Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Look at the New Nook: Now In Technicolor!

I've been using the new Nook Color from Barnes & Noble for a few weeks and must say I'm very impressed...and relieved.

You see, I was one of those who added to the chorus of disappointment in the original Nook when it was released about a year ago. But this new device really delivers and it's great to see B&N introduce a product that rightfully puts them back in the e-Reader game in a big way!

The design of the device itself is quite attractive, though I still don't quite understand what the purpose of the open bottom-left corner is, other than giving it a distinguishable look (which ain't a bad thing I guess). It definitely can't be intended for hanging it on your backpack or keyring 'cos one thing you'll notice the moment you pick this baby up is that it's got a little bit of heft, especially if compared to the weight of a Kindle 3, which is significantly lighter.

That said this 7" e-Reader is by no means a burden to carry and when placed within a nice leather protective case you'll find it very comfortable to hold.

And Nook Color is SO much faster than the first Nook, which after several software updates is still a bit sluggish and quirky due to its hybrid attempt at having both Android color and E-Ink screens. But this new Nook is all Android with a gorgeous full color screen and navigations that are thoughtful and intuitive.

If you're concerned about the LCD screen and reflection issues, all I can say is there's a film layer that does a good job of cutting down on light interferences and seems to have no negative effect on the response of the touchscreen.

If you're concerned about glare that might tire your eyes, all I can say is the background color options for the pages can really make all the difference. And we're not just talking black with white text for nighttime reading or sepia to imitate paper of olden times, but also mocha, gray, and one I've come to appreciate called butter.

Best of all the Nook Color delivers simple functionality. Features such as sharing, highlighting, note taking, bookmarking, looking up word definitions, and changing font size are easy to master, and all with the touch of a finger.

Yes, yes, you can also surf the web, read magazines, play chess, listen to music, and much more, but these are not the kind of bells & whistles to care about if what you're looking for is a great reading experience. If those types of things are most important, then I suggest getting yourself an iPad. ;-)

If you do decide to buy a Nook Color or receive one as a gift, be sure to take advantage of the special promotions B&N feeds to the device everyday. And don't forget to bring it with you whenever visiting one of the superstore's locations because you'll benefit from unique in-store opportunities as well.

Already own a Nook Color? If so, what do you think of it?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

JFK: 50 Days: The Legacy of an App

A few weeks ago my company, The Perseus Books Group, released an app for the iPad called JFK: 50 Days. It's meant to be a companion product to a large coffee-table book called JFK: Day by Day (Running Press), which covers the 1,036 days John F. Kennedy was President. We describe it as a companion because the app is focused on fifty select moments from the book to mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's election to the White House.

But what's in the app that's not in the book is more than an hour's worth of incredible video, most of which is rare footage culled from the archives of NBC News, featuring JFK, Jackie, and other members of the Kennedy family during the early 60s. Thanks to the technology of the iPad, we're confident the experience of both viewing and reading about these historical moments is truly gratifying.

So how did this all come about? Well, during a meeting with the folks at NBC News it was brought to our attention there were tons and tons of Kennedy footage in the vaults and they suggested we do a project together relating to our book. Naturally we loved this idea and immediately got to work. The first thing we needed to do was figure out just what this should be because digital projects featuring video and images are always a challenge due to the amount of file size these assets use. As a guide, we turned to the print version of the book, which is fully designed and has a particular look. Since this was going to be a companion product, we determined an app was the logical format because it would allow us to essentially keep the same design while maintaining a similar layout.

With that decision behind us, we forged ahead spending hours and hours viewing old clips in the NBC News archives division located at Rockefeller Center. It took about a full month to complete and as the lead producer of this project, I can honestly say it was quite an amazing experience and absolute privilege for our team to have been given the chance to take this unfiltered trip through history.

While all this was taking place we approached Vook about working together to program the app using Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite, since they were chosen by Adobe as a BETA tester for this new platform. If you've downloaded Wired or The New Yorker apps for iPad, which also uses this software, then the various ways to navigate JFK: 50 Days would be familiar to you. We felt it was the best option to present the fifty days in chronological order and as far as I know, this is the first book-related app using this approach. Here's a video example courtesy of NBC.

The structure of the "50 days" helped keep us focused since there was so much archival footage to watch. Even after we made our final selections there were still a number of choice moments that we just felt could not be left out of the app. So we decided to represent those pieces in montage form, which appear at the end of the app as bonus features. These montages are probably my favorite part of this project because they challenged us to string together unique pieces of forgotten history in a way that captured the essence and emotion of those moments in time.

I really hope readers come to appreciate the quality of the video because all the archived footage presented in JFK: 50 Days was painstakingly restored to deliver visuals with striking contrast and great sound. Believe me, this is not easy to do when working with film that's fifty years-old! But I feel the time, effort, and care we put into the clips really shows.

JFK: 50 Days was officially launched on November 15th with a segment on The Today Show. About a week later, David Gregory, moderator of Meet the Press, (who was kind enough to film the introduction for the app), agreed to promote it at the end of his program. There's also a terrific TV commercial airing on NBC to raise awareness in the marketplace. As you might imagine, all this has been simply fantastic to see and everyone who has been a part of this project is thrilled by NBC's support.

I'm happy to report JFK: 50 Days was #1 in the Books category of the App Store for two weeks and reached as high as #14 in paid apps overall. With the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration speech coming this January we're gearing up for another wave of promotions. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you have an iPad, you can get the JFK: 50 Days app here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Blio Reader: Bliss, Blah, or Somewhere Between?

There's been a tremendous amount of anticipation and speculation over the past year about Blio, a reading technology that promised to be a great new way to read books on computers and portable devices, especially titles with graphics. So when Blio finally launched about a month ago, I immediately wanted to check it out.

The first thing one discovers is that the initial release is for Windows based PCs only. Not Mac, not iPad, not Android, and not for any smartphone, though their official press release states it will be available for those platforms soon. As someone who enjoys reading on the iPad, this was pretty disappointing, for I was certain Blio would cover all bases at launch. And yet I was eager to give this new software a try, so I downloaded it to my desktop and promptly created an account, all of which was quick and easy.

When I first began using Blio I was quite underwhelmed. That's because the reading layout is pretty similar to Zinio's and the virtual bookshelf that organizes your collection is reminiscent of Kobo's. However, the more I continued playing with the program it became apparent there were some nice aspects to the general functionality. For example: Browsing the store and downloading free public domain titles such as Moby Dick was a snap and within 30 seconds I was reading Melville's classic. Turning pages, zooming in and out, and looking up definitions of words also performed smoothly.

But it's the other enhancements, like reading titles in multiple views (including 3D), watching video, and adding notations that can be exported for future reference that makes Blio different from other electronic reading experiences. These features could potentially be even better when executed on a tablet device like an iPad or the soon-to-be-released Samsung Galaxy Tab, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Unfortunately the folks at Blio described the capabilities of their software as "revolutionary," which only set them up for ridicule, especially since Zinio, iBooks, Kindle, Nook Color, and Kobo offer reading options, like text-to-speech, that are pretty similar (in way or another), if not exactly the same. Granted the way Blio integrates video, audio, and the option to search using Google and other engines without having to leave the page provides a convenience competitors currently lack. But describing the 3D page turns as "realistic" is off the mark when compared to reading an iBook, for example. Blio's approach to 3D page turning reminded me a little of an older technology from the 90s called RealRead - (Remember them?). They were one of the first to introduce three-dimensional reading but it just never caught on.

Another reason expectations were high is because Blio was developed by K-NFB, a company founded by futurist Ray Kurzweil, a man with an esteemed reputation for inventing incredible technologies. Here's a video of Kurzweil explaining Blio at the Tools of Change conference earlier this year. Kurzweil Technologies and the National Federation of the Blind (K-NFB) has a long history of assisting those with disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia and ADD, so it seems logical they expect to continue working with educational communities. Plus the partnership with Baker & Taylor, a global media distribution company, will certainly help reach a variety of channels, including libraries where there's likely to be wide adoption.

But to my mind things start to get tricky for Blio on the consumer level. As a first attempt, they've arranged for the software to come pre-loaded on all Toshiba laptops. This certainly might gain some new users, but it will take a much more aggressive marketing and publicity campaign to have any measurable impact.

Overall, it's easy to discount many of Blio's innovations when using the software on a PC because in that form it seems like old hat. But if the iPad version fully takes advantage of the swipe and touch capabilities, then I think Blio just might win over the critics.

Have you tried Blio yet? If so, what do you think of it so far?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Tablet a Day: iPad Rival Remedies or Real Pills?

In a recent Blog post I talked about some of the new multi-purpose devices that will soon be available at affordable prices, each featuring a way to buy and read e-Books. However most, if not all, were created by companies that, shall we say, are not necessarily considered top in their field. So with this in mind, I'd say those should be considered risky purchases.

And though some new digital device seems to hit the market just about everyday, two intriguing tablets have recently been announced that definitely deserve some attention and will most likely be viable alternatives to Apple's iPad.

Now it's no secret I love using my iPad for just about everything, especially reading, but I can't deny the following 7" devices look like they might deliver excellent user experiences for those who've been in "wait-and-see" mode. And that's because these tablets are made by Samsung and
RIM, two great companies with reputations of introducing innovative products that continually push the envelope.

Let's take a look:

The Galaxy Tab by Samsung looks like a smaller iPad and features just about the same level of functionality, and in some cases, even more. But what I'm interested in is what it's like to read on this 7" color screen and from what I can tell from Samsung's promotional video, it looks pretty good. The e-Book technology is called Readers Hub, which was developed by
Kobo specifically for Samsung. Here's one video that shows how it looks (The e-Book demo is about halfway through and looks very similar to iBooks so I think what we're seeing is by ePubBooks, but others I've seen looked more like Kobo's current App). The O/S driving this device is Android and it will initially feature four e-Bookstores, including Kindle. And for the guesstimated price of somewhere between $200 to $299, this slick tablet is sure to be a popular gift during the holidays. (I wonder if the release of the Galaxy Tab means the death nail for this other e-Reading device from Samsung?)

The Blackberry Playbook by RIM seemed to come out of nowhere. It's another 7" device, but the angle here is that this is the "professional" tablet. We heard that once before from the creators of the now defunct Que, the large E-Ink Reader that was supposed to be meant for serious business people. The vast difference of course is how RIM is already supported by thousands of companies who currently use Blackberry smartphones for all their employees (though I must say, I find it hard to imagine typing comfortably using a virtual keyboard on a 7" screen, even in landscape mode, but we'll have to see). Many will be very comfortable with the idea of using this tablet for both it's familiarity and anticipated quality. I say "anticipated" because there haven't been any reviews of the Playbook yet, but from the look of this video, it just might be a winner. As far as reading e-Books goes...the Playbook will launch pre-loaded with the Kobo e-Bookstore, but word is that Amazon will also be making their App available for this platform shortly after it's released. Priced somewhere between $300 and $350, I think it's safe to say this stealthy looking device has the potential to be a huge success.

One thing's for sure, as more and more tablets like these enter the market, they'll only help increase the discovery of books through the various number of e-Bookstores available as Apps or on the web. And this is just the beginning...

What do you think? Have Samsung and RIM developed real challengers to the iPad?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sony: No Baloney or Too Little Too Late?

A new suite of Sony Readers will soon be available and the big question I've been grappling with is whether or not this is Sony's last chance to be a competitive player in the e-Reader showdown.

With Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook making major inroads it's no stretch to conclude Sony has to work harder than ever to hold on to what slice of market share they have (had?) in the U.S.

It's too bad because Sony was one of the first to provide a well designed, fully functional e-Reader back in 2006. However, it never quite had a robust or easy-to-use online Bookstore to support it. Unfortunately, all these years and several models later, the latest devices still don't, especially when compared to Amazon's vibrant Kindle store. Even the valiant effort Sony has made aligning its e-Book program with big players like Google to expand their e-catalog with free public domain titles or Overdrive to enable digital "checkout" from local libraries, hasn't really seemed to capture the interest of consumers the way Amazon and Barnes & Noble have managed to do in recent months. And when Sony tried to develop a strong alliance with Borders to place devices in stores so people could try them in person, the effort simply fell flat. Yes, you can still purchase a Sony Reader from Borders, but then again, you can buy one from Amazon too.

Over the years I've owned several Sony Readers and although each scored points for having a sleek design, they've consistently fell short due to mediocre functionality and a fairly poor interface. Part of the problem is that each time a new device is released, the redesigns and navigations tend to change so dramatically, that one has to re-learn how to use it. And this can be frustrating. Apple has demonstrated time and time again how to balance the new with the familiar. In other words, if I already own an Apple product, whether it be a iMac, MacBook, iPod, iPhone, or iPad, there is a consistency to the way I'd expect to control each platform. The navigation is simple, intuitive, and new features are typically welcomed as opposed to puzzling.

Now I confess so far I haven't actually held one of the latest Sony Readers to take it for a test run, but I've watched enough demos to determine when it comes to choosing one comparable e-Reader over the other, I would guess most folks will gravitate towards purchasing a Kindle 3 or Nook.

But even for those who were/are considering one of the new Readers, I imagine the higher price tags (the lowest priced model is $179, $40 more than the Wi-Fi only Kindle) have put the kibosh on any enthusiasm they may have had. Sony publicly claims their own studies show people are not overly concerned about price point when deciding what matters most before purchasing a dedicated e-Reader. I find this surprising 'cos I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't consider cost before purchasing electronics (unless it's made by Apple). So what's going on here?

Well, one explanation might be that throughout parts of Europe and Asia, Sony Readers are quite popular and firmly established as the e-Reading device of choice. But as the Kindle expands beyond American borders, this may or may not continue to be the case. Regardless, one would expect Sony to do everything it can to attract American consumers during these tough economic times, especially as we head into the holiday season.

What do you think? Is Sony still in the e-Reader game?

Monday, August 30, 2010

March of the Color e-Readers: Kindle Kompetitors or Krazy Kolts?

This month we saw the release of Kindle 3, Amazon's latest e-Reader, and so far the reviews have been pretty positive. You can watch a video demonstration here to see the new features and improvements.

Yes it has a new look and is faster than ever, but I'd say the most noticeable, and in my opinion, significant improvement would have to be the sharper contrast of the E-Ink screen. To date, practically all popular e-Readers, whether it be a Sony Reader, Nook, or Kobo, have had displays that appear grey or in the case of the Sony's, more on the greenish side due to an additional screen layer for touch functionality. But honestly, as much as the promise of E-Ink was to mimic the appearance of the printed page, none of the devices using this technology looked like the real thing. In fact, by comparison, the early days of E-Ink didn't appear that much different from that of the old Rocket-Book, one of the first e-Readers introduced in the late '90s.

Without a doubt, the brighter, clearer screen of this newest Kindle succeeds in bringing us that much closer to matching the experience of reading a physical book, but with the added conveniences only such a digital device offers. And sure enough the Sony Readers, Nooks, and Kobos will get better too (and soon!). And as they do, it should be no surprise when people rapidly embrace the improved technology and begin downloading their favorite e-Books from retailers and local libraries around the world.

But for now I think it's safe to say that Kindle is currently king and the aforementioned competitors have some real catching up to do. So why then, with the obvious challenges facing these entrenched, well-known entities, would other companies believe there'd be any interest by consumers in yet another e-Reading device? Well, for that answer you'd have to ask the likes of The Sharper Image, Aguen, Velocity, and Pandigital, just to name a few, for each has recently announced (somewhat) dedicated e-Readers of their own...but with color screens.

Here's a look:

The Literati - This device from The Sharper Image will have a 7' color LCD screen and will also be sold at retail stores like Macy's, Bed, Bath & Beyond, JC Penny, Best Buy, and more. In other words, the places where people shop everyday for the kind of electronics everyone uses like TVs, stereos, and MP3 players. The Literati is powered by the Kobo e-Bookstore. There are four video demos to watch on the official website.

The Book - Not to be confused with Vook or Nook, this e-Reader from Aguen proclaims itself as "the book" and hey, why not. What's most interesting about this device is how you can purchase e-Books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders/Kobo, and other e-Bookstores. It can be bought at stores like K-Mart, but oddly enough, I learned about it from my cable company. Here's a video review.

Cruz Reader - More multi-purpose tablet than e-Reader, this device from Velocity looks pretty interesting and a lot like a small iPad! It has a 7" color screen and the e-Bookstore is powered by Borders/Kobo. Hmmmm, anyone seeing a pattern developing? Here's an official video demo.

Novel - From Pandigital, the company mostly known for its digital picture frames, comes this multi-function device that's also iPadish, but with a 7" color screen. However, this baby is powered by Barnes & Noble's e-Bookstore, which means besides having access to 1 Million e-Books, you can also read magazines and newspapers. Watch a video review.

I must confess, I'm not quite sure what to make of either one of these digital slabs, and I just can't imagine why anybody would purchase one except out of pure curiosity.

If you're thinking of finally taking the e-Reader plunge, then my recommendation is to get the Kindle 3 if you want to own the best overall e-Reading device, the Nook if you happen to shop frequently at your local Barnes & Noble and enjoy the benefits the in-store promotion offers, or the Kobo if you don't need any tech frills like Wi-Fi or 3G connectivity and like to show support for the underdog. Though you may want to wait until November because prices will most likely drop again in time for the holiday season.

In the meantime, would you consider buying one of the new color e-Readers mentioned above instead of a model with an E-Ink screen?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Amazon's Kindle Lowers the Price, Raises the Heat

I was out of the country on vacation for most of July and decided to take a break from blogging thinking it was the middle of summer and hey, things would be fairly quiet in the book world, right?

Boy was I wrong!

For starters, Copia, a new company launching a "social" e-reading experience and web based community, has announced they are releasing a $99 e-Reader with a color touch screen sometime in the fall. This is a complete new strategy from the one I had learned about and reported here back in March. It's still unclear whether or not this ambitious and relatively unknown company can make e-waves with consumers, but I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Barnes & Noble is coming on strong with plans to introduce huge installations within their stores to promote the Nook e-Reader. It's a bold and necessary move that demonstrates their commitment to the growing demand for e-Books, but its success will be riding on the execution of this strategy. Will enthusiastic employees significantly help sell devices to curious shoppers? My guess is yes, but I still say improvements to the Nook itself would go a long way to increase its popularity.

If I'm correct about the need for a better Nook, then B&N will need to do it soon 'cos Amazon just announced two new Kindles that are sleeker, faster, lighter, and most importantly, less expensive. These latest versions seem to be taking a page from the Sony Reader by reducing the amount of the casing that surrounds the 6" screen. Plus they're now available in both white and graphite, which is interesting because in the past Jeff Bezos had consistently said that the decision to make the Kindle white was because it made the device virtually disappear in the reader's hands, allowing the eye to focus on the written word. He was right, for I've experienced that effect myself, so the introduction of what's essentially a black Kindle was probably made to simply attract more male customers. I'm convinced this is why you can now purchase the Kindle DX in graphite as well. It just looks cooler and let's face it, guys like that. I still marvel at how amazing my sleek, black 80GB iPod Classic looks and feels in my hand. If only all electronic makers could create objects of such beauty .

And for me that includes the design of these new Kindles, which yes, look nicer, but surprisingly still include a physical keyboard and toggle for navigation. What would be great is if Amazon could create a dual screen Kindle, sort of like the Nook and Alex, with an E-Ink screen at the top and a touch screen for navigation located below it (color or not), but with a non-raised body to give it a "full screen" look, as with the iPad and Zune, and with nothing more than a thin flat line separating the two screens. Basically a flat tablet with an E-Ink screen that you can read in sunlight. Wishful thinking I guess, but in the slick universe of Apple and Android products, these Kindles still look a bit archaic to me. But I suppose most people aren't nearly as fussy about this as I am since Amazon has reported they've already sold out of the new devices and they won't be back in stock until September.

Clearly the main attraction for Amazon's customers has been price. The Wi-Fi/3G model remains $189 but the new Wi-Fi only model is a very affordable $139. It's not hard to foresee these price-points decreasing even further as we head into the holiday season, which will not be great news for Sony, B&N, Borders, Copia, or Kobo, unless they too can afford to lower the cost of their e-Readers, but either way all of this means one thing: A whole lot of e-Books will be purchased during December and the result will be a noticeable shift in consumer behavior affecting the publishing industry and bookselling community in profound ways throughout 2011.

How do you think this will all play out?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Kobo: The Little eReader That (Pretty Much) Does

The eReader market is beginning to get very interesting due to a recent price war that erupted when Barnes & Noble lowered the cost of their Nook to $199. Not to be undersold, Amazon then reduced the Kindle to $189 within just a few hours.

Additionally B&N also introduced a new, Wi-Fi only, affordable version of the Nook for $149, doing their best to aggressively take market share from Amazon and Apple.

But there's another low priced eReader that's entered the circle of E-Ink devices called Kobo, which will be prominently sold nationwide at Borders Bookstores and directly online.

The Kobo is irresistibly cute and feels great to hold. It's super light and has a nice, bright, easy-to-read screen. Part of what makes it feel so good in your hands is a quilted rubber back, which was a terrific design idea and kudos to whoever came up with that concept. There are simple buttons located on the lower left edge to navigate through the various options, like browsing your library, selecting the font size, and more.

There's also a big blue rubber button that feels like it's covering a toggle for changing pages and moving up and down on the screen. I found this feature a bit difficult to use at first, but after some time I got used to it.

But what I like most about the Kobo is how they made it out of plastic and rubber, yet somehow managed to make it not feel cheap. It feels crafted and solid and well worth the price point.

The Kobo also comes preloaded with 100 public domain classics, such as Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Anna Karenina, and other familiar staples of literature. This is a very nice bonus, but oddly enough there doesn't seem to be a way to remove any of these titles from the device itself, which might miff some users.

What the Kobo doesn't have is Wi-Fi or 3G network connectivity and you know what...who cares!?! Millions of people have been hooking up their iPods to computers for years and have seemed to manage just fine. This strategy represents something close to what marketing thought-leader Seth Godin recently recommended to Amazon: To forget about all the bells and whistles but instead release a simple version of the Kindle with a $49 price tag, making reading digitally possible for just about everyone.

Just like with Kindle and Nook, you can download a very nice Kobo App for Apple's iPad to enjoy purchased titles, which was a very smart move since this amazing tablet (yes, I'm biased) has just surpassed 3 Million devices sold and there's no sign of that ending any time soon. You can also access your Kobo account across other platforms, which makes purchasing and reading very convenient. The dedicated App and online store for browsing/purchasing is clean and simple and overall seems to work well. However, some of the navigations are inconsistent and not 100% intuitive, but I suspect they'll be making improvements based on customer feedback in the months ahead. Watch this video to learn more about all the options.

But one peculiar move by Borders was the decision to immediately undercut the price of the Kobo with another eReader called the Libre. I understand the desire to provide customers with choice, but now is the time to put their focus and energy on promoting the hell out of Kobo so it resonates with the general public. I mean the Borders e-Bookstore is "powered by Kobo" so a little synergy wouldn't be a bad thing at this moment in time. If I were the Kobo/Borders team, I'd figure out a way to aggressively price this appealing gadget at $75 and shout it from the rooftops.

The one glaring thing that's most disappointing about the Kobo is how it deals with PDFs. Basically, it really doesn't beyond attempting to magnify the text to its best technical capability, which is quite poor, and honestly it's a feature that should've been kept off until ready for prime-time. Fortunately for Kobo and Borders, my impression is that most people won't be purchasing this device for business use.

Other than that, consider me a fan of this small and well-made eReader that looks great, feels great, and overall works great. Previously I had written about how I love reading on my iPad, and I still do. But the Kobo is the eReader I plan to use when reading outdoors in sunlight, especially at the beach.

Do you think Borders' new e-Book initiative with Kobo will gain market share?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

iBooks: The Magical & Revolutionary Way to Read

I've been using my new iPad for the past couple of months and have to say...I absolutely love it!

Now I could go on and on about what a pleasure it is using this incredible tablet to read periodicals like The New York Times; or how amazing watching videos and movies can be; or how productive time spent checking email and browsing the web is while commuting; or how much fun it is to play games like Parachute Panic with family and friends; or listen to music, stream audio, view photos, and so much more!

But I won't.

Instead I'd like to simply focus on what it's like to browse, shop, and read books using the iBooks application from Apple on this powerful thin slate made of metal and glass.

Let me first point out that I'm not a voracious book reader, so the E-Ink vs. LCD screen debate regarding eye-strain doesn't apply to my reading habits. That said, I do read a tremendous amount of articles on a daily basis, which in the past I would mostly do on the iPhone, so reading with a bright lit screen is something I'm very comfortable with and have never been aware of any eye fatigue as a result.

Before the iPad was released I read books on three different dedicated eReaders: Amazon's Kindle, The Sony Reader, and Barnes & Noble's Nook. Frankly none of them ever lived up to my expectations when it came to the user experience and I would consistently be reminded of this whenever using the Kindle or B&N eReader App on my iPhone. I was struck how the same Hemingway novel on my grey and black 6" Kindle would suddenly come alive on the smaller 3.5" color iPhone. And how the tactile motion of swiping the screen to turn a page instead of pushing physical buttons or moving a tiny toggle just felt more natural, which is saying a lot when you consider we're talking about viewing the printed word on a screen. Plus the ease of changing font size, bookmarking, and managing my library, all with the touch of a finger on the iPhone made me long for the day when these actions could be done on a larger screen.

So back in April when Steve Jobs demonstrated the iBooks App and iBookstore during his introduction of the iPad, it became quite clear that reading eBooks would never be the same. I'm sure Apple was fully aware they accomplished something extraordinary with iBooks, which could explain why the App is presented front and center as a download when first-time iPad users launch the App Store. It's a terrific endorsement for the act of reading from one of the most influential companies in the world and I would hope bibliophiles everywhere have some level of appreciation for it. Of course, it's also a very aggressive move by Apple to go head-to-head with Amazon for market share of eBook sales.

Naturally I downloaded iBooks and immediately began browsing the iBookstore, which is conveniently hidden behind a virtual wooden bookshelf that slowly revolves to reveal the storefront. It's a small but cool feature that never gets boring (for me anyway) 'cos it's as if Bruce Wayne himself commissioned this clever feature. Once in the store you can't help but notice the amount of available selections is limited compared to Amazon, but it should only be a matter of time before that improves. One thing I did find a bit surprising was how a user cannot view a larger version of a jacket image on the book's product page, though I've been told this feature will be introduced sometime in the near future.

But until then, the ease of browsing from one book to another or the ability to instantly read a sample chapter makes the titles that are currently available a pleasure to discover and buy.

If you've watched the Winnie the Pooh demo, then you're aware how beautifully text and illustrations appear within the simulated pages of the iBooks application. But it's not until you actually read on the iPad yourself that you truly appreciate the elegant way functionality such as brightness adjustment, font selection, and pagination appears, disappears, and reappears with a simple tap of the finger. It's pure reading bliss as far as I'm concerned.

And now Apple has announced that soon we'll be able to view PDFs within iBooks, that the iBookstore will be available for the iPhone, and everything viewed between Apple devices will synch together quite nicely (at least I'm confident that'll be the case).

It's worth mentioning that those hoping to read outdoors with the iPad will be disappointed, so an eReader with an E-Ink screen would be the way to go, especially if you like reading at the beach. And as we know, lots of people do, which means dedicated eReaders aren't going away any time soon and here's another reason why: Check out this cool video featuring Paul Jacobs, CEO of Qualcomm, demonstrating a new display technology during the recent All Things Digital D8 Conference that is not LCD.

But if you're like me and enjoy the ability to do a variety of amazing tasks with just one device, then I think you'll find the iPad will transform and enhance your daily enjoyment of the things we love: Music, Movies, Magazines, News, Games, and especially...Books!

Got an iPad? What do you think of it so far?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

E-Reading Coming to a Store Near You: Right on Target?

A few weeks ago it was announced that Amazon's Kindle, the most popular e-Reader in the marketplace, would officially be sold at select brick and mortar Target stores. This strategy makes sense since Target is a place where we tend to purchase items that fit into our daily lives. Personally, I've always felt the Kindle TV commercials had a whiff of Target's marketing sensibilities, so upcoming ads for Kindle that might say "Also available at Target" shouldn't seem surprising.

People have been hearing a lot about the onslaught of these portable readers, so I would imagine the opportunity for loyal Target customers to take Kindles for a test drive before buying will be very appealing as we head into the summer beach season, especially for those who have been on the e-Reader fence. But selling reading devices in physical stores is nothing new so the question is whether or not the idea of buying one will be even more attractive because of the familiarity of the Amazon brand?    

For a few years now Sony Readers have been available for sale at just about all Borders bookstores, which would seem like a natural setting for such a product, right? Unfortunately, this in-store effort was poorly managed and overall the Sonys just gathered dust on display tables and served no more than as a curiosity for most. So perhaps it's better if digital devices such as e-Readers be sold at stores like Best Buy that focus on electronics or ones like Target, which has a dedicated electronics department since the majority of potential converts will have several questions about how they work, what it's like to use one, and what features do these gadgets include. Speaking in person with a knowledgeable employee could make quite a difference in some people's decision making.  

Barnes & Noble's Nook, the Sony Reader, and others are available at Best Buy and of course the Nook is also sold at B&N store locations. The Que and iRex e-Readers are also supposed to be sold at B&N stores, though the Que's future is questionable at the moment since the release of Apple's iPad

And now comes the Kobo Reader, a very simple, easy to use device (at least that's what all the reviews have generally said so far) that will be sold at all Borders store locations along with other eReaders, such as the Sony devices, which I imagine will remain part of their selection. And Kobo is aggressively priced at $149 so it just might attract some who've been hesitant to spend more. And who can blame them when other electronics like the Nintendo DS does so much more for less! 

So will making all these reading devices available alongside digital cameras and MP3 players significantly increase consumer awareness? Maybe. But what I suspect will really be needed is for the staff of the Best Buys, Targets, Borders, Barnes & Nobles, Etc., to enthusiastically give demos and patiently answer questions so the idea of owning a Sony, Nook, Kobo, or Kindle resonates.

I don't know about you, but based on my personal experiences dealing with these big box stores, I have to say I'm a tad skeptical. But hopeful.

What do you think? Will Kindles in Target be the tipping point?

             

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Another Look at Nook: After Upgrade #3

This past weekend my Barnes & Noble Nook received a software upgrade, which would make this the third since the launch of this e-Reader.

In two previous Blog posts, part one and part two, I gave my impressions of the Nook and discussed the positives and negatives. Throughout I kept mentioning how an additional upgrade could significantly make this a better device.

So I was glad to learn of this latest download and had high hopes regarding its impact.

Unfortunately, instead of an improved reading device, what I got instead was the addition of games like chess and sudoku, the option to surf the web, and a few other revisions. You can read about all the new features here.

Now I don't know if there's been any huge demand from Nook users for such applications, but as far as I'm concerned, even if there was, B&N should have ignored it. This was an opportunity to once and for all address a number of key negatives plaguing this e-Reader. Most notably the refresh rate between page turns, which does now appear to be a tad faster, but still suffers from an odd meshing of the text as it changes from one page to the next. It's kind of hard to describe, but for a split second the page you're reading and the page you're about to read blend together displaying a black blob. It's really disappointing that upgrade #3 didn't at least manage to improve this experience so it would be as good, if not better, than when reading on Amazon's Kindle.

But let's talk about the Chess and Sudoku for a moment. The question here is why. Why bother adding these features when what most people are looking for is simply a great e-Reader. It would be one thing if the Nook was a device that was more like an iPad with a full color screen, but instead the chess board or the sudoku boxes appear in both the E-ink screen and the narrow color screen making for a dual experience that is split in two and ultimately unsatisfying. Plus the chess board is not fully visible on the color screen, so you have to constantly scroll up and down to view and move the pieces, which is very awkward. However, even within this small view size, the color looks so much better than the grey and white display above that the comparison just illustrates how visuals like these long to be in color and will have you wishing the screen above was just as vibrant.

But, playing the games is not nearly as awkward as trying to surf the web. I know technically this device can access the Internet, but it should be kept a secret because the experience is extremely clunky, difficult to navigate, and visually unpleasant. This attempt to position the Nook as a multi-purpose device was a poor decision and should've been reconsidered. All these new features do, in a world where Apple's iPad exists, is shine a big spotlight on the shortcomings of the Nook's capabilities. And I say this with no joy because I believe this device has real potential and could be a very good e-Reader that has an advantage in that it can be improved every few months with software refinements, but NOT if this trend continues.

Barnes & Noble wisely took a page from the iPhone by releasing an e-reader with minimal buttons so that 98% of the functions would be executed on a small color touch-screen, where the look and navigation can be changed dramatically. But this wise choice is not being used to their benefit. Instead of wasting precious programming time on games and poor web browsing, there should be much more focus on developing a great reading experience so all future upgrades are viewed as true improvements, not distractions. Being able to change the way the device works without requiring customers to invest in a new version of the Nook gives B&N the opportunity to recognize the customer's needs and deliver them over and over, each time gaining consumer confidence and loyalty.

My conclusion is such enhancements are meant to justify the current $259 price tag for the Nook, especially when it won't be too long before multi-functional devices like the iPad and Dell's Mini 5 Tablet will be priced competitively.

And now two new Nook devices are on the way? I have to say it's difficult to get excited about such an announcement when the current version has a few key remaining issues that need improvement.

Anyone else tried the Nook after this latest upgrade? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, April 19, 2010

iPadDevCamp NYC 2010 - An App Developer's Paradise
(Plus Alice & Cathy)

I spent most of last week on a business trip visiting my work colleagues in Berkeley, CA where I gave a presentation about all the current and upcoming e-Readers, tablets, and smartphones that have recently released or are expected to come out later this year. It was a long five days of meetings, including one at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino to meet with the new iBookstore team. Though it was a very productive meeting, I was tormented as the Apple employees surrounded me with their shiny new iPads while I still await my 3G model to arrive. I tell you it was pure torture. However, I'm happy to report today I received an email from the Apple store assuring me that my iPad would be shipping as planned sometime at the end of this month. Woohoo! Needless to say, I'm very psyched. :-)

Perhaps this is why I was a logical choice to be a guest panelist at the iPadDevCamp 2010 conference over the weekend at the AOL headquarters in NYC.

This was a very interesting gathering of App developers, designers, strategists, and more arranged by CodeFab, a mobile development firm that describes itself on their website as a company that "provides a wide range of consulting solutions from iPhone, Palm Pre and Android development and training to systems integration and high performance web applications." Whoa, that's a mouthful and sounds very technical.

The event consisted of attendees sitting around with their laptops programming Apps while exchanging ideas, discussing challenges, and helping one another with creative suggestions and expert advice.

So what the heck was I doing there!?

Well, I joined Nina LaFrance, VP of Consumer Marketing for Forbes Digital, Tarik Sedkey, Chief Digital Officer, Young & Rubicam, and Douglas Gottlieb, VP of Digital, Barnes & Noble, to provide perspectives on the state of the book and magazine publishing industry in the digital age, especially in a universe that now co-exists with the iPad. And from what I can tell it was a pretty interesting discussion overall. The panel was videotaped and I was told it would be posted online. If that does in fact happen then I will add it to this post at a later date. But in the meantime, I want to share one aspect of this get together that really stood out for me.

Which brings us to Alice. During one of my explanations regarding what impact the iPad will have on the experience of reading I described an App that presents Alice in Wonderland in a lush and esthetically pleasing way by a company called, of all things, Atomic Antelope. I feel this new visual interpretation of the classic novel serves as a terrific example of how App developers, like those who attended this conference, will likely be the ones who introduce creative content that excites consumers and leads to significant sales. That's one of the most powerful things about Apple's SDK (Software Developer's Kit). It creates a level playing field where any one person or small group of people can go head to head with traditional publishers and compete in the App Store for readers' attention and hard earned dollars. This is pretty amazing when you stop to think about it.

Hats off to the team who created the Alice App, for I feel it demonstrates what's possible and will inspire others, including myself, to re-consider what it means to read on a device like the iPad. To see this App in action, here's a video.

Now I'd like to think we at Perseus also created a unique reading experience with Cathy's Book, an interactive App for teens I'm very proud of and that I believe also does a great job of telling a story with this new technology. Here's a video demo.

But that said, I have to admit this Alice in Wonderland App makes me want to produce more great interactive experiences and I feel everyone in the book and magazine business better start paying attention, for while publishers like the one I work for or popular magazines like Vanity Fair plan their next digital move, small creative upstarts with dreams of big success are unexpectedly swooping in to the various App environments to lure fans and gain devoted followers of their own.

I say more power to them.

What say you?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

April 3rd, 2010 - A Date Which Will Live In (Tech) Infamy

Yes, it was a Saturday to remember, full of technological history in the making, but one which I could only watch from the sidelines :-(

As I mentioned in a previous Blog post a couple of weeks ago, I ordered Apple's iPad with Wi-Fi and 3G back in March and now I'm patiently waiting for it to arrive sometime in late April.

AND IT'S KILLING ME!!!!

Like most tech enthusiasts, I'd been following every bit of news I could about the April 3rd release of the iPad from any source I could devour. I confess, I couldn't get enough.

I was glad that gadget reviewers like David Pogue of the New York Times, Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal, and Ed Baig of USAToday gave the iPad good marks overall.

It was fun to read people's enthusiastic tweets like these by a few folks I follow:
@petermeyers - UPS just called: my iPad is about an hour away!
@pablod - Ok, looking at photos is every bit as amazing as advertised
@ranajune - My iPad is synched and ready to face the world. I couldn't be more excited.
@maureengg - Mesmerizing for media consumption. Fab and fun as novel work tool. Can real-life experiences be as compelling as this?

There were also a couple of Blog posts that really stood out for me and I'd like to share them here:
iPad Review: It Only Had One Flaw by Craig Kanalley, The Huffington Post
iPad: The First Real Family Computer by Sarah Perez, ReadWriteWeb

Plus these two videos featuring Dylan Tweney from Wired do a terrific job of demonstrating the striking difference between using an eInk device like the SonyReader VS. the iPad with its color display and functionality:
Sony Reader Demo
iPad Demo

(The Sony Daily Edition currently sells for $399, so it's hard for me to imagine NOT spending the extra $100 for the iPad to experience all it can do.)

So after all this you might appreciate how excited I was when a colleague of mine brought his new iPad to the office and generously let me play around with it for a while. I'm definitely planning to post a full review later this month, but for now here are my immediate impressions:
1. It has a little bit more heft then I expected.
2. Just like my iPhone, I wouldn't want to drop the iPad 'cos it feels like it would easily get damaged.
3. Reading a book was simply wonderful and it felt great to sit back to enjoy a good book.
4. The virtual typing initially feels a bit strange, just as it did on the iPhone, but in short order I was doing just fine.
5. I can see myself bringing it to every meeting, on every plane trip, and reading newspapers, magazines, and email on the train with a dumb-ass grin on my face ;-)

There's so much more to say and I'm looking forward to doing so in a few weeks after I've really had the chance to dive deeply into this amazing device.

Whether you love it, hate it, or can't make up your mind, one thing for sure is April 3rd, 2010, will be the day in personal computing when everything changed - And for the better!

Don't believe that? Then check this out.

If you've got an opinion about the iPad, I'd love to hear it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A New Reading Community of Cornucopian Proportions

This week I attended an event held by a technology company called DMC Worldwide that introduced COPIA, a new, robust social community created especially for book lovers.

I confess I hadn't heard of DMC before but apparently they've been around for more than 40 years successfully developing products for the Telecom industry and they appear to be well funded.

After a very nice cocktail party thought-leader Mike Shatzkin, who's been working closely with the Copia team in an advisory role, took the stage to deliver an enthusiastic speech about the service. This was followed with an overview emphasizing how Copia was different from others and THEN there was a demo showing how it actually works. Unfortunately this part of the presentation got somewhat derailed by technical difficulties, but it didn't really matter because by that time the presenter had already gone over much of what readers will be able to do using this platform. Overall it appeared to be similar to existing book community sites like Shelfari, GoodReads, and LibraryThing, combined with an eBook marketplace that functions much like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony, but...on steroids.

So what exactly is Copia? Well, here's how their official press release describes it: The COPIA platform is a hybrid solution for consumers of all ages to experience a completely new way to discover, enjoy, share and purchase books, newspapers, magazines and a wide variety of digital content. At the same time, it integrates a software application engine for OEM brands looking to deliver content across their digital devices including e-readers, notebooks, netbooks, tablets and smartphones.

Plus, here's a video on their website that helps tell more of the story.

If this all looks and sounds like a lot, that's because it is! And as impressive as Copia appears, it just might be too much too soon for users to embrace from a company with not much name recognition or reputation.

As mentioned above, Copia intends to ambitiously launch with their own eReaders and SIX of them to boot! So I was pretty disappointed when there weren't any devices at the event to try out. Also disappointing in my book is how they'll all use ePaper, a similar technology to eInk, which means black and white, no color. That said, I was told by a representative the highest end model with features like a 9" screen, Wi-Fi, 3G, Etc., will cost around $300, so that's pretty affordable. I did manage to find a video on YouTube that demonstrates one of the 6" touchscreen models called the Ocean6 and a spokesperson provides even more description of the overall service.

Another thing missing from the event was the mention of how Copia intends to reach consumers and raise awareness about this incredible world they've created. Yes, it will be a community accessible on practically every type of mobile device and computer integrating the ability for users to connect with all their current Facebook friends and Twitter followers as well as new ones inside the Copia universe, but first people need to know that the service even exists. And that seems like a huge challenge when you consider how long Sony has been plugging away to promote their Sony Reader and eBookstore with ads in airports, magazines, and even television with modest results. And of course Amazon, who currently has the bulk of eBook market share, owns Shelfari and when they decide to integrate that community within their eBookstore they'll have thousands of Kindle owners ready to participate.

Personally, I don't quite understand the need to communicate with complete strangers about books I'm reading and only consider recommendations from people whose opinions I trust. But that's just me. I'm aware there are indeed tons of people who find it appealing to make their personal libraries public in the hopes of finding others who share their passion. With Copia they'll definitely be able to do all that and then some.

One way or another I believe Copia will succeed, even if they end up powering the backend of a higher profile eBook company.

If I were Sony, I'd contact DMC in a heartbeat!

How does Copia look to you?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Attack of the Android Tablets!!

On March 12th I pre-ordered the iPad and must confess I absolutely can't wait for it to arrive! But it won't be in my grubby little hands until late April because I picked a 32 GB model with WiFi and 3G (I know...wah, wah, wah). Why? Well, my train commute is over three hours a day and I want to stay connected at all times so I can do things like read the New York Times and Wired, watch streaming video, and check email. And maybe there are a few things Apple fans like myself had wished the iPad included, like a webcam or a USB port, but no matter, I'm an early adopter, Apple fanboy, and not overly concerned about the lack of such features and look forward to writing about what I expect to be a groundbreaking device here.

But while most consumers are probably waiting to see how the tablet wars play out, companies like Dell, Archos, Haleron, NEC, Viewsonic, Asus, HTC, and several others from around the globe are reportedly getting ready to battle Apple in the hopes of winning over customers by releasing tablets of their own in the months ahead. And all will offer at least one that will use Android, the Google Operating System, to drive it. This is a smart and necessary move by these brands, because although some are pretty well known, most of them have no platform to sell products well or a history of delivering a good user experience. By using Android, these devices will have a more stable O/S and benefit from Google's knack for creating the great products we've all become accustomed to using everyday. There are informed guestimates by those in the know predicting at least 50 such tablets of varying shapes and sizes will be available for purchase throughout the year.

The BIG question mark is how, if at all, these devices influence people's book reading habits since they'll be able to access the web, run applications, and present content in vibrant color. To illustrate this invasion of Android tablets, I figure it's best to link directly to some videos that demonstrate the array of nifty features each will be offering.

So, here's a look at just a few:

Dell Mini 5

Entrourage Edge

Archos 7 Tablet (You gotta love this guy's enthusiasm)

Hott MD500

SmaKit S7

And many, many more are listed here at Engadget.

In a previous Blog post I wrote about the upcoming launch of Google Editions and how books will be easily purchased and read on just about any handheld device with a web browser. With all of the above tablets accessing the Internet, it isn't hard to envision how this would be so. Soon a world of information and entertainment will be available with the touch of a finger and way before the F.T.C. complete's its review of the Google Buzz malaise, we just might see the launch of a Google Editions App within the Android Marketplace designed to compete with Apple's iBookstore, as well as Amazon's Kindle App. And as glad as I'll be to read my library on the iPad, it's great to see so many choices on the horizon opening new sales opportunities in both domestic and international markets for publishers and authors alike.

Plus there are a number of non-Android tablets coming from the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Fusion Garage, and Microsoft, so things are about to get real interesting, real soon!

If you're thinking about buying a tablet this year, will it be the iPad or are you waiting to see what else is coming down the pike?

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Look at Nook: After Upgrade #2 (Part Two)

In a previous Blog post I had written a basic overview about Barnes & Noble's eReader called the Nook.

Since then I've made a point of buying a few eBooks directly with the Nook, spent time using the color touchscreen to navigate, and tested the B&N App that enables continued reading on smaller mobile devices like the iPhone. Here's what I found:

First let's talk about the buying experience. Touching the green Shop button immediately brought up a welcome screen touting "The world's largest eBookstore" along with a list of products to choose from including magazines, newspapers, and more. I selected eBooks and what appeared was a list of B&N's bestselling titles. Yes, all 1,073,713 of them! I suppose I could've planned spending the next few months of my life scrolling from page to page to see them all, but clearly the better move (call me crazy!) was to select the Browse Subjects option. I was then presented with a list of usual suspects like Biography, Fiction, Mystery, Etc., and with a swipe of my finger scrolled up and down to view all the available categories. I found the best way to do this was to flick with my fingertip, because trying to move the listing with any pressure could mistakenly bring up an unintended genre. If you've ever used an iPhone, you'd find the screen on the Nook simply doesn't respond the same way and requires a more deliberate touch. I chose Fiction & Lit Classics and decide to search for Moby Dick using the virtual keyboard, which worked nicely. There's no Advanced Search, so the more accurate the entry, like both the title and author name, the better the results.

Several editions were available ranging in price, including some for free. At this point I felt it was a good time to try the Show Covers feature to display color jacket images within the bottom screen. This concept takes a page from Apple's cover flow, which we've become accustomed to in iTunes and on iPods, but unfortunately the side to side scrolling of book covers on the Nook is a bit slow and choppy. But it's a really nice feature and can be improved with the next software upgrade for sure. I found a version of Melville's classic that I liked, bought it, and in approximately one minute it downloaded. All told, not as fast as purchasing an eBook with a Kindle, but then again neither the Kindle2 or Kindle DX feature an additional color screen or the convenience of a virtual keyboard for searching. And again, with another upgrade or two, B&N has the opportunity to streamline the buying experience to remove some unnecessary steps and messages, which will go a long way to making it more user friendly.

A return to My Library found next to the book's title a tiny "LendMe" icon. This feature isn't currently available for all books and is only possible between Nooks (insert joke here). With that in mind, I don't feel this is worth discussing because at the moment it's probably a challenge just to find someone you know with a Nook of their own - Remember Zune? But in time this might end up being a bonus that benefits close friends, book clubs, or family members if the eReader grows in popularity.

So, I began reading my purchase with no intentions to share and while my eyes were fixed on the black & white E-Ink screen, the color screen went dark to avoid being a distraction. Pretty cool. And what's even cooler is how I could swipe this dark field with my finger to turn the pages, which I find preferable from pressing the arrows located on each side of the Nook's casing. Unfortunately, what wasn't so cool and downright frustrating was how this neat feature didn't always work properly. It seems the more the Nook is swiped, it trips up, but with a lot of patience the function eventually begins working again. Add this glitch to the list of really good features that hopefully will be improved with an upgrade. There are also a number of navigation issues in great need of redesign, reapproach, and reprogramming, so perhaps they too will be addressed sooner than later.

I admire how E-Ink works, I'm just not a fan overall. I prefer dimly lit rooms at work and especially at home so I find ALL eReader screens difficult to read most times. And the contrast between the bright colorful screen at the bottom of the Nook only serves as a constant reminder of how dull the top screen appears. Besides battery life, the argument for using E-Ink is that it's easier on the eyes. Personally I find myself straining to read E-Ink screens and just don't agree with this point of view. Plus here's a New York Times article that debunks that theory (so there!).

The color screen is based on Google's Android Operating System and if there is a next generation Nook in the future, it's possible B&N will forego E-Ink and redesign the entire device so that it uses a full color touchscreen. In a world soon flooded with iPads, Slates, JooJoos, and Couriers, this isn't difficult to imagine.

One additional function that would be great to see a future Nook include is playing audiobooks. I find it a bit odd that B&N sells MP3s that can be downloaded and played on a number of mobile devices EXCEPT for the Nook!

And finally...the B&N eReader App.

Well, I was looking forward to testing how the books I bought would synch between my Nook and iPhone, but I'm afraid this just didn't work for me. I tried several times during the past week and couldn't even get books in My Library to successfully download to my iPhone for the chance to compare the experience to using Kindle's App, which was created for the same purpose. I'm truly hoping this problem is unique to me and I will update this post when/if it gets resolved.

In the meantime, if you own a Nook or know someone who does, please take a moment and share your experience here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Look at Nook: After Upgrade #2 (Part One)

The e-Books team at Barnes and Noble was kind enough to send me a Nook e-Reader back in January. I've been using it consistently ever since and feel like I can now give it a fair evaluation. So...here it goes:

When I first opened the box I was struck by the minimal cardboard packaging that housed the clear plastic case protecting the Nook. It looked sleek, advanced, and appeared as if it was floating within the recyclable shell. However, I'm sorry to say my admiration quickly turned to frustration and puzzlement when I found myself unable to easily remove it. I kept wondering if anyone at B&N's headquarters had actually attempted to open this first-hand. I carefully pulled, tugged, lifted, etc. but was so afraid of breaking the device that it literally took me a good 5 to 10 minutes to slowly but surely free it from the clutches of the package. I've heard others complain about having a similar experience so I hope B&N comes up with a better system.

The overall design of the Nook is a cross between a Kindle and an Alex, with an off-white exterior surrounding its dual screens: one black & white for reading and the other a narrow color touchscreen for navigation. It has a nice look and it feels pretty good in your hands. Even so, I immediately bought a cover because besides wanting to keep it protected, to me this makes it feel more like reading a book when held. They range in price from $19.95 to $125.00 and I picked one for $29.95 that I thought would be both simple and functional. I have to say I'm pretty happy with my choice and recommend it if you're a Nook owner that hasn't decided on a cover yet.

My Nook came preloaded with a couple of classics, like Dracula and Little Women as well as a sample chapter from The Lost Symbol, which is great since it gives you a chance to read a little and play around to get familiar with the device before having to buy anything. About a week later I received Pride and Prejudice and every now and then a sample poem, magazine essay, Blog post or some other content will automatically download to the Nook for me to check out and I like that.

I received my Nook after a slew of bad reviews, most notably by David Pogue of The New York Times, and must confess I was wondering if what I was holding in my hands could truly be as bad as Mr. Pogue and others reported. Most of those negative evaluations ran in December and thankfully by the early part of the New Year B&N had introduced a software upgrade to make some much needed improvements. This update launched once I registered the device, but I gotta tell ya, I almost completely missed it because the indicator that it was running appeared in the lower right hand corner of the E-Ink screen within a very small grey box that was difficult to read. But once I discovered this download was processing, I thought to myself, Ah, this will probably resolve the issues everyone's been talking about.

Well, not quite. Yes, a number of bugs were in fact eliminated and slight revisions were introduced, but unfortunately the biggest one requiring immediate attention, the slow refresh of all those tiny black dots that appear as words, go away, and return as an entirely new set of words (we're talkin' about E-Ink here), was still noticeably slower when compared to the Kindle or Sony Reader. As it is, this brief but noticeable two-and-a-half second flash between pages is one of the key things most people find a bit jarring, even when viewed on an e-Reader that's faster, so I was pretty disappointed when B&N delivered a bandaid instead of a real remedy.

But THEN in early February a second upgrade was announced, which I heard about from a tweet by one of the tech publications. I quickly downloaded the upgrade while on a train (again, tiny grey box/hard to see) and wallah!, suddenly my Nook had a slightly new look. The buttons on the color screen were no longer full squares, but were now a bit smaller and rounded. It's curious why this change was made, but my hope is that it demonstrates B&N's ability to take in constructive feedback and then respond to it effectively. It would be interesting to learn if this type of change was made due to "in-store" comments from customers as they were trying out the device. Perhaps a majority of users didn't quite understand what they originally saw on the bottom screen were buttons to be touched. If so, B&N has a unique opportunity to capitalize on the interactions between customer and employee and use them to their advantage.

Additionally, new revisions were made in the form of "wording" to describe functionality. For example, when selecting a title from the My Library menu, the screen displayed a large grey box that originally said something like "Opening program," which seemed cold and impersonal. But now the box reads "Opening your book" or "Opening your document" when viewing a self-loaded PDF. It's nothing earth shattering but these small changes show that B&N is working to make the user experience more inviting, which is nice, but the question must be asked...why is there a loading message at all? The competition has managed to avoid interrupting the user's experience and so should B&N. Oh, and that refresh issue I referred to earlier? It too seems to have been improved but by about a half of a second. So it now takes about 2 seconds to go from page to page on the Nook and about 1 on the Kindle. It's amazing how a split second can make such a difference, but when you're reading for long periods of time, those seconds really add up.

Another problem Barnes & Noble fixed with Upgrade #2 was the retaining of bookmarks within a personal document, which wasn't working beforehand. And this was a big one for me because I read manuscripts on my Nook and really needed this to work properly. And hooray, now it does. I must say B&N deserves credit for making it very easy to upload personal documents on the Nook. I've put on several PDFs by simply dropping them into a folder and to my eye the documents format pretty well. This is one area where Kindle falls short in my book but I'll address that sometime in the future.

Hopefully all the remaining quirks will be addressed with the next few upgrades and the Nook will just keep getting better and better.

Next week I'll focus on purchasing e-Books wirelessly with the Nook, the Google Android O/S that drives the color screen, and the companion e-Reader App for the iPhone.

If you own a Nook, what do you think of it so far?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Enhanced e-Books: What's All the Hubbub!?

This week I attended the Tools of Change conference (TOC) in Times Square, NYC. If you're not familiar with this event, it's a gathering of publishing and technology pros who come together to discuss the current and possible future of books and reading habits. Overall, I thought it was a very good show and was glad I had the opportunity to be there. In addition, I was a speaker taking part in a presentation called "Ten Secrets of Digital Publishing (They Won't Tell You About)", which was given to about 250 people. It was great to see so many folks in the room.

There were several sessions going on simultaneously covering important issues currently facing book publishers such as e-Book formatting, digital printing, social media marketing, etc., bookended by a number of morning and afternoon Keynotes. Some were good, some not-so-good, but each seemed to have one hot topic connecting them in one way or another. And that burning curiosity on the minds of just about everyone there was e-Books, e-Books, e-Books, or more specifically: Enhanced e-Books.

So what exactly is an enhanced e-book? Well, that depends on who you talk to, but generally, it's a reading experience that includes additional bells & whistles such as video, audio, images, and added functionality like the ability to shake, zoom, and more, depending what digital device you're viewing the book on. At the moment, devices using E-Ink technology like the Kindle, Nook, and all Sony Readers, cannot include video. However, these e-readers can display black & white photos, play audio, and also include features like being able to look up the definition of just about any word within the text, which is pretty cool. Obviously you can't do this with a physical book, so even on a basic level, text read on a monochromatic device capable of such a feature is in fact "enhanced." However most, or more likely none, of the titles available from Amazon, B&N, Sony, and others, allow publishers to add things like an exclusive audio of an author reading, or say a photo gallery of locations mentioned in the storyline, which is too bad, because this would emphasize how even reading a book in shades of black can offer more. You can listen to audiobooks on all these devices and the Kindle does use something called text-to-speech technology, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I believe small but effective enhancements like these that don't cost an arm and a leg to incorporate would be appealing to readers and possibly enough to be perceived as adding value.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the idea of developing enhanced products like Apps that offer a vast array of multimedia features, but overall, there really isn't any strong proof that the average consumer wants all this extra stuff. Can it be that people just don't realize they want it? Maybe. No-one really knows but we publishers are spending a good amount of cash to find out. There are lots of products available now in the App store produced by companies like Vook, Enhanced Editions, KiwiTech, and many, many others created in conjunction with the publishing house, or in some cases directly with an author, and it's all very interesting to watch. I've been involved in putting together a few Apps: one meant to be a fun, free marketing vehicle, the other a work of fiction by David Morrell called The Spy Who Came for Christmas that includes a book trailer, video interview, audio interview, radio spot, complete audiobook synched with the text, as well as the complete text of an earlier work by the author, all for $15.95, the price of the tradepaper edition. The other I had the pleasure of demonstrating during the TOC conference is called Cathy's Book by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman, an intense, content-rich App for teen girls, that's kinda difficult to describe, but here's a video that demonstrates all that it does. And though it's terrific fun and artistically rewarding to work on projects like these, we as publishers need to ask ourselves whether or not the amount of money spent to create books with such interactivity is worth it. In other words...will we make back what we invest?

I can tell you first hand that it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to make a really great App chock-full of good content. By the time you plan, conceive, gather assets, edit, program, and triple-check your work for quality assurance, 6 to 8 months may have quickly gone by. Plus at the end of all the blood, sweat, and tears there could be a $20K (or more) price tag still to be paid. Honestly, this process has given me pause. And for me the three days I spent at TOC confirmed the most important thing we should do as publishers is to make sure our e-Book files, whether they be .pdf,.ePub, or whatever, are formatted properly, meaning they look as close as possible to the way they do in print. I know of a number of publishers that already take this to heart, but plenty don't, and it's not for lack of concern, but more about lack of awareness. The thing is, if we don't make the basic act of reading digitally a pleasure, why would consumers believe an enhanced version will be any better?

But this isn't easy to do and just thinking about it makes my head hurt.

We're talking about having to focus our efforts on delivering fully formatted files so we know in advance exactly how they will appear on each popular e-reader in the marketplace. We cannot depend on the e-retailers to do this for us. Note I said "popular" e-readers because I've yet to see one person in the real world using a Cool-er, iRex Reader, Alex, or Que, and don't expect to anytime soon, so the immediate need is generally about preparing files for Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader. But even with just these three main players we're still facing procedures that are extremely time consuming, require additional resources, not to mention production staff members with real editorial sensibilities. Unfortunately sending the exact same .ePub file to B&N (Nook), Sony (Pocket, Touch, Daily Edition), Apple (iPad), isn't going to resolve the issue because each device has it's own way of interpreting the file and most times the text just doesn't look as originally intended. It's enough to make you want to run out of the room screaming! Be that as it may, we have no choice but to address this head on if we expect to build a new digital future for books, whether the landscape be dynamic or monochromatic.

I mentioned the iPad and as you might imagine it was the reading gadget that most everyone wanted to talk about at TOC simply because of all the amazing things publishers are expecting it to do. And with the promise of this incredible tablet looming, one presentation given by inventor, futurist, and author Ray Kurzweil, that really resonated was all about Blio, an eReader software program that displays books three dimensionally and with plenty of enhancements (if desired). But even sans multimedia, this 3D experience developed by the author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, is sure to look great on all tablet computers and may end being one of the best ways to present enhanced e-Books, since Blio can also be used on desktop computers, laptops/netbooks, and mobile devices like the iPhone. Keep your eye on this. It's poised to get a tremendous amount of attention by consumers and the academic community.

I could go on and on and will be revisiting this topic, but in summing up:

1. Publishers need to make sure "straight" (aka vanilla) text e-Book files are properly formatted for ALL e-readers.
2. With great "vanilla" e-Books we can then begin to explore pushing the boundaries of E-Ink devices.
3. Leave the bells & whistles like video, audio, graphics, etc., for Apps and channels like Blio and Zinio.

What do you think?

P.S. - There's another great industry conference that took place this past January called Digital Book World, and if you haven't heard of it, then I recommend you check it out. Much of the above was covered there as well, plus I had the pleasure of being a guest panelist to discuss the ins and outs of online marketing.