any respectable digital publishing system, whether for books or magazines, should produce determinate and shareable references. A lot of the current offerings fail this simple requirement.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Being kind to the Kindle

The Kindle came, it was seen and it has not yet conquered. Being kind: the jury is out. Eoin Purcell has a representative sample of the mixed, but mostly negative, early reactions. The prompt Wikipedia entry will probably become definitive.

We havent tried it yet and look forward to doing so when it comes to the UK. There is no way it can really work for consumer magazines until it supports colour. Maybe Amazon think that also. On launch there were 91,390 books available for download, 306 blogs and only 8 magazines. Only 8 magazines? Somehow the Kindle reeks of compromise and committee work.

Everyone seems to be surprised by the blogs, especially the blogosphere. I will go against the crowd on that: selling blogs may be a dumb business proposition (yet Amazon is picking up the connection charges so probably doesn't want to absolutely give away too much stuff for which it is paying the download costs), but the idea of books, blogs, magazines and web pages in the same reading device seems to me just fine. That is why we have the web, and the iPhone does the web very well. Books, blogs and digital magazines included.

That is another reason why digital books have to be on the web and of the web, so that they can be close to blogs and linked any which way, to and from web pages. Why bother with downloads?

Pure Living


Resurgence has been described as the artistic and spiritual voice of the green movement in Great Britain (by Wikipedia). Satish Kumar is its leading light. From the free trial issue:

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Kindle Cometh?

The Kindle is the name given to the eBook reader that Amazon have been developing (we still dont know how its pronounced). But we should soon find out. CNET's gadget reviewer Crave has been

[invited] to an Amazon event here in New York on the 19th [November]. When I asked whether the product was the e-book reader, he wouldn't say (he gave me the usual "you'll have to show up to find out"). But since the Kindle was due to be announced back in October, it seems safe to assume, this is finally it.
The recently re-released Sony Reader gets a devastating review from 43 Folders, and the Ars Technica review is more polite, more thorough, but really damning with the faintest of praise.

The Amazon project sounds interesting and we look forward to the real world reactions. There is a hint that it will carry magazines. Some of the issues are discussed by Peter Brantley and Booksquare. If Crave is right about the E-ink platform, we have reservations about its chances. No colour? (E-ink doesnt yet do that). Magazines?

Booksquare hits the nail on the head. The iPhone is the way to go.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Touching Print and Digital Reading

The iPhone/iTouch interface is very appealing. Apple have implemented this technology with their legendary and reliable obsession with the details of user interaction.

Touchscreens are not new. ATMs have had touch screens for 15+ years and the first touch screen computers were introduced more than 20 years ago. But Apple have grabbed a really creative and deep application for the touch screen.The touch screen functionality is used for all the interface aspects of the iPhone/Touch, since it replaces the mouse and the keyboard, but the killer is the way that images are held, panned and manipulated on such a small device by your fingers. The gestures with which the user can slide an image on the iTouch, or pinch (to shrink), or spread (to enlarge) the image are totally intuitive and compelling.

The images look so cool because the Apple system holds them independently of their inherent resolution. So reading a magazine in such a small window is feasible, because the user can 'blow the text up' to a scale which suits reading and then slide the image around. No need for scroll bars. This magic works on the Safari which runs in the iPhone/iTouch, it does not yet work on the Safari that runs in your desktop Mac. The new version of the Apple operating system Leopard, supports 'resolution independence'. So it should not be too long before we will be able to seamlessly shrink or expand JPEGS or other images in the browser - Safari may innovate on this; but Internet Explorer will not be far behind. Microsoft have Seadragon, their own intriguing resolution independent environment.

In a world of touchscreens and resolution independence, fingers are going to be very important to us in the way that we interact with digital editions. We are going to be poking screens to link to referenced documents, stabbing phone numbers or emails to connect to advertisers, squeezing and spreading our digits on digital texts which we do not strictly touch, but which we caress and coast over our virtual workspace. Could it be that this regular use of our fingers ("let your fingers do the reading") will in fact endear us to e-reading? Its a good possibility. Each time your fingers move over and interact with a digital edition your body is engaging with digital print in ways which will confirm and consolidate intellectual involvement with the text.

Friday, November 09, 2007

iPhone Exuberance

Today is the day the iPhone launches in the UK. From PersonaNonData and the Bookseller we learn that HarperCollins UK is celebrating with a customised service which allows iPhone users to sample digital books on the iPhone.

The iPhone is going to be really big. But the form factor is bound to evolve sooner than you can say "Steve Jobs at MacWorld Expo". We would lay long odds that Apple are right now toying with designs for a larger format iPhone which will be great for watching films and reading whole pages from newspapers and books. And there are going to be lots of competitive variants and some of them are going to be really successful. So I am perplexed by the business logic of creating a special version of a digital book platform to cope with the iPhone, or the next big consumer device. If an application runs on the web it should run on any web-enabled device. No further development is required. End of story.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Blockbusters and Brands

Eoin Purcell draws our attention to an insightful blog triptych on book publishing and its digital future by the thriller writer Barry Eisler. Read parts one, two and three and you will be better informed on the risks and opportunities for book publishers who are about to launch into the digital future.

Its a very good series, but surely Barry Eisler underestimates the extent to which publishers can reclaim and secure their audience, and their markets, by selling digital editions direct. Publishers will sell digital editions direct because that is going to be the most efficient way to do it. Further they will do it because this is going to be a very profitable development for most book publishers, especially those that cater to niches (and most book publishers DO cater to niches). They will outsource the tricky parts (eg customer service or technological innovation), to operations like Exact Editions, but they will be better placed than the record labels to provide this kind of service to the creators. Eisler notes that book publishers by and large do not have great brands:

First, we need to talk briefly about brands. Simply put, a brand is the emotional connection a consumer feels to a product or service. It's what the product or service stands for in the consumer's mind. What does Apple stand for? Virgin? Marlboro? Harley Davidson? Generally speaking, if you can easily and simply answer that question, you're talking about a strong brand. If you can't, the brand is weak.

Let's perform the test on publishers: Doubleday? Putnam? Random House?

Needless to say, with a couple possible exceptions (Knopf still stands for a certain kind of literary fiction and physical quality; Harlequin, for romance), publishing houses are weak consumer brands. [Buzz, Balls and Hype]
We could do the same exercise with London publishers. Again with a few exceptions: Penguin, DK perhaps, and Faber for poetry, it would be hard to maintain that publishers have strong brands or put a strong emotional connection through to the consumer. But its an interesting point of contrast that magazines have very strong brands. Private Eye, Country Life, and Wallpaper* these brands pack a big punch. It is also astonishing that none of these magazines yet has a digital edition. Which would suggest that many major magazines are failing to establish an emotional connection with their loyal audience through the web.

Since a large part of their audience is now on the web at this precise moment, this is a glaring missed opportunity.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Institutions can now come shopping

Today Exact Editions opens a shop for Institutions. Some of our magazines may now be licensed by institutions (universities and colleges, and businesses with a service through their intranet). Any librarian will be able to purchase access to any of the magazines offered with an institution-wide, IP address based, service.

As with our individual licenses, the prices are set by the publishers. The publishers have set prices at very affordable levels, and since our pricing system is one price for all/any institutions (single campus/site), the largest universities are getting a good deal. Currently our big-ticket item is the wonderful magazine Selvedge, £360 per annum. This is considerably more than the single user price of £25 per annum, but it is for an unlimited number of users and looks like good value in comparison to Elsevier's Tetrahedron Letters for which a European university could be paying €12,058 for a five user license in 2008.

But price is only one factor in the equation. Many institutions will be able to afford and budget for these subscriptions and we look forward to serving many institutional users, with digital editions of consumer magazines.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

iPhone Fever

Next week the iPhone is launched in the UK. It is tremendously appealing. The touch interface is easy and seductive and I have been playing around with the new iPods, which since they have WiFi connectivity and the Safari browser are also a great way to read the Exact Editions magazines. Here is an ad from Dazed & Confused:

The sharpness of the Apple screens makes the text very crisp and readable.

These devices are soon going to become a very popular reading platform, and the Exact Editions system, being a pure-web representation of print, works straight out of the box. Its hard to believe that the web can work so well on such a small device.