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. 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?