Category Archives: apple

design proposal for ipod-based e-book reader

I got an email the other day from the fellow who made this: an interesting proposal and, incidentally, a clever use of Google SketchUp for modeling gadgets.

The central thesis is that, unlike the Sony Librie or other tablets currently available, a dual-screen reader with a dock for the iPod is the most viable design for a) popularizing the use of an ebook reader and b) streamlining the use of an ebook store.

He’s interested in getting feedback so leave your two cents.

time machine

The other day, a bunch of us were looking at this new feature promised for Leopard, the next iteration of the Mac operating system, and thinking about it as a possible interface for document versioning.

I’ve yet to find something that does this well. Wikis and and Google Docs give you chronological version lists. In Microsoft Word, “track changes” integrates editing history within the surface of the text, but it’s ugly and clunky. Wikipedia has a version comparison feature, which is nice, but it’s only really useful for scrutinizing two specific passages.
If a document could be seen to have layers, perhaps in a similar fashion to Apple’s Time Machine, or more like Gamer Theory‘s stacks of cards, it would immediately give the reader or writer a visual sense of how far back the text’s history goes – not so much a 3-D interface as 2.5-D. Sifting through the layers would need to be easy and tactile. You’d want ways to mark, annotate or reference specific versions, to highlight or suppress areas where text has been altered, to pull sections into a comparison view. Perhaps there could be a “fade” option for toggling between versions, slowing down the transition so you could see precisely where the text becomes liquid, the page in effect becoming a semi-transparent membrane between two versions. Or “heat maps” that highlight, through hot and cool hues, the more contested or agonized-over sections of the text (as in the Free Software Foundations commentable drafts of the GNU General Public License).
And of course you’d need to figure out comments. When the text is a moving target, which comments stay anchored to a specific version, and which ones get carried with you further through the process? What do you bring with you and what do you leave behind?

the future of media companies

Every day we hear more reports about how media / hardware/ distribution companies are ever more frequently expanding horizontally (going into new categories) as well as vertically (going into more parts of their production/distribution chain).
In that, Amazon launched a download video service. MySpace opens a music store to compete with Apple’s iTunes and is also considering the creation of a print magazine. HarperCollins is selling downloadable media on their website. These are just a few examples.
What will the future of media publishing look like? How close are we from having only a few multi-national companies that produce the hardware, media and distribution? What are the other options?
Could the pendulum ever swing the other way? Could the future branded media company outsource all the creative, technology, publishing and distribution in a similar way that a laptop manufacturer has its mother board, processor, batteries, memory, drive, screen and advertising come from somewhere outside the company?

ebook ipod rumored

apple_ebook.jpg Engadget has it from inside sources at Apple that a next-generation iPod is in the works with a larger screen and a full-fledged text reader:

…two bits from separate, trustworthy insiders that Apple’s not satisfied merely vending Audible‘s books-on-digital-audio solution. With the iRex iLiad and Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader both right around the corner, is it possible the next iPod might catch the eBook bug? We’d say the possibility is very real, since according to a source at a major publishing house, they were just ordered to archive all their manuscripts — every single one — and send them over to Apple’s Cupertino HQ.

So Audible, huh? Interesting. They got a toehold in the market with audiobooks, and may now be making the transition to ebooks.

A separate trusted source let us know that the next iPod will have a substantial amount of screen real estate (as we’d all suspected), as well as a book reading mode that pumps up the contrast and drops into monochrome for easy reading. It’s no e-ink, sure, but a widescreen iPod would be well suited for the purpose, and according to our source, the books you’d buy (presumably through iTunes) won’t have an expiration…

I’d hope that such a device would have wifi, a web browser and an RSS reader that could be taken offline. I think that books will only be a part of the equation.
Teleread has the ebook standards angle.

vive le interoperability!

ipodmagritte.jpg A smart column in Wired by Leander Kahney explains why France’s new legislation prying open the proprietary file format lock on iPods and other entertainment devices is an important stand taken for the public good:

French legislators aren’t just looking at Apple. They’re looking ahead to a time when most entertainment is online, a shift with profound consequences for consumers and culture in general. French lawmakers want to protect the consumer from one or two companies holding the keys to all of its culture, just as Microsoft holds the keys to today’s desktop computers.

Apple, by legitimizing music downloading with iTunes and the iPod, has been widely credited with making the internet safe for the culture industries after years of hysteria about online piracy. But what do we lose in the bargain? Proprietary formats lock us into specific vendors and specific devices, putting our media in cages. By cornering the market early, Apple is creating a generation of dependent customers who are becoming increasingly shackled to what one company offers them, even if better alternatives come along. France, on the other hand, says let everything be playable on everything. Common sense says they’re right.
Now Apple is the one crying piracy, calling France the great enabler. While I agree that piracy is a problem if we’re to have a functioning cultural economy online, I’m certain that proprietary controls and DRM are not the solution. In the long run, they do for culture what Microsoft did for software, creating unbreakable monopolies and placing unreasonable restrictions on listeners, readers and viewers. They also restrict our minds. Just think of the cumulative cognitive effect of decades of bad software Microsoft has cornered us into using. Then look at the current ipod fetishism. The latter may be more hip, but they both reveal the same narrowed thinking.
One thing I think the paranoid culture industries fail to consider is that piracy is a pain in the ass. Amassing a well ordered music collection through illicit means is by no means easy — on the contrary, it can be a tedious, messy affair. Far preferable is a good online store selling mp3s at reasonable prices. There you can find stuff quickly, be confident that what you’re getting is good and complete, and get it fast. Apple understood this early on and they’re still making a killing. But locking things down in a proprietary format takes it a step too far. Keep things open and may the best store/device win. I’m pretty confident that piracy will remain marginal.

blu-ray, amazon, and our mediated technology dependent lives

A couple of recent technology news items got me thinking about media and proprietary hardware. One was the New York Times report of Sony’s problems with its HD-DVD technology, Blu-Ray, which is causing them to delay the release of their next gaming system, the PS3. The other item was Amazon’s intention of entering the music subscription business in the Wall Street Journal.
The New York Times gives a good overview on the up coming battle of hardware formats for the next generation of high definition DVD players. It is the Betamax VHS war from the 80s all over again. This time around Sony’s more expensive / more capacity standard is pitted against Toshiba’s cheaper but limited HD-DVD standard. It is hard to predict an obvious winner, as Blu-Ray’s front runner position has been weaken by the release delays (implying some technical challenges) and the recent backing of Toshiba’s standard by Microsoft (and with them, ally Intel follows.) Last time around, Sony also bet on the similarly better but more expensive Betamax technology and lost as consumers preferred the cheaper, lesser quality of VHS. Sony is investing a lot in their Blu-Ray technology, as the PS3 will be founded upon Blu-Ray. The standards battle in the move from VHS to DVD was avoided because Sony and Philips decided to scrap their individual plans of releasing a DVD standard and they agreed to share in the revenue of licensing of the Toshiba / Warner Brothers standard. However, Sony feels that creating format standards is an area of consumer electronics where they can and should dominate. Competing standards is nothing new, and date back to at least to the decision of AC versus DC electrical current. (Edison’s preferred DC lost out to Westinghouses’ AC.) Although, it does provide confusion for consumers who must decide which technology to invest in, with the potential danger that it may become obsolete in a few years.
On another front, Amazon also recently announced their plans to release their own music player. In this sphere, Amazon is looking to compete with iTunes and Apple’s dominance in the music downloading sector. Initially, Apple surprised everyone with the foray into the music player and download market. What was even more surprising was they were able to pull it off, shown by their recent celebration of the 1 billionth downloaded song. Apple continues to command the largest market share, while warding off attempts from the likes of Walmart (the largest brick and mortar music retailer in the US.) Amazon is pursuing a subscription based model, sensing that Napster has failed to gain much traction. Because Amazon customers already pay for music, they will avoid Napster’s difficult challenge of convincing their millions of previous users to start paying for a service that they once had for free, albeit illegally. Amazon’s challenge will be to persuade people to rent their music from Amazon, rather than buy it outright. Both Real and Napster only have a fraction of Apple’s customers, however the subscription model does have higher profit margins than the pay per song of iTunes.
It is a logical step for Amazon, who sells large numbers of CDs, DVDs and portable music devices (including iPods.) As more people download music, Amazon realizes that it needs to protect its markets. In Amazon’s scheme, users can download as much music as they want, however, if they cancel their subscription, the music will no longer play on their devices. The model tests to see if people are willing to rent their music, just like they rent DVDs from Netflix or borrow books from the library. I would feel troubled if I didn’t outright own my music, however, I can see the benefits of subscribing to access music and then buying the songs that I liked. However, it appears that if you will not be able to store and play your own MP3s on the Amazon player and the iPod will certainly not be able to use Amazon’s service. Amazon and partner Samsung must create a device compelling enough for consumers drop their iPods. Because the iPod will not be compatible with Amazon’s service, Amazon may be forced to sell the players at heavy discounts or give them to subscribers for free, in a similar fashion to the cell phone business model. The subscription music download services have yet to create a player with any kind of social or technical cachet comparable to the cultural phenomenon of the iPod. Thus, the design bar has been set quite high for Amazon and Samsung. Amazon’s intentions highlight the issue of proprietary content and playback devices.
While all these companies jockey for position in the marketplace, there is little discussion on the relationship between wedding content to a particular player or reader. Print, painting, and photography do not rely on a separate device, in that the content and the displayer of the content, in other words the vessel, are the same thing. In the last century, the vessel and the content of media started to become discreet entities. With the development of transmitted media of recorded sound, film and television, content required a player and different manufacturers could produce vessels to play the content. Further, these new vessels inevitably require electricity. However, standards were formed so that a television could play any channel and the FM radio could play any FM station. Because technology is developing at a much faster rate, the battle for standards occur more frequently. Vinyl records reigned for decades where as CDs dominated for about ten years before MP3s came along. Today, a handful of new music compression formats are vying to replace MP3. Furthermore, companies from Microsoft and Adobe to Sony and Apple appear more willing to create proprietary formats which require their software or hardware to access content.
As more information and media (and in a sense, ourselves) migrate to digital forms, our reliance on often proprietary software and hardware for viewing and storage grows steadily. This fundamental shift on the ownership and control of content radically changes our relationship to media and these change receive little attention. We must be conscious of the implied and explicit contracts we agree to, as information we produce and consume is increasingly mediated through technology. Similarly, as companies develop vertical integration business models, they enter into media production, delivery, storage and playback. These business models create the temptation to start creating to their own content, and perhaps give preferential treatment to their internally produced media. (Amazon also has plans to produce and broadcast an Internet show with Bill Maher and various guests.) Both Amazon and Blu-Ray HD-DVD are just current examples content being tied to proprietary hardware. If information wants to be free, perhaps part of that freedom involves being independent from hardware and software.

iTunes U: more read/write than you’d think

In Ben’s recent post, he noted that Larry Lessig worries about the trend toward a read-only internet, the harbinger of which is iTunes. Apple’s latest (academic) venture is iTunes U, a project begun at Duke and piloted by seven universities — Stanford, it appears, has been most active. iTunes U.jpg Since they are looking for a large scale roll out of iTunes U for 2006-07, and since we have many podcasting faculty here at USC, a group of us met with Apple reps yesterday.
Initially I was very skeptical about Apple’s further insinuation into the academy and yet, what iTunes U offers is a repository for instructors to store podcasts, with several components similar to courseware such as Blackboard. Apple stores the content on its servers but the university retains ownership. The service is fairly customizable–you can store audio, video with audio, slides with audio (aka enhanced podcasts) and text (but only in pdf). Then you populate the class via university course rosters, which are password protected.
There are also open access levels on which the university (or, say, the alumni association) can add podcasts of vodcasts of events. And it is free. At least for now — the rep got a little cagey when asked about how long this would be the case.
The point is to allow students to capture lectures and such on their iPods (or MP3 players) for the purposes of study and review. The rationale is that students are already extremely familiar with the technology so there is less of a learning curve (well, at least privileged students such as those at my institution are familiar).
What seems particularly interesting is that students can then either speed up the talk of the lecture without changing pitch (and lord knows there are some whose speaking I would love to accelerate) or, say, in the case of an ESL student, slow it down for better comprehension. Finally, there is space for students to upload their own work — podcasting has been assigned to some of our students already.
Part of me is concerned at further academic incorporation, but a lot more parts of me are thinking this is not only a chance to help less tech savvy profs employ the technology (the ease of collecting and distributing assets is germane here) while also really pushing the envelope in terms of copyright, educational use, fair use, etc. Apple wants to only use materials that are in the public domain or creative commons initially, but undoubtedly some of the more muddy digital use issues will arise and it would be nice to have academics involved in the process.

video ipod

ipod black.jpg
Looks like it’s hardware day at if:book. Just got a video iPod. Hmmm. this looks like another niche where Apple has handily beat Sony. the image is crisper and larger than i expected; the case is slimmer and lighter.
it’s remarkably easy to convert video files to MP4 and load them onto the iPod. the experience is intimate . i’m experimenting with different genres, poetry, animation, family home video, short films. everything works. the iPod got handed around from ben to dan to ray to jesse. we came up with a bunch of ideas for projects we want to try. stay tuned.

an ipod for text

When I ride the subway, I see a mix of paper and plastic. Invariably several passengers are lost in their ipods (there must be a higher ipod-per-square-meter concentration in New York than anywhere else). One or two are playing a video game of some kind. Many just sit quietly with their thoughts. A few are conversing. More than a few are reading. The subway is enormously literate. A book, a magazine, The Times, The Post, The Daily News, AM New York, Metro, or just the ads that blanket the car interior. I may spend a lot of time online at home or at work, but on the subway, out in the city, paper is going strong.
Before long, they’ll be watching television on the subway too, seeing as the latest ipod now plays video. But rewind to Monday, when David Carr wrote in the NY Times about another kind of ipod — one that would totally change the way people read newspapers. He suggests that to bounce back from these troubled times (sagging print circulation, no reliable business model for their websites), newspapers need a new gadget to appear on the market: a light-weight, highly portable device, easy on the eyes, easy on the batteries, that uploads articles from the web so you can read them anywhere. An ipod for text.
This raises an important question: is it all just a matter of the reading device? Once there are sufficient advances in display technology, and a hot new gadget to incorporate them, will we see a rapid, decisive shift away from paper toward portable electronic text, just as we have witnessed a widespread migration to digital music and digital photography? Carr points to a recent study that found that in every age bracket below 65, a majority of reading is already now done online. This is mostly desktop reading, stationary reading. But if the greater part of the population is already sold on web-based reading, perhaps it’s not too techno-deterministic to suppose that an ipod-like device would in fact bring sweeping change for portable reading, at least periodicals.
But the thing is, online reading is quite different from print reading. There’s a lot of hopping around, a lot of digression. Any new hardware that would seek to tempt people to convert from paper would have to be able to surf the web. With mobile web, and wireless networks spreading, people would expect nothing less (even the new Sony PSP portable gaming device has a web browser). But is there a good way to read online text when you’re offline? Should we be concerned with this? Until wi-fi is ubiquitous and we’re online all the time (a frightening thought), the answer is yes.
We’re talking about a device that you plug into your computer that automatically pulls articles from pre-selected sources, presumably via RSS feeds. This is more or less how podcasting works. But for this to have an appeal with text, it will have to go further. What if in addition to uploading new articles in your feed list, it also pulled every document that those articles linked to, so you could click through to referenced sites just as you would if you were online?
It would be a bounded hypertext system. You could do all the hopping around you like within the cosmos of that day’s feeds, and not beyond — you would have the feeling of the network without actually being hooked in. Text does not take up a lot of hard drive space, and with the way flash memory is advancing, building a device with this capacity would not be hard to achieve. Of course, uploading link upon link could lead down an infinite paper trail. So a limit could be imposed, say, a 15-step cap — a limit that few are likely to brush up against.
So where does the money come in? If you want an ipod for text, you’re going to need an itunes for text. The “portable, bounded hypertext RSS reader” (they’d have to come up with a catchier name –the tpod, or some such techno-cuteness) would be keyed in to a subscription service. It would not be publication-specific, because then you’d have to tediously sign up with dozens of sites, and no reasonable person would do this.
So newspapers, magazines, blogs, whoever, will sign licensing agreements with the tpod folks and get their corresponding slice of the profits based on the success of their feeds. There’s a site called KeepMedia that is experimenting with such a model on the web, though not with any specific device in mind (and it only includes mainstream media, no blogs). That would be the next step. Premium papers like the Times or The Washington Post might become the HBOs and Showtimes of this text-ripping scheme — pay a little extra and you get the entire electronic edition uploaded daily to your tpod.
sony librie.jpg As for the device, well, the Sony Librie has had reasonable success in Japan and will soon be released in the States. The Librie is incredibly light and uses an “e-ink” display that is reflective like paper (i.e. it can be read in bright sunlight), and can run through 10,000 page views on four triple-A batteries.
The disadvantages: it’s only black-and-white and has no internet connectivity. It also doesn’t seem to be geared for pulling syndicated text. Bob brought one back from Japan. It’s nice and light, and the e-ink screen is surprisingly sharp. But all in all, it’s not quite there yet.
There’s always the do-it-yourself approach. The Voyager Company in Japan has developed a program called T-Time (the image at the top is from their site) that helps you drag and drop text from the web into an elegant ebook format configureable for a wide range of mobile devices: phones, PDAs, ipods, handheld video games, camcorders, you name it. This demo (in Japanese, but you’ll get the idea) demonstrates how it works.
Presumably, you would also read novels on your text pod. I personally would be loathe to give up paper here, unless it was a novel that had to be read electronically because it was multimedia, or networked, or something like that. But for syndicated text — periodicals, serials, essays — I can definitely see the appeal of this theoretical device. I think it’s something people would use.

convergence sighting: ipod phone

rokr160.jpg The Motorola ROKR, a new iTunes-compatible cellphone developed for Apple, hits the stores today for Cingular subscribers. The phone will run for $249.99 and can load up to 100 songs from a computer through a USB wire. Sounds like a rip-off to me, but indicative of things to come. It also comes equipped with a camera. The cellphone is steadily swallowing up all personal media.
Apple also unveiled its newest iPod, the “nano,” which uses solid flash memory (like in little USB memory sticks) rather than a hard drive with moving parts. It’s roughly the size of a half dozen business cards stacked together, and can hold up to 1,000 songs.