Category Archives: sony

phony bookstore

Since it’s trash the ebooks week here at if:book, I thought I’d point out one more little item to round out our negative report card on the new Sony Reader. gbl.hdr.logo.jpg In a Business Week piece, amusingly titled “Gutenberg 1, Sony 0,” Stephen Wildstrom delivers another less than favorable review of Sony’s device and then really turns up the heat in his critique of their content portal, the Connect ebook store:

These deficits, however, pale compared to Sony’s Connect bookstore, which seems to be the work of someone who has never visited Sony offers 10,000 titles, but that doesn’t mean you will find what you want. For example, only four of the top 10 titles on the Oct. 1 New York Times paperback best-seller list showed up. On the other hand, many books are priced below their print equivalents–most $7.99 paperbacks go for $6.39–and can be shared among any combination of three Readers or pcs, much as Apple iTunes allows multiple devices to share songs.
The worst problem is that search, the essence of an online bookstore, is broken. An author search for Dan Brown turned up 84 books, three of them by Dan Brown, the rest by people named Dan or Brown, or sometimes neither. Putting a search term in quotes should limit the results to those where the exact phrase occurs, but at the Sony store, it produced chaos. “Dan Brown” yielded 500 titles, mostly by people named neither Dan nor Brown. And the store doesn’t provide suggestions for related titles, reviews, previews–all those little extras that make Amazon great.

Remember that you can’t search texts at all on the actual Reader, though Sony does let you search books that you’ve purchased within your personal library in the Connect Store. But it’s a simple find function, bumping you from instance to instance, with nothing even approaching the sophisticated concordances and textual statistics that Amazon offers in Search Inside. You feel the whole time that you’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Such a total contraction of the possibilities of books. So little consideration of the complex ways readers interact with texts, or of the new directions that digital and networked interaction might open up.

phony reader

sony reader in hand.jpg What to say about this thing? After multiple delays, it’s finally out, and in time for the holidays. David Rothman, as usual, has provided exhaustive and entertaining coverage over at Teleread (here, here and here), and points to noteworthy reviews elsewhere.
It’s no secret that our focus here at the Institute isn’t on the kind of ebooks that simply transfer printed texts to the screen. We’re much more interested in the new kinds of reading and writing that become possible in a digital, network environment. But even measuring Sony’s new device against its own rather pedestrian goals — replicating the print reading experience for the screen with digital enhancements — I still have to say that the Reader fails. Here are the main reasons why:
1) Replicating the print reading experience?
E-ink is definitely different than reading off of an LCD screen. The page looks much more organic and is very gentle on the eyes, though the resolution is still nowhere near that of ink on paper. Still, e-ink is undeniably an advance and it’s exciting to imagine where it might lead.
Other elements of print reading are conjured less successfully, most significantly, the book as a “random access” medium. Random access means that the reader has control over their place in the book, and over the rate and direction at which they move through it. The Sony Reader greatly diminishes this control. Though it does allow you to leave bookmarks, it’s very difficult to jump from place to place unless those places have been intentionally marked. The numbered buttons (1 through 10) directly below the screen offer offer only the crudest browsing capability, allowing you to jump 10, 20, 30 percent etc. through the text.
Another thing affecting readability is that action of flipping pages is slowed down significantly by the rearrangement of the e-ink particles, producing a brief but disorienting flash every time you change your place. Another important element of print reading is the ability to make annotations, and on the Sony Reader this is disabled entirely. In fact, there are no inputs on the device at all — no keyboard, no stylus — apart from the basic navigation buttons. So, to sum up, the Sony Reader is really only intended for straight-ahead reading. Browsing, flipping and note-taking, which, if you ask me, are pretty important parts of reading a book, are disadvantaged.
2) Digital enhancements?
Ok, so the Sony Reader doesn’t do such a great job at replicating print reading, but the benefits of having your books in digital form more than make up for that, right? Sadly, wrong. The most obvious advantage of going digital is storage capacity, the ability to store an entire library on a single device. But the Sony Reader comes with a piddling 64 megabytes of memory. 64! It seems a manufacturer would have to go out of its way these days to make a card that small. The new iPod Shuffle is barely bigger than a quarter and they start at one gigabyte. Sony says that 64 MB will store approximately 80 books, but throw a few images and audio files in there, and this will dramatically decrease.
So, storage stinks, but electronic text has other advantages. Searchability, for example. True! But the Sony Reader software doesn’t allow you to search texts (!!!). I’d guess that this is due to the afore-mentioned time lags of turning pages in e-ink, and how that would slow down browsing through search results. And again, there’s the matter of no inputs — keyboard or stylus — to enter the search queries in the first place.
Fine. Then how about internet connectivity? Sorry. There’s none. Well then what about pulling syndicated content from the web for offline reading, i.e. RSS? You can do this, but only barely. Right now on the Sony Connect store, there are feeds available from about ten popular blogs and news sources. Why so few? Well, they plan to expand that soon, but apparently there are tricky issues with reformatting the feeds for the Reader, so they’re building up this service piecemeal, without letting web publishers post their feeds directly. Last night, I attended a press event that Sony held at the W Hotel at Union Square, NYC, where I got to play around with one of the devices hooked up to the online store. I loaded a couple of news feeds onto my Reader and took a look. Pretty ghastly. Everything is dumped into one big, barely formatted file, where it’s not terribly clear where one entry ends and another begins. Unrendered characters float here and there. They’ve got a long way to go on this one.
Which leads us to the fundamental problem with the Sony Reader, or with any roughly equivalent specialized e-reading device: the system is proprietary. Read David Rothman’s post for the technical nuances of this, but the basic fact is that the Sony Reader will only allow you to read ebooks that have been formatted and DRMed specifically for the Sony Reader. To be fair, it will let you upload Microsoft Word documents and unencrypted PDFs, but for any more complex, consciously designed electronic book, you’ve got to go through Sony via the Sony Connect store. Sony not only thinks that it can get away with this lock-in strategy but that, taking its cue from the iPod/iTunes dynamo, this is precisely the formula for success. But the iPod analogy is wrong for a number of reasons, biggest among them that books and music are very different things. I’ll address this in another post shortly.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ebooks are a dead end. Will it be convenient some day to be able to read print books digitally? Certainly. Will the Sony Reader find a niche? Maybe (but Sony Ericsson’s phones look far more dynamic than this feeble device). Is this the future of reading and writing? I don’t think so. Ebooks and their specialized hardware are a red herring in a much bigger and more mysterious plot that is still unfolding.
See also:
phony reader 2: the ipod fallacy
phony bookstore
an open letter to claire israel

amazon looks to “kindle” appetite for ebooks with new device

Engadget has uncovered details about a soon-to-be-released upcoming/old/bogus(?) Amazon ebook reading device called the “Kindle,” which appears to have an e-ink display, and will presumably compete with the Sony Reader. From the basic specs they’ve posted, it looks like Kindle wins: it’s got more memory, it’s got a keyboard, and it can connect to the network (update: though only through the EV-DO wireless standard, which connects Blackberries and some cellphones; in other words, no basic wifi). This is all assuming that the thing actually exists, which we can’t verify.
Regardless, it seems the history of specialized ebook devices is doomed to repeat itself. Better displays (and e-ink is still a few years away from being really good) and more sophisticated content delivery won’t, in my opinion, make these machines much more successful than their discontinued forebears like the Gemstar or the eBookMan.
Ebooks, at least the kind Sony and Amazon will be selling, dwell in a no man’s land of misbegotten media forms: pale simulations of print that harness few of the possibilities of the digital (apparently, the Sony Reader won’t even have searchable text!). Add highly restrictive DRM and vendor lock-in through the proprietary formats and vendor sites made for these devices and you’ve got something truly depressing.
Publishers need to get out of this rut. The future is in networked text, multimedia and print on demand. Ebooks and their specialized hardware are a red herring.
Teleread also comments.

war machinima

Ray, Bob and I spent last week out in Los Angeles at our institutional digs (the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC), where we held a pair of meetings with professors from around the US and Canada to discuss various coups we are attempting to stage within the ossified realm of scholarly and textbook publishing. Following these, we were able to stick around for a fun conference/media festival organized by Annenberg’s Networked Publics project.
The conference was a mix of the usual academic panels and a series of curated mini-exhibits of “do-it-yourself” media, surveying new genres of digital folk art currently proliferating across the net such as political remix movies, anime music videos, “digital handmade” art projects (which featured the near and dear Alex Itin — happy birthday, Alex!), and of course, machinima: films made inside of video game engines.
wartapes.jpg As we enjoyed this little feast of new media, I was vaguely aware that the Tribeca film festival was going on back in New York. As I casually web-surfed through one of the panels — in the state of continuous partial attention that is now the standard state of being all these networky conferences — I came across an article about one of the more talked about films appearing there this year: “The War Tapes.” Like Gunner Palace and Occupation Dreamland, “The War Tapes” is a documentary about American soldiers in Iraq, but with one crucial difference: all the footage was shot by actual soldiers.
Back in 2004, director Deborah Scranton gave video cameras to ten members of the New Hampshire National Guard who were about to depart for a yearlong tour in Iraq. They went on to shoot a combined 800 hours of film, the pared-down result of which is “The War Tapes.” Reading about it, I couldn’t help but think that here was a case of real-life machinima. Give the warriors cameras and glimpse the war machine from the inside — carve out a new game within the game.
Granted, it’s a far from perfect analogy. Machinima involves a total repurposing of the characters and environment, foregoing the intended objectives of the game. In “The War Tapes,” the soldiers are still on their mission, still within the chain of command. And of course, war isn’t a video game. But isn’t it advertised as one?

Time Square, New York City (the military-entertainment complex)
There’s something undeniably subversive about giving cameras to GIs in what is such a thoroughly mediated war, a sort of playing against the game — if not of the game of occupation as a whole, then at least the game of spin. “I’m not supposed to talk to the media,” says one soldier to Steve Pink, one of the film’s main subjects, as he attempts to conduct an interview. To which Pink replies: “I’m not the media, dammit!”
In the clips I found on the film’s promotional site (the general release is later this summer), the overriding impression is of the soldiers’ isolation and fear: the constant terror of roadside bombs, frantic rounds fired into the green night-vision darkness, swaddled in helmets and humvees and hi-tech weaponry. It’s a frightening game they play. Deeply impersonal and anonymous, and in no way resembling the pumped-up, guitar-screeching game that the military portrays as war in its recruiting ads. This is the horrible truth at the bottom of the “Army of One” slogan: you are a lone digit in a massive calculation. Just pray you don’t become a zero.
Yet naturally, they find their own games to play within the game. One clip shows the tiny, gruesome spectacle of two soldiers, in a moment of leisure, pitting a scorpion against a spider inside a plastic tub, reenacting their own plight in the language of the desert.
At the Net Publics conference, we did see see one example of genuine machinima that made its own spooky commentary on the war: a hack of Battlefield 2 by Swedish game forum Snoken that brilliantly apes the now-famous Sony Bravia commercial, in which 250,000 colored plastic balls were filmed cascading through the streets of a San Francisco.
Here’s Battlefield:

And here’s the original Sony ad:

McKenzie Wark doesn’t address machinima in GAM3R 7H30RY (which launches in about a week), but he does discuss video games in the context of the “military entertainment complex”: the remaking of postmodern capitalist society in the image of the digital game, in which every individual is a 1 or a 0 locked in senseless competition for advancement through the levels, each vying to “win” the game:

The old class antagonisms have not gone away, but are hidden beneath levels of rank, where each agonizes over their worth against others in the price of their house, the size of their vehicle and where, perversely, working longer and longer hours is a sign of winning the game. Work becomes play. Work demands not just one’s mind and body but also one’s soul. You have to be a team player. Your work has to be creative, inventive, playful – ludic, but not ludicrous.

Video games (which can actually be won) are allegories of this imperfect world that we are taught to play like a game, as though it really were governed by a perfect (and perfectly fair) algorithm — even the wars that rage across its hemispheres:

Once games required an actual place to play them, whether on the chess board or the tennis court. Even wars had battle fields. Now global positioning satellites grid the whole earth and put all of space and time in play. Warfare, they say, now looks like video games. Well don’t kid yourself. War is a video game – for the military entertainment complex. To them it doesn’t matter what happens ‘on the ground’. The ground – the old-fashioned battlefield itself – is just a necessary externality to the game. Slavoj Zizek: “It is thus not the fantasy of a purely aseptic war run as a video game behind computer screens that protects us from the reality of the face to face killing of another person; on the contrary it is this fantasy of face to face encounter with an enemy killed bloodily that we construct in order to escape the Real of the depersonalized war turned into an anonymous technological operation.” The soldier whose inadequate armor failed him, shot dead in an alley by a sniper, has his death, like his life, managed by a computer in a blip of logistics.

How does one truly escape? Ultimately, Wark’s gamer theory is posed in the spirit that animates the best machinima:

The gamer as theorist has to choose between two strategies for playing against gamespace. One is to play for the real. (Take the red pill). But the real is nothing but a heap of broken images. The other is to play for the game (Take the blue pill). Play within the game, but against gamespace. Be ludic, but also lucid.

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.

first sighting of sony ebook reader

this is a late addition to this post. i just realized that whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the Sony ebook reader, i think that most of the people writing about it, including me, have missed perhaps the most important aspect — the device has Sony’s name on it. correct me if i’m wrong, but this is the first time a major consumer electronics company has seen fit to put their name on a ebook reader in the US market. it’s been a long time coming.
Reuters posted this image by Rick Wilking. every post i’ve seen so far is pessimistic about sony’s chances. i’m doubtful myself, but will wait to see what kind of digital rights management they’ve installed. if it’s easy to take
things off my desktop to read later, including pdfs and web pages, and if the MP3 player feature is any good they might be able to carve out a niche which they can expand over time if they keep developing the concept. i do wish it were a bit more stylish . . .
here’s a link to ben’s excellent post ipod for text.

beautiful? if so, why?

Sony Europe is promoting a new screen technology with a TV commercial featuring 250,000 brightly colored balls rolling down a San Francisco street. despite the maudlin soundtrack the sight of a quarter of a million balls floating chaotically down the hill is spectacular. this is partially because the piece is silly, fantastical, and brilliantly executed. i wonder though, if part of the reason people like the ad so much is because real balls are rolling on a real street — because the absence of any computer graphics is so unusual in our increasingly everything-so-neat-and-clean digital mediascape? this is not meant to be a rhetorical question. what do you think?

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.