Archives for posts with tag: eBooks

One of the great things about attending O’Reilly’s Tools of Change, or any good conference for that matter, is that you get the chance to kick different ideas around with really, really, I-mean-really bright people. In talking with folks from BookGlutton, Harlequin (yes that Harlequin… you know, the progressive publishing company – see previous post on their reading experiments), and others, I’m more convinced than ever that social reading is the next killer app, especially as tablet computing goes mainstream.

By social reading, I mean platforms that allow people to interact with each other through reading. In a perfect world, it connects authors with readers, and readers with each other.

Sounds simple enough, right? But how do you make the experience so compelling that people want to join, return to, and participate in the community? And equally important, how do you find a way to make it into a sustainable business?

Rather than pondering “how do we create a “Facebook” for readers?”, I think we can find answers to the first question by looking at a “parallel” experience: social music sites. In particular, I’m going to use one in particular, The Sixtyone, as possible model for a social reading experience.

Brief disclaimer: In January of this year, The Sixtyone went through a site redesign that was not particularly well received by members of the community (both artist and listeners). For the purposes of this write up, I’m choosing to not engage with that debate. You can read a brief summary of it here.

The Sixtyone

[The Sixtyone]The Sixtyone, named after the US highway, wants “to enable the creative middle class, providing talented artists the opportunity to make a living making music.” Artists upload their music to the site, along with supporting information such as lyrics, band pictures, and tour information. Users can browse, listen to, and comment on songs, create playlists that other members can view, share their music of choice via social networking sites, and purchase MP3 downloads.

[The Sixtyone Interface]

What differentiates The Sixtyone (or “t61” for short) is the fact that it also builds gaming into the experience. Listeners and artists are able to earn “reputation” by completing different tasks. The more reputation you have, the more you are capable of influencing aspects of the website, such as which songs are promoted to the homepage.

Let me give you an example: each time you return to the site you gain a certain number of reputation points. You also gain a number of hearts. Hearts are used to mark songs that you like. The more hearts a song acquires, the higher it’s rank on the site, the more chances that the song will be seen by people and receive more hearts. Plus, if a song performs well after you heart it, you’ll earn reputation points for picking a winner.  Players can also earn additional reputation and hearts by completing quests such as the following one:[Sample Quest]

At the time I wrote this, I’d tallied up some 555 reputation points, playing over 50 songs, and completing a number of quests. That ranks me as a level 3 user, on the way to level  4. Right now, I’m not able to do much more than heart a song once. After I reach level 5 I’ll be able to go back and give those songs an additional hearts, letting me get even more reputation from those songs if they get popular.

BTW, to prevent gaming, you need to listen to a song for at least a minute before hearting it. This prompts the listener to spend time learning about the artist, checking out other songs that they have, and getting recommendations on similar artists.

Once I have enough reputation, I can start spending it to influence the site. The primary way is by promoting a song to the home page. Every three hours there’s a reputation “auction”, where people make bids to “revive” a song. For example, at this moment, 724photography (level 10) is willing to pay 14,652 reputation points to move Iron and Wine’s Boy with a Coin to the homepage.

Artists also have to play the reputation game. The number of songs that they can post is tied to their amount of reputation.  So rather than dumping one’s entire catalog onto the site, artists have to pick and choose (and promote) songs that they thing are strong enough to build up their reputation. Otherwise, they can’t add more material.

Lessons to Learn (aka the Whuffie Model)

The first is to make sure you are focusing on the right verb. It’s easier to explain this by example. t61 is about music. So rather than focusing the experience on discussing music, it builds everything around listening to music. I don’t think the importance of this can be overstated. There are limited discussion capabilities built into the site, but they are not forefronted.

If you’ve read Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the rest of the lessons that can be learned from the site should be more than a little reminiscent of the Whuffie System described in the novel:

  • Give participation value—Ok, so in the post Farmville world, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that gaming can drive participation. However, what differentiates t61, is that by playing, I get the chance to influence the site by paying to promote music (which may, in turn, can help me gain more reputation). Likewise, for artists reputation has a direct influence on how many songs they can have on the site.
  • Influence/Reputation only has value if you can lose it— Paying means paying. If I bid 14K of reputation to move a song to the homepage and I win, I lose that hard earned reputation. I may gain it back if a lot more people heart that song while it’s on the homepage, but there’s no guarantee.
  • Finding the right quests— Align the goals of users and the site. Part of what makes t61 work is that it pays me to do what I already like (listen to music). Most of the quests revolve around listening to new songs or ones with low heart counts. This lets me get more reputation through completing the quest and by helping promote good songs before they get big. Both actions reward me for sharing music I like.
  • Don’t make it too easy—I need to listen to a song for at least one minute before you can heart it. A minute is a long time to sit through a song that you don’t like. Likewise, you only get X number of hearts to dole out during a 24 hour session. Once they are gone, they’re gone. You either have to earn more through a quest or wait for them to refresh.

So how to apply this to Social Reading?

Building on t61’s example, I think that a Social Reading site has to be a reading experience first and a discussing reading experience second (an some are already doing this). This is a the model lends itself to poetry, short and episodic stories, and other content that can be read in a single sitting.

In terms of quests & reputation, I think those translate easily enough that I don’t need to go into detail.

What particularly jazzes me about this model, in terms of reading, is the playlist. I think that this has a lot of potential, especially in economic terms. I have to admit that I haven’t bought anything from t61 yet. Part of the reason for this is that I can easily access the song on the site, and while I’m logged in I can listen to it as much as I want. Reading is a little different. When it comes to reading, I want to be able to have the content at my fingertips (either electronically or physically). And while this may say more about my relative interest in books versus music more so than the market, I’m willing to pay to take my books with me.

So where does the playlist come in? Imagine what happens when we change the nomenclature from “playlist” to “edited edition.” I think there is a real possibility that people would be willing to buy collections of stories assembled by other individuals within the community who they trust. Authors could even get involved – remember that the iTunes store has been using this model for years. And, provided that the content is well tagged/structured, it’s entirely possible to have both an electronic distribution model and a print-on-demand model as well.

Admittedly, there’s a lot that needs to be worked out here. For example, if one’s collection gets bought, should she get reputation points or a financial cut? Based on some research I did years ago on YouTube revenue sharing, a financial cut may not be necessary, especially if the site is attentive to responding to user’s desires. Likewise there are questions about ownership and licensing of the content.

All that said, there’s a lot of potential to use this type of model to create a really compelling (and profitable) user reading experience.  The real question is whose going to give it a shot?

As part of my PhD work at Cornell, I get to hang out with folks from Science and Technology Studies and Information Science. Both groups are very interested in how various parties, and in particular “users” affect the development of technologies. Case and point: the Model T.

When Ford introduced the Model T, a significant number of rural adopters found a novel use for the car – as a “mobile” engine for powering farm equipment. As the illustration above depicts, farmers would jack the car up, remove the rubber tire and attach the wheel to various crank driven machinery. 3rd party vendors even sold kits to help adapt the car for this type of use (in modern terms they were jailbreaking the Model T) – at least until Ford Motors cracked down on this application.

The moral of this example: the way users use technology can vary greatly from the way the creators imagined it should be used.

So how does this tie into a discussion on eReading?

As I’ve posted a number of times, pree iPad Steve Jobs, as late as two years ago, was holding firm to the idea that people didn’t read anymore, and even if they did, the iPhone wasn’t a reading platform. In 20/20 hindsight this may seem like an odd position, especially with the launch of iBooks and the iPad. But at the time it made some sense. Seriously, who would read on a device with a tiny LCD screen that consumed a lot of power?

Well, as it turns out, iPhone users, especially those who had a daily commute, would.

Like the Model T and farm equipment, there were outside factors that influenced how people used the technology.

First, for most people, the iPhone was a replacement device; by that I mean that it probably wasn’t a “gateway” cellphone for most people. While it might have been their first smartphone, the vast majority of users had already integrated a cellphone into their daily rhythms. They were used to carrying that sort of device with them wherever they went. And, more importantly, they were used to routinely charging it (we’ll get back to that latter point in a moment).

These same people had also grown accustom to the notion of using a phone to help pass downtime (waiting in line, at the doctor’s office, and, most importantly, on commutes). In fact, cell phone providers have been touting this as a “feature” of cellphones since the early 2000’s (apps as a revenue stream predate the iPhone). So iPhone users did what you might expect – they used their phones to “kill time.” And the best way to kill time was to explore the App Store.

As mentioned previously, ¾’s of the apps downloaded from the store are free ones. And, not surprisingly, most (if not all) of the eReaders available on the App store are free. So, people began to download reading apps. And, while projected text (as opposed to the reflective eInk surface of the Kindle) is “harder” on most folks the eyes, when content is begin read for limited periods at a time (say on a commute), people didn’t notice the strain (especially when there were convenient, multi-touch zoom in and out controls).

Likewise, while an LCD consumes far more power than an eInk display, people had integrated routine charging of the phone into their daily routine (see, I told you I’d get back to it – this, by the way is why, even though LCDs consume far more power than eInk, eInk isn’t going to win on its power efficiency). And they did it regardless of if they had read or not.

Thus common wisdom about reading on an iPhone (or other smartphone) was proved wrong.

The lesson here is that people use technology in unexpected ways. And the unexpected ways that they use technology have unintended consequences on other technologies. Nothing operates in a vacuum. As the cliché goes, a pebble dropped in one end of the pool can case ripples (if not waves) in the other end. So let’s discuss a potential downside to these mobile technologies.

Data Strain

While smartphone and the apps that run on them may change our expectations about what “technology” should do, they have lost of unintended effects. In June of 2009 AT&T revealed that the average iPhone user consumes upwards of 400MB of voice/data bandwidth a month. That is significantly more traffic than AT&T is used to providing. In fact, according to AT&T, 3% of smartphone users, primarily iPhone owners, are responsible for 40% of total data usage on the network. If you’ve been to a major US city and experience poor quality on your iPhone, this is part of the reason.

This isn’t just a problem with AT&T. As more feature and app rich phones (and tablets) come online with different companies (for example the Nexus One and Droid on Verizon) networks are going to become increasingly stressed by data demands. And, at least as of this writing, US cell phone providers are not quite sure how to keep up with the demand.

Typically smartphones require subscribers to sign up for both a voice and a data plan from their cell phone providers. Current carriers offer a variety of tiered data plans, ranging from a few megabytes a month to unlimited data transfers. Typically customers are “nicely” pushed toward the more costly unlimited data plans. However, carriers are beginning to discover that consumers are more than capable of consuming unlimited data and more.

The problem that US carriers are facing is that their existing infrastructure is not prepared for load that unlimited data use puts on it. AT&T’s recent network issues in cities like New York have been directly tied to the overwhelming amount of wireless data transfers taking place. As more and more devices rely on mobile networks for internet access, this problem is only going to increase.

To date, the networks have responded in three ways. First, new cellphone plans require a larger amount of cell phone subscribers (including non-smartphone users) to sign up for basic data plans. The second move is to create a number of tools to “politely” inform users of the amount of bandwidth that they are consuming. This is directly tied to the final move: AT&T and Verizon are beginning to float (or perhaps threaten) the elimination of unlimited data plans.

And that was before this:

Not only is there a tension between users and cell providers, but, there’s also one between the providers and equipment manufacturers. Take for example Steve Job’s rhetoric during the announcement was that of a “breakthrough deal” with AT&T allowing unlimited network access for $29.99 a month. Thus Apple positions itself as the good guy, fighting for better data rates. The question remains, how will the influx of new users tax the existing networks (and potentially lead to everyone else paying higher data prices to make up for the difference).

Either way, there’s a message from Apple and Google to USE THAT 3G NETWORKING at the same time AT&T and Verizon are taking actions that say “but not too much.”

Two weeks ago at the online O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, I closed a presentation on eReaders with a discussion of the Microsoft Courier, a dual touch-screen digital codex. In theory, Microsoft will be bringing this 7” folding computer to market sometime next year. What excites me about this device, in terms of eReading, is the potential for new interactions with a text. One obvious option is to actually read an eBook in codex format (as we would a traditional “paper” book). However, that’s not really particularly interesting, nor does it necessarily take advantage of the real potential of this sort of device to create revolutionary new forms of reading.

How might the second screen enhance reading? I’m not sure, and I haven’t had a chance to really wrestle with that. But we can look to the example of the Nintendo DS portable gaming system. A key feature that differentiates it from the Playstation Portable(PSP) is the integration of a second, touch sensitive screen, into game experience. Given the possibilities that opened up, we shouldn’t be surprised if similar things happen with reading when we add a second screen. But, in order for that to happen, something else needs to occur.

Beyond the Courier’s innovative form, it has another key advantage over existing eReaders – it’s a software development platform. I can’t go out and download software to run on a Kindle. This means that the way we read on it, and other eReaders, is restricted to how their designers imagine we should read on them. While I trust Amazon to be experts at delivering content to the device, I don’t associate them with innovation in terms of reading; nor do I look to Apple or Microsoft (or Google… more on that in a sec) for that matter.

Just as modern printing was started by an run-of-the-mill goldsmith in Mainz ((sorry Gutenberg, but its true)) , I think that a truly revolutionary form of on-screen text interaction is probably going to be created by a programmer that nobody has ever heard of (maybe a member of the Open Publishing Lab). In order for that to happen, eReaders need to be able to have Software Development Kits and run third party software. ((At the time I presented, the Plastic Logic reader, just renamed the Que, was one example of an coming eReader that was supposed to have an associated Software Development Kit. ))

Bottom line, beyond price point and color, at the conference I said the future was multiple screens and open software development. Why didn’t I buy a lottery ticket that day??!! Since the conference, three new eReaders have been either hinted at or announced that all feature dual screens. And, if I’m reading the tea leaves right at least two of those will support third party software.

Each of the units features one eInk display and one LCD display. Two are tablet format with side-by-side displays. The third is a codex like the Courier. And, perhaps most interesting, if the rumors are true, all three will run Google’s Android Mobile OS.

The first reader, and the one we know the least about, is the just announced Barnes and Noble Nook. It features two screens and runs, according to Gizmodo, Android. Gizmodo, an indispensable website for staying on top of tech developments, also ran the following “leaked” renderings of the device. And at $259, the same price as the single eInk screen Kindle, Amazon should be concerned. The Nook adds a number of new features including unique ability for users to lend eBooks to friends. For a full comparison, see Barnes and Noble’s comparison of the Nook to the Kindle.

[Barnes and Noble eReader]

The other two readers were announced this week. The first of these two is the Spring Design Alex eReader. Like the B&N model, it’s a tablet with neighboring eInk and touch sensitive LCD screens. And, based on the press release, it’s definitely running Android. Also, like the B&N reader, it features telephony networking, via a GSM chip which means that it can access the web in the US and Europe. Spring Design also says that it will have expandable memory via SD cards. The similarity between it and the B&N device, in terms of features and form factors does lead one to wonder if there might be an OEM agreement between the two companies.

[Spring Design Alex eReader]

The final eReader is the enTourage eDGe™. The eDGe is a codex design which folds down to 8.5” x 10.75” x 1” (approximately the size of an average hard cover) with side-by-side sensitive eInk (stylus) and LCD (touch) screens. It will be expandable via USB and SD card and will have audio and video playback capabilities. Unlike the proposed Microsoft Courier, it doesn’t have a camera. And another big difference, like the Alex, it’s running Android. It’s also $490, which means that it has a tough road to hoe.

[enTourage eDGe™ eReader]

[Andriod Logo]
From a brief bit of research, there’s nothing floating around the web to suggest that Android is optimized for dual screen display. In fact, the only other dual screen Android device I was able to find is a Russian cell phone. That said its a free, open, wireless platform and operating system. It does everything a device needs to act like a computer, uses little power, and supports endless outside development. ((Thank you to Evan Schnittman for reminding me of what makes Android such a enticing mobile development platform.)) And that final point is the most important for this story. Android is, without a doubt, a software development platform, which, in theory means, that all of these devices should be able to run third party software. And that possibility of opening up software development means that we may be approaching the next phase in the development (tipping point perhaps) of eReaders.

There’s also another takeaway here. In a matter of a few days, Android has become a major platform player in the eReader space. If I was Apple or Microsoft ((It’s somewhat ironic that Android’s expansion to other mobile devices comes at a time when Microsoft is rebranding its mobile platform as phone only. Though to be fair to MS, apparently the Plastic Logic Cue will run Windows CE.)), I’d be taking notice at this point. If these third party companies pull it off, Android will have officially expanded beyond mobile phones to other hand held devices. Likewise, if I was Amazon, I’d be a bit concerned as well. The Kindle is a closed platform, whose primary appeal is based on an easy, one-click buying experience – not necessarily a reading experience. All of these devices are internet enabled, meaning that it’s entirely possible that they could bring a similar one-click experience to shopping for reading material. Couple that with potentially revolutionary reading experiences and we could have the makings of real Kindle killers.

Time will tell. And this should definitely make for an interesting Tools Of Change conference this Spring!