Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Will the App Store make a Good Book Store?

There are a few reasons for thinking that the iPhone's App Store may become the next and best digital book store. These are a few of the reasons that occur to me:

  • iTunes is already the most important digital music store and the AppStore is inheriting a lot of the momentum and the kharma of the iTunes e-commerce system
  • the iPhone App Store is already a pretty good App Store and seems to be building Apple a possibly dominant position in the race for mobile Apps. Robert Scoble has some perceptive observations on this.
  • Apple is rumoured to be building and close to launching a tablet computer, which will share the iPhones touch interface and the e-commerce system that supports the iPhone and the iTouch. The possibly mythical Apple tablet was last seen bounding through the Australian outback looking for media content, but when when this wallabook/kangoozine finally lands it will be a gorgeous display for newspapers and books. So Apple in producing a tablet is trying to make their hardware the best for books (and newspapers, films and albums!).
  • Users like reading stuff off their iPhones and when there is a tablet the chances are that they will like that even more.
  • The Apple system despite its creaky approval process, and the very weird rules that Apple imposes on its developers, is in some respects (and surprisingly) more open than the Amazon or the Google systems. Amazon for its Kindle and Google (for Google Books, or Google Editions) require that the books they distribute or will sell reside on their servers and in their 'format'. Amazon and Google already know what digital books are. Apple is not so sure. The architectural potential with Apple is more open: any publisher or author or inventor can throw an App with some new software and display potential at the Apple system (paying their small fee) and see if it catches on (Vooks or Enhanced Editions can be experimented with in the Apple media space). Google Editions and Amazon's Kindle have no such open-ness, no inventor-driven potential, and the same goes for Sony and Barnes and Noble.
On the other hand, we can find some reasons for not too readily buying into the Apple-flavoured vision of the App Store as bookstore (or even Vookstore or Nookstore).
  • I think it was Tim O'Reilly who said that the book as App does not scale well. Which I took to mean that whilst we can envisage having one or two or several Books as Apps on our phone, it is not likely that we can manage libraries this way. That may be correct, but individuals, unlike institutions, merely accumulate libraries. We buy books one at a time and if we buy enough of them within our iPhone ways will be found for managing those collections. I have been impressed by the way in which Apps can be found within the App Store. Even though it seems to be lamentably lacking in shopper-oriented convenience and friendliness. Users have been finding and buying the Exact Editions Apps for the Spectator and Opera magazine, though there has been very little explicit advertising or promotion for them (yet). The offerings within the App store are being found. Traffic is being generated. With a bit of merchandising skill from Apple, it is conceivable that millions of individual book Apps could be found and purchased within the App store by the tens of millions of users who have iTunes accounts. Scaling may not be such a big problem.
  • Perhaps a more serious issue with the one book per App model for the Apple Bookstore is that books need to be open and to work with each other in ways which Apps do not. Apps are self-contained applications and do not provide much scope for interoperation and interaction in the ways that digital books really need to do. But is this merely a short-term problem? Apple are developing their mobile developer environment and interoperating Apps are bound to come.
The Appstore/Bookstore could work out rather well. Especially if Apple resists the temptation to over-control the environment. If Steve Jobs really is sitting on the final specification of the iTabloid as he scans the latest field reports from Wooloongabba, Woomera, Bullaroo, Geelong and Gulgong, my advice is that he should ditch the pink, opt for matt black, OK the slightly larger form factor, the bigger memory, better battery (please! a better battery) and sign off. It will not be in my Christmas stocking but I am ready to stand in line in January, or February, or whenever....

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bookserver and the Right Architecture for Books

The pace of change in the books space is hotting up. Two weeks ago Amazon announced that its Kindle will be internationally available. Google last week at Frankfurt announced its Google Editions proposition (or perhaps we should say they re-announced it). In three weeks Google has an appointment with Judge Chin on November 9, to re-present its much discussed Google Books Search Settlement. Techcrunch had a piece on 24 Android phones (some of which are admittedly merely rumoured, but most of which will be touted for reading books). Yesterday Barnes and Noble presented their new Nook, eReader. And the day before yesterday the Internet Archive (with several collaborators) announced its BookServer project.

The BookServer proposition seems to be very much a work in progress. Thinking on the hoof and probably a fair bit of smoke and mirrors (see Peter Brantley's Web of Books presentation and Roy Tennant's blog) . But one aspect of it feels a great deal more right than the Google Books Search proposition in its various forms. The architecture is essentially and deliberately open and multipolar:

As the audience for digital books grows, we can evolve from an environment of single devices connected to single sources into a distributed system where readers can find books from sources across the Web to read on whatever device they have. Publishers are creating digital versions of their popular books, and the library community is creating digital archives of their printed collections. BookServer is an open system to find, buy, or borrow these books, just like we use an open system to find Web sites. (Internet Archive's BookServer page)
This is a good central position around which the Internet Archive can build its coalition. But it would seem that they may end up with some unlikely allies. They are following the path of, and working with, Lexcycle's Stanza (now Amazon owned) in their strategy of orchestrating, coalescing access to formatted ePUB files, and one wonders whether the BookServer backers will fill their obvious lack of full text search through an alliance with Microsoft's Bing. There are indeed some interesting challenges for Microsoft and Amazon as they contemplate whether to address Google's potentially massive lead in proprietary book aggregation by making a more Open alliance with the Internet Archive and other champions of free and open. If the Internet Archive can maintain its footing in a genuinely open and independent position (which includes encouraging Google to spider and search, as well as Bing), it has a good chance of establishing the crucial principles that it articulates. It has a good chance of being more open to innovation than Google.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Google is Going for It

It looks as though Google has decided that it is going to get the Google Books Settlement that it wants (and I suspect that a large part of the American public want it too). Google is just going to push it through as close as it can to the original proposition. There were, after all, two ways of interpreting the decisive and late intervention from the DoJ. According to Michael Cairns it gives a blueprint for how the original Settlement could be renegotiated to pass muster. According to Pamela Samuelson, Google Book Settlement 1.0 is History, it would be astonishing if the Settlement in its current form were to be approved: a new balance and a new settlement is needed which takes account of the deep issues identified in the DoJ brief.

Normally, I would back Professor Samuelson, one of America's most distinguished IT lawyers, against a self-confessed 'know-it-all' mere publishing consultant. But on this occasion I suspect that Cairns has called it right (he may know more about how publishers go about arm wrestling with regulators). The Settlement will be nudged to accommodate the 'objections' raised by the DoJ but it will be broadly as agreed. Here are three tell-tale signs:

  1. The timescale for resolution is short. The revised Settlement will be presented to the Judge in on November 9 and he has said that he wants matters to be concluded speedily (within a few months). So Google cannot be planning major changes. No extensive process of consultation and commentary is in view.
  2. There was the rather extraordinary New York Times opinion column, A Library to Last Forever, in which Sergey Brin explained the great advantages of the Googe Book Search project, exactly as though it were to be executed as envisaged in the Settlement. He breezily acknowledges that there have been concerns about 'competition' and 'copyright' but effectively dismisses these concerns as misunderstandings (I bet the DoJ lawyers were surprised to see their analysis so airily brushed aside).
  3. Google has this week announced its Google Editions project, which is intended to make its books database resource, title by title, available to all readers everywhere in every format of ebook reader. So Google at one step is embracing and enlisting all the ebook platforms which might otherwise be a form of competitive counterbalance to the Google Books Library. I wonder what the DoJ competition experts think of the decisive way in which Google has also pre-announced, long before it is operative, how the discount system is going to work between Google, the publishers and the various retailers envisaged as operating Google Editions? And with Google selling direct as well? And with Google running the search engine for all parties? Is there no potential for anti-trust concerns in all of this?
Google Editions has nothing directly to do with the Google Books Settlement. Google has taken off its left shoe and is banging the table: "Forget about orphan books, the books of rights owners are also on our servers with their full agreement and hey we are going to be selling them as well soon, moreover in distribution channels not mentioned at all in the Settlement. Wake up please!" Google could have announced the plan last year; or next year (it is in any case not going to be ready until the first half of next year); or the year after. Google Editions, so far, only appears to be a distribution channel for books sourced from publishers or books in the public domain. As such it is quite independent of the Settlement. Yep Google Editions is orthogonal from Google Editions. Nothing to do with that controversy. But one wonders why Google should announce it now, drawing attention to the fact that Google may, one way and another, become the primary source for books in all digital and electronic formats? Three weeks before they present the revised deal to the judge (presumably with comments from DoJ).

My guess is that Google is pretty confident that the DoJ really do not want to veto the deal (do you want to stop a deal that enables ten million titles to reach the 30 million Americans who are 'print-impaired'?). The judge probably will not want to veto the deal. Not when push comes to shove. So Google had better hang in for the deal to be the way it wants. After all, Google has digitised the 10 million titles. Google has, we presume, clear vision of the way this is going to work. When the deal is agreed, Google not the Federal Government has to deliver the service. Note who is doing the heavy lifting. Note who is paying the lawyers.

Google has a great database system (oxymoron alert), Google has the ability to deliver a fabulous service, Google has been at the forefront and it has sustained its initiative, and if turns out that it has a de facto, and to a degree, a de jure monopoly, once the dust settles that will be challenged. A monopoly of books will be defeated (ultimately by competition as much as by the courts). Google's confidence is justified and is the other face of its boldness in setting the whole scheme going, and if it misapplies its momentum (which it probably will), it will come unstuck.

There is plenty of scope for Google critics: Angela Merkel, Pamela Samuelson, Peter Brantley and Bob Darnton. And we need them. But Google is getting done something which will bear a lot of fruit. So this settlement is going to go through and stopping Google Books Search dead in its tracks is not going to happen. Sure it will be appealed..... all the way (paid for by those of Google's competitors that want to slow the juggernaut down). But more to the point the Google Books Search settlement is not the last innovative step in this march. Time to move forward. Time to compete with Google through innovation, not through writs.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Opera Magazine App now in iTunes App Store

Opera magazine now has its own branded App in iTunes.

The Opera iPhone Application offers access to the latest monthly issue as well as to an archive of back issues stretching back to August 2006. The week-long subscription costs £1.19, or $1.99, or €1.59. Renewing for a month costs £3.99, which compares to a news stand price of £4.99.

I am now hoping that the Opera App will now be reviewed 'operatically' if not 'ecstatically'

Exactly Reviewed Ecstatically?

AppShouter has one of those reviews that tells you the reviewer really enjoyed him/herself.

As a journalism major, I was thrilled, perhaps ecstatic is a better word, for how I felt when I came across this app. Exactly is literally like having a newsstand in the palm of your hand. It is amazing. I can’t put it down!

The interface is also easy to navigate as it looks a lot like the jukebox feature of iTunes. Stroke left or right to turn pages, double tap the screen to zoom…I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture. Exactly is easy! I’ll also say, that as a journalist, in an industry that is continually pooling resources and charging more and more for content, Exactly is definitely a friend to my pocketbook. I cannot thank it enough.

Thank you Yantezia P for having some fun with the Exactly App.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Healthy Media

Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 blog is often thought-provoking, mostly about ebooks. He has been a great fan of the Kindle, but today he fires a salvo in the direction of the existing generation of ebook readers with the Kindle bang in the centre of target:

The problem with these devices is that they encourage quick print-to-e content conversion and nothing more. In fact, they even discourage some of the simplest ways of enhancing print-to-e conversions. Embedded links are a great example. If you're a Kindle owner how often do you click on those links? More specifically, how often do you groan as you click on those links, knowing that the browsing experience ahead is painful at best? The irony is that although the Kindle was the first to include wireless functionality, that feature is really only good for one thing: buying content from Amazon. Every other time I've used the "experimental" browser I've been disappointed. That's because, at its heart, the Kindle is a reader and it doesn't encourage any other use. How the Kindle Prevents eContent from Evolving
Well put. It is lame to have live links in a digital text if the system does not support good browsing. Part of the trouble with much of the current design and thought about ebooks, is that too often publishers and technologists assume that the only thing that matters with a book is the reading of it (perhaps abetted by the 'buying' of it). The Kindle has been designed and the Amazon digital e-commerce system has been built as though the only thing that really matters with books is the reading of them. One after the other. Books are much more multi-functional than the buying/reading/moving on, modulus would suggest. And digital books need to be more than digital representations of the printed object (though they need to be that at least).

Where does this take us? Arguably books, magazines and newspapers in their digital form need to be at least as good as print books. At least as useful as print books. But also much more open and much more inter-related. They need to be on the web and of the web, because that is where we increasingly do our reading. And we don't only read books and newspapers. Our digital reading experience is inevitably becoming more various, more public, more connected and more horizontal (embracing other media types as well as all forms of print media). Taking digital books as seriously as they need to be taken, is a matter of enabling them to be open to all forms of cognitive action (reading, referring, learning, analysing, interpreting, sharing, comparing, etc) but also making them inherently more open (to search, to citation, to annotation, to quotation...). My thoughts were brought in this direction by a fascinating blog by the Philosopher of Information Luciano Floridi. Floridi writes about the ways in which ICT (digital technologies) are revolutionising health care and medicine:
Behind the success of ICT-based medicine and well-being lie two phenomena and two trends.

The first phenomenon may be labelled “the transparent body”. By measuring, monitoring and managing our bodies ever more deeply, accurately and non-invasively, ICT have made us more easily explorable, have increased the scope of possible interactions from without and from within our bodies (e.g. nanotechnology), and made the boundaries between body and environment increasingly porous (e.g. fMRI). We were black boxes, we are quickly becoming white boxes through which anyone can see.

The second phenomenon is that of “the shared body”. “My” body can now be easily seen as a “type” of body, thus easing the shift from “my health conditions” to “health conditions I share with others”. And it is more and more natural to consider oneself not only the source of information (what I tell the doctor) or the owner of information about oneself (my Google health profile), but also a channel to transfer DNA information and corresponding biological features between past and future generations (see 23andme). Arsenic and e-Health
Books as bodies? Or bodies as books? The metaphor can work in both directions. As our books, newspapers and magazines become digital they should become transparent. Digital editions will be shared, even integrated in other contexts, and as publishers and editors we need to understand and extrapolate the way in which the information they contain can flourish in other information systems. This is not a matter of abandoning the old formats but of reinvigorating them in a new technology matrix in which they become more porous. A Kindle which traps books in its hermetically sealed account is missing the main chance. A Google Books which abandons all pictures and illustrations is stunting the digital possibilities of the books it fillets. And newspaper owners or author's agents who think that they can close those digital systems down are pointing us in the wrong direction.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Wherefore Art Thou Roneo-ed?

A friendly journalist referred the other day to one of the Exact Editions Apps as a 'photostat' of the magazine. One of my colleagues noted that this was a word she hadn't heard for 20 years, and my wife's cryptic observation was: "At least he didn't call it a roneo-ed version". I was wondering whether this comment was a curious compliment. Have you noticed the way in which 'vinyl' has become a term for musical quality and tonal fidelity? Perhaps the roneo-ed Digital Magazine is the acme of approval in an app, and the photostat is just a step on the way to wax cylinder bliss?

Perhaps. But I think not. Exact Editions is so named because we believe that digital editions of magazines (books, newspapers, bibles, periodicals, catalogues, compendia, scores, and print objects in general) should be faithful representations of the digitised pages. But of course a digital edition has to be much more than a simple reproduction. To see the result as a photostat or a mere copy is to miss more than half the point. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the other features one should expect in a digital edition:

  • Every page in the digital edition should be citeable (which means that any other web page, or web service can make a targeted reference within the publication to a specific page on which some relevant content resides).
  • Pages within a digital edition should have links out. Which is to say that a digital edition should be just as capable of being the source of a citation as the target for one.
  • Putting these two points together (citing, and being cited) in effect means that every page in a digital edition will be a web page, a part of the web. Far too many of the 'e-magazine' solutions that we see in the marketplace fail in this basic requirement. Many publishers have been using digital platforms which allow them to distribute blobs of content through the internet, but the publications are not proper web resources.
  • This fact about the pages or parts of digital editions being themselves a part of the web also has the consequence that a proper digital edition should be readable/usable by standard web browsers and it should be accessible to standard web operations (eg crawlers, counters, mashups and tweeters)
  • Every page in a digital edition with text on it should ideally be searchable by a search engine, by Google or Bing (should be capable of being searched by Google -- though a publisher may decide to withhold content from Google/Bing searching).
  • Every page in a digital edition should be searchable by the edition itself. That is a digital edition should have a mechanism whereby the search for a term can be restricted to the publication itself.
  • Digital editions should also have their own appropriate internal navigation (eg live links from Tables of Contents, Indexes of Advertisers).
  • Digital editions should offer their users and readers immediate links to relevant web resources (eg live links to web resources mentioned in the text).
There are other things one could add to this list, but it is long enough to make the point. Digital editions are much, much, more than roneo-ed editions. I am fairly sure that the early users of the Spectator App which was released just over a week ago, have not yet realised how much coiled web energy there is inside the App. There are, by my back of the envelope estimates, over 200 issues, well over 10,000 digital pages, over 5,000 live phone number links, perhaps 20,000 internal links within the magazine issues and well over 20,000 external links from the issues, all of this is accessible from the App. But the App is not really a product at all, it is a subscription service to a database which manages the magazine for its subscribers. Publishers are all now in the service industry, and digital editions are the service that they should be offering their readers.