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This continues an exploration of the technologies and trends that are influencing the future of reading. Previous posts have discussed the GMS mobile telephony standard and how the iPhone has changed the expectations smartphones and other screen based consumer electronic devices. As always, crossposted at the OPL)

[App Store]As mentioned previously, one of the things that smartphones did was to highlight the value of the Operating System. Beyond the user interface of the phone, the key place that the OS created value was through app delivered via App Stores. There is no question that the undisputed leader here is Apple. Gartner Research recently reported that Apple accounts for 97.5% of all applications downloaded from all app stores.

Let’s spend a moment with that number. First note that it includes the download of paid and free applications. The research group Gigaom has calculated that approximately ¾’s of the applications downloaded from the store are free applications (please, visit that link for a beautiful visualization of this information). Still, the results of people paying for a quarter of those applications is nothing to dismiss. In December of 2009, the quarter of the downloads from the App store that were paid for accounted for $250 Million in revenues of which 30% goes to Apple and 70% goes to the developers.

Also, it’s important to note that not all of those downloads took place on iPhones. Many purchases were made via the iPod Touch, which also runs the iPhone software. This tends to lend some credence to the possibility that the upcoming Apple tablet will run iPhone software, or at least have access to the Apple App store. It’s in Apple’s best interest to make sure that as many devices of their devices as possible can buy from the store.

Given the relative “newness” of the Blackberry/​RIM, Android/​Google, and Microsoft App stores, it shouldn’t surprise us that Apple is so far ahead. We can expect that as those stores mature, and as the number of devices that can access these stores increase, Apple’s share of the download market will decrease.

The greater point in all of this is that users see smartphones as a platform for apps and that they are willing to routinely download and even pay for apps, if the installation process is “one click” easy. Those apps in turn, are expanding people’s expectations about what a smartphone can do. And as we have seen expectations are often carried over to similar product categories – especially if the products are in similar price ranges. Just as people have come to expect that eReaders have touchscreens, similar expectations may develop around downloading and running apps. Take for example the Amazon’s announcement of a Kindle Software Development Kit. Also note that such a move isn’t just about keeping up with the ApplesJones, it’s also the hope of developing their own app store (you know, it’s not like Amazon has experience handling eCommerce).

The Smartphone Mobile OS

As people expect more and more from their phone, the line between the smartphone category and the portable computer category will begin to blur. Based on products shown or rumored at CES, it’s clear that said blurring has already begun. Smartphone OS’s have begun to “invade” other devices. Google’s Android OS has made its way onto netbooks and eReaders. And while Microsoft currently has different operating systems for mobile phones (Windows Phone) and other mobile devices (Windows CE), there is much speculation that these will eventually fold into the same platform. Finally,as mentioned above, in addition to driving the iPod Touch, there is much speculation that the upcoming Apple iSlate will also run the iPhone OS.

Beyond including access to apps, there are a number of reasons why Mobile OS’s are on the rise:

  • They are (in theory) designed to run efficiently on lower powered processors. While the capabilities of mobile CPUs continue to increase, they still lag far behind their traditional computer brethren. So mobile OS’s have to do more with less and while balancing functionality with heat discharge and power consumption (you don’t want to have to recharge your device more than once a day).
  • Touch (either finger or stylus) is the primary interface device. Unlike traditional OSes which focus on mouse and keyboard, these platforms were designed from the ground up to be touch first and keyboard second.
  • Telephony and mobile networking is built into the OS. Since they are designed to work as (smart)phones they have to be able to connect to a mobile phone network. This means that when a manufacturer chooses to implement a given mobile OS they know that they have the software capability for mobile networking.
  • And in addition to telephony, there are a number of other “bonus” features enabled by the OS including support for built in cameras, accelerometers (motion sensors), magnetometer (digital compass), and GPS.

Where manufacturer/​developer choice comes in

For manufacturers, choosing one of these OS’s means that you don’t have to program your own custom OS for your device. However there are a range of decisions and, in some cases, restrictions that influence the decision of which OS to use.

Of the major OS’s: Apple Iphone, Google Android, Microsoft Phone, RIM Blackberry, and Nokia/​Sony Ericsson/​Samsung Symbian – only Android and Windows Phone are licensed so that any manufacturer can incorporate them into their devices.

Apple, Nokia, RIM, Sony Ericsson, and Samsung tightly control their respective OS’s, placing them on devices that they manufacture. The advantage to this, from a manufacturer’s standpoint, is that they can tightly control the hardware that the platforms run on. The argument for this control is that it provides users with the best possible base experience: You never have to worry about encountering iPhone software on a device with a slow processor.

Microsoft and Google take a different approach. By allowing anyone (or at least anyone who is willing to pay the development licensing fee in Microsoft’s case) to develop hardware for their platforms, the hope is to capture the market through volume. The recent proliferation of Android devices is a great example of this. It’s hard to say “no” to a free OS that provides all the advantages listed above.

On one hand, this flexibility means that these OS, in Microsoft’s case Windows CE, find their way into a wide range of devices including eReaders and tablets. However, there are potential dangers to this strategy. Microsoft attributes part of the problems that they have had with their Mobile OS to inconsistent user experiences due to variation screen sizes and processor power across devices:

Our fragmentation issue is primarily around screen resolutions and assuming a minimum CPU and storage. So it has been a little bit challenging, because that choice, that flexibility, that freedom that people have to build any kind of device and use any kind of device: touch, non-​touch, keyboard, soft key, has required a little bit extra effort in some cases for developers to target apps that run across a wide array of devices…” ~ Microsoft’s Greg Sullivan, Senior Marketing Manager

For app developers, there are different costs to be weighed. If developers choose to program for Android, it means learning a new OS. Microsoft, on the other hand, markets their OS by highlighting the advantage that programming for the OS is very similar to writing a standard Windows program, which helps keep costs down. Apple makes a similar claim about the Cocoa programming language for the iPhone – if you can program a Mac, you can program an iPhone.

Obviously market share and platform popularity influence choice as well. But, returning to the beginning of the article, distribution through App stores may be the biggest factor. By signing on with Apple, for example, a developer knows that if they can get their application into the iTunes App store, then they have the greatest audience exposure and a “turn key” infrastructure for getting paid.

The question that we’ll tackle next is how Smartphone Apps are changing our expectations about what programs (and computers) can do.

(Cross posted at the OPL news page)

On Monday, I promised to try and untangle the various reading technologies that were on display at CES and put forward a prediction about the future. In the process of writing that article, I realized that having that discussion required first delving into a number of different technologies and trends. Rather than writing a gigantic article, I’ve decided to break things up into a series of (hopefully) short posts.

Over the coming days this blog will tackle subjects like GSM telephony, Smartphones, Tablet PCs, and Display and Touchscreen technologies. Whenever possible I’ll try to relate the topic de jour back to eReaders/​ing. Once we’ve got that ground covered, we’ll circle back to why I see the future of electronic reading intimately tied up with smartphones and tablets.

For the moment though, I’d like to begin with a discussion of the GMS telephony standard.

GSM and SIM cards

GMS (Global System for Mobile communications) is the telephony standard that roughly 80% of the world’s cellphones run on. While not been the primary standard for mobile telephony in the US, it is becoming more and more available. AT&T and T-​Mobile phones are already GMS and Verizon and Sprint are beginning to offer GSM options.

Here’s the rule of thumb: Whenever a #G, such as 3G or 4G comes up in relation to a product, you’re dealing with a GSM device.

Sim CardFor consumers, there are two primary advantages GSM has over its primary competitor, CDMA. First, a GSM cell phone will work just about anywhere in the world. The second advantage of GMS is the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card. Unlike many American phones, GMS devices are typically not tied (or locked) to a specific company or national network. In order to be used a company specific SIM card (see picture to right) must be inserted into the phone. The advantage of this format is that one can easily move a device from one GSM provider to another one. Additionally, when travelling internationally, you can choose to purchase a cheap SIM card from a local phone company (not unlike a calling card) rather than opting for expensive international calling plans from your home cell service provider.

The “mobility” of GSM devices has led to the development of a different style of mobile marketplace outside the US. Americans are used to our mobile equipment purchases being subsidized by cellphone provider (i.e. – “Sign up for a new contract and get the cell phone for free”). In turn, the provider makes the subsidy back, over time, via the service contract (this is the “razor blade” model). Since the subsidized phone was locked to their network, there was no concerns about the consumer breaking their contract and jumping to another network with the “free” phone. Not surprisingly, as phones become more “mobile” (or unlocked) the penalty for early termination continues to increase.

In Europe, because unlocked phones are so common, there has been less focus on subsidizing the phone purchase. Hence in Europe, and many other places around the world, the cellphone is treated as a traditional consumer electronic good that one expects to pay full price for.

What’s notable is that SIM card slots are beginning to turn up on devices other than phones. For example a number of Tablet PCs on display at this year’s consumer electronics show incorporated GSM technology via SIM card readers. Since GSM can be used for network data transfer, integration of the cards doesn’t necessarily mean that they are intended to be phones. However, GSM plus a mobile OS like Android means that suddenly one’s tablet can also a phone. And while a $500+ price point for a “super” smart phone might seem out of line for an American, if you live in other parts of the world it will be nothing out of the ordinary.

While GSM may not seem the most obvious place to start building towards the future of eReading, it’s a technology that enables many eReaders (including the Kindle) and phones to access eBook content from the net. And, judging from what we saw at CES, it’s going to be become increasingly standard on a variety of devices, suggesting that the primary way we may come to access the net is via cellphone networks.

Next Up: Smartphones

Where I was not able to make the trek out to Vegas, (unlike the Kodak crew who kicked absolute ass!), Ihave been keeping close watch of all the publishing related news from the event for the Open Publishing Lab (a summary of CES news related to eReaders, Tablets, and publishing). Now that things have calmed down, the next question is, beyond all the hype, what does this all mean for the future? Over the next few days we’ll share our best guesses about how the technology on display will influence the future of publishing.

Here are some random thoughts (also available at the OPL site)

1. Despite lots of buzz, the age of eReaders will be short lived[Skiff eReader]
There’s no doubt that eReaders were one of the big technologies of the moment at CES (even NPR covered them!). The problem for the is that they are really just that: the (transitional) technology of this moment.

I believe that within the next two years, tablets and modular slate devices are poised to be even bigger. For example, based on feature set displayed at CES, beyond low price, successful eReaders will all need to have: touchscreen control (finger tips, not just stylus), color, ability to connect to stores. Interestingly, these are all the things that tablets and convertible netbooks also are featuring, at roughly the same price range as current (black and white) eReaders (often with less than stellar touch control) – anyone see a potential problem?

Also, take the fact that tablets/​slates are multifunctional devices, versus eReaders that are primarily unifunctional. Finally, as will be discussed in a different post, the line between phone and tablet/​slate is already starting to blur. Given that many of the tablet/​slate devices shown at CES now feature telephony (see the discussion below), it’s not hard to imagine a world in which many of us carry a 7 inch phone/​tablet. In that world, dedicated eReaders are a hard sell.

In fact, we could argue that a number of eReaders are already there. Take for example the Entourage Edge’s and the Spring Design Alex Reader. Both integrate LCD touchscreens whose function goes well beyond system/​content navigation. Others, like the Notion Ink’s Adam (a prototype reader that all the tech blogs were blown away by), demonstrate display technologies that are intended to beyond the simple rendering text.

2. eReader strategies

Building on this assumption that, beyond certain vertical/​niche markets, eReaders are not long for the world, there are two strategies that can be read from the eReaders at CES:

a. The short term play: technology/​manufacturing wins
(Own the market through manufacturing)
The strategy of companies like iRiver, Hanvon, Jinke, Samsung, amoung others, is to cheaply build a better mousetrap and get it to market asap. My guess is that, like digital cameras, the magic price point is somewhere around $149. Currently none of the devices are making that price point, though we expect that by the second half of this year, with discounting and price adjustments, we’ll see the prices on a number of eReaders drop into that range (especially those without touch screens).

While eReaders remain “premium goods” there will most likely be two big differentiators. First is price (potentially setting up devices like the Edge and Alex readers to be big winners because of expanded feature set at same pricepoint). Second is availability, with a market this flooded, getting into physical retail (and in front of consumers) is going to be huge (that’s provided that retailers are willing to give up the floor space).

b. The long term is Content not Device
(Device independent content)
Readers like the Copia, Kindle, Nook, Que, and Skiff (the eReader pictured above), are tied into platform specific eCommerce/​Content applications. In most of these cases the device is the “gateway drug,” build customer loyalty and libraries. The hope is to transcend (and transition) devices. Take, for example, Copia’s focus on building a social reading experience that brings people back to their service.

[Blio software]Perhaps this can most clearly be seen in Skiff’s reader development kit (RDK) strategy. Skiff looks to try and flood the market by giving third parties the guts of their Reader, complete with it’s baked in UI. While this could lead to the manufacture of (cheap) eReaders that compete with their reader, Skiff is not only making money on the kit, but also knows that each of those new eReaders will be getting content through their eCom engine.

Looking at things from the long term perspective, Ray Kurzweil’s Blio reading platform (pictured to the right) becomes even more of a competitor to these companies (essentially they’re trying this strategy without the reader). Living up to his futurist reputation, Kurzweil’s service seem to built for the tablet future versus the eReader present. The big questions are can it deliver on its promise of an enhanced reading experience across devices and is whether or not it’s hitting too soon.

3. The short life of eInk and other B&W display technologies
Unless there are major improvements (color) or a step decline in cost of manufacture, eInk is not long for the world outside of certain niche markets. Provided that they can deliver on stable production models, there are a number of competing technologies that are poised to take over the display markets. On option is low voltage LCDs like the Liquid Vista’s display which promise to provide color content at a low power overhead.

Perhaps the most impressive technology is the hybrid Pixel Qi technology shown off on Notion’s Ink Adam prototype. Pixel Qi displays can function both as an LCD and as “eInk,” and according to their representative will be featured on a device from a major manufacturer later this year. In that last sentence, special emphasis is placed on “device” – the advantage of all of these technologies is that they can be used on a wide range of devices beyond eReaders. That potential reach has profound effects on the scope and scale of manufacturing, and therefore price. Without a major change, we don’t see eInk being able to compete on either experience or price.

4. Forget the Droid and NexusOne, the real story with Android is everything else it’s on
Google attempted to upstage CES with the announcement of the NexusOne phone on the eve of the event (note this is not unlike the choice of Apple not to announce their tablet at CES). That hype might have obfuscated the more interesting long term news: the high number of non-​phone devices at CES that ran on Android. In addition to eReaders (including the afor mentioned Alex and Entourage), a number of slates and tablets were also shown running ‘droid — including a pair from Dell and HP (both traditional Windows players). What is also important to note is that a number of these devices also feature SIM card slots (including the Dell “Streak” tablet), meaning that they are intended for use of GSM phone networks. The advantages of android are pretty obvious: beyond being free, it’s interface is designed with touch as the primary interface device (rather than Windows CE or even Windows 7, where it’s currently an secondary interface device). More importantly, if you’re running Android, telephony (and over the air networking) is built directly into your device. Bottom line: Android may be more successful off on traditional “phones” than on them.

There is one thing to note about the NexusOne launch that is worth watching in connection to eReaders and tablets. In addition to the deal available through T-​Mobile and Verizon, Google is pushing non subsidized (European) cell phone sales through it’s website. We shall see if this catches on in the US, especially as the line between slate tablets and phones continues to blur. (more on that later)

That’s it for the moment. Keep watching here and at the OPL site for more analysis on CES over the course of this week.

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 Mainz1 , 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.2

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.3 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 Microsoft4, 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!

  1. sorry Gutenberg, but its true []
  2. 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. []
  3. Thank you to Evan Schnittman for reminding me of what makes Android such a enticing mobile development platform. []
  4. 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. []

Tomorrow I’ll spend all day at RIT helping the OPL prepare for Imagine:RIT. The festival is shaping up to be a LOT bigger than last year. Some folks are predicting as many as 25,000 people to visit RIT that day. The OPL will be running the Social Networking Game again and also the Innovation News (http://​opl​.rit​.edu/​i​n​ews & follow on twitter at RITiNews). And if all goes well tomorrow we’ll also be doing custom Rochester guidebooks with content from the RocWiki.