The morning coffee would like to fly and read. And fly.

While I absolutely love and adore my Kindle, there is an associated moment of dread.

OK, it’s a moment of annoyance.

It’s that moment when, prior to takeoff, a flight attendant taps me on the shoulder and asks me to turn the thing off. Not just the wireless, but the whole damn device, as though it’s going to bring down the airplane if left on. The claim always seems ridiculous — the amount of power being used by a Kindle is miniscule; there’s no way it creates enough interference to cause any problems on the airplane.

Or so I believe. Lacking any of that stuff that we call proof, all I can do is meekly turn the thing off and stare sadly out the window.

Until now. Tests have been carried out, and there is no way my Kindle could cause the airplane to malfunction. In fact, it is even less dangerous than devices that are allowed. (Those devices are allowed because they are not dangerous at all).

So, next time I am asked to turn off my Kindle, prior to meekly turning it off, I will ask why. And jot down the answer, and plot the letter I will later write while staring sadly out the window.

Never cross a flight attendant on an airplane. That’s just bad news.

Photo of Corsair fighter firing on Okinawa, from Wikipedia. By U.S. Marine Corps, 1945.
Webcomic is Scenes From a Multiverse, by Jonathan Rosenberg.

Talking tablets to you.

The words came down the Twitter wire.

Hey, @mrtopp ! Talk tablets to me!

This was not the first time the question has been posed to me. The answer was the same as always — I wondered why the tablet was an object of desire in the first place. The last time I asked that question, it came from my mother. She wanted to read books, so I suggested the Kindle. Why not choose a device designed with only the reading of books in mind, if reading books is your goal?

I am also reminded of Kyle Cassidy’s excellent piece about finding a function for his iPad. The recipient of a free iPad, he had no imagined function for it, and it became a glorified eReader.

Cassidy waxes on about it, and electronic books are truly fantastic things, but I cannot help but think that all experience and reports indicate that backlit devices are less pleasant to read from than e-ink, and the price difference — particularly if and when 3G connections are added in — makes the iPad quite a waste of money if you just read books.

Which is quite the digression, as Cassidy received his for free.

This request was coming from a different place, however — with summer travel planned, Seonaid is looking for a device to keep her in touch, and the world of tablets is less expensive than the world of annoying dongles for her bulky laptop. (An aside: Seonaid was surprised by this, I am not. The dongle market is probably saturated; people aren’t really shopping around for them in large quantities. Tablets are new, and flying off the shelves, and the phone companies are forced to offer cutthroat rates as a result.)

Generally speaking, my answer to “should I get a tablet” is “no”. They have no discernable purpose. They are large mobile phones — literally. They run the same applications (mostly) as their phone brethren, using the same interface and the same operating system. They do not strike me as something that somebody should need immediately.

On top of that, the devices are all first generation. The iPad II is not really a second-generation device, just Apple sticking a dual core chip in the first gen iPad, in an attempt not to be outclassed by Android devices. The iPad 1.5.

And Android? Blackberry? It’s first generation all around. If you’re on the fence, don’t buy one. First generation buyers who are not intentionally first generation buyers rarely feel happy about their purchase in the long run.

As far as usefulness goes — well, your iPad or Xoom cannot do anything an iPhone or Android phone couldn’t, though it ought to accomplish the same tasks more quickly, and on a bigger screen. For all the “it’s so fast!” comments I have seen, and all the photoblogs I have read that praise the latest photoshop-esque applications available for these devices, take a look at any tablet specification and tell me if you would even consider buying a PC with those same specifications.

If so, I have a computer from 2001 that I would like to sell to you.

Tablets have all the functionality and power of a mobile phone at present, and their major function (as far as this blogger has witnessed) is on the daily commute — to make it either less boring, or more productive.

The bottom line

If you are hell bent on ignoring our advice, and buying a tablet anyways, there are essentially two options:

Option 1: The iPad

First generation — not the iPad II.

Right now, nobody has a plan for tablets — or, at least, nobody has made a product that indicates that they have a plan for tablets beyond let’s make one of these tablet devices that seem so popular. Apple thought there was a market waiting to be tapped … and they were right. And so far, everybody is just trying to copy the iPad, mostly by making their own giant-sized Android phones.

So why go for an imitation? Until another company can provide something other than savings due to an inferior build, why go with anything else?

With the iPad II out (same product, new box), the first generation one can probably even be found at a pretty good bargain these days. If you need a tablet, you will have trouble finding a better product at a better price.

Option II: Android

However, if you’re thinking about your long-term tablet experience, Android is the way to go.

A tablet is a computing device, and a computing device is only as good as its software. There is no way that tablets remain oversized phones forever, and no way — in the near future — that they pull a laptop and become our new primary computing device. So where will it land?

I wouldn’t profess to know, but you can bet that if Android’s open-source development model doesn’t get there first, it will be there seconds after Apple and provide more versatility. Throw in the fact that you can run an Android device without registering it via your computer, and Apple’s well-known iPhone signal issues (what’s that I hear you say about 3G coverage?), and we are suddenly approaching a handful of reasons to prefer an Android device.

Which Android device, I couldn’t say. I’m not buying one, so specification measurement is not a game I care to play these days.

Keep in mind that every Android tablet currently on the market is just a copy of the iPad, so you’ll be better off in the short term with Apple. But the long-term bet, at least in this corner of the Internet, is on Android.

Kindle: A review

Recently, I have bought what might be the greatest invention of the past decade: an e-book. The particular type? A Kindle, made by the people at Amazon.

As usual, I get absolutely nothing for reviewing things, which means that I only review things I am excited about, which means that this will be an intensely positive review …

Really? The greatest?

Really.

As crazy as we went over our new Android phone a couple of weeks ago, it isn’t really a great invention. No matter how smart a phone may be, there is no purpose to a smart phone. That it has “phone” in it is little more than a reference to the use of mobile phone data networks.

A smart phone is simply a modern-day swiss army knife. It is a single compact device which serves as your phone, your MP3 player, your GPS mapping device, and so on. It does none of these things as well as a dedicated device would, but it saves one from having to carry around a dedicated device.

Great inventions, however, do things.

The printing press printed. The light bulb illuminated. The car moved a wheeled vehicle via a motor. The e-book allows people to read books.

Note that this is something that some “competing” devices, such as the iPad, cannot claim. The iPad has a target market, not a function. As such, it can hardly be termed an “invention”. What does it do?

The Kindle not only has a function, it also performs that function incredibly well. It remembers where you were when you put the book down. It looks up words for you, if you don’t know them. And it lets you carry as many books as you could possibly need around in a single device the size of a trade paperback.

It is, quite simply, brilliant.

The Impact

The first thing I note about having a Kindle is how much more I read.

We have gone from thinking that we should pick up a book more often to actually doing said picking up. We believe there are several reasons for this:

Convenience. The book we want is always the book we have with us. If I feel like some light reading, there is no need to curse myself because that morning I felt like tackling some James Joyce. I just switch books. Later, when I want something challenging, I will switch back.

The Kindle is the size of a trade paperback, and while the title selection is still quite limited compared to the world of paper, it is still quite impressive.

The Bookmark. Regular readers of the Big Bad Blog will know I have a daughter. Her very existence means that days on which I read more than a page or two at a time are few and far between.

The book needs to be put down, and the baby needs to be picked up. Regular readers of paper books know that frequent picking-up and putting-down lead to frequent searching-for-the-damned-page-I-was-on-last.

The Kindle just remembers where you were.

The Binding. One of the biggest – and best – anti-ebook arguments is that there’s a quality to a paper book which is lost in the electronic version.

We believe this is true, and will touch on this below.

But the average book picked up by the average reader at the bookshop on the corner is not a work of art. The content might well be, of course, but the book itself — the several-hundred sheafs of paper with ink on them bound within covers — is most often made as cheaply as possible. This is not so with the Kindle. It is, itself, a sleek little device, but there is something quite satisfying about putting a Kindle into a nice case.

There are two Kindles — hence two cases — in the Topp family. One is a nice notebook-style case. One is a nice brown leather case. Wrapped in either case, the Kindle certainly feels better than your standard cheap paperback.

The Kindle makes it easy to read. No scouring the bookshelves. No placing bookmarks or dog-earing pages — or forgetting to. Everything is simple – pick the book you want to read. Put it down. Pick it up. Read some more.

It is more pleasant to read than the average book. It makes everything associated with reading easier without being the muddle of distractions that a swiss-army-knife style technology (such as a smartphone, iPad, or laptop) tends to be.

And reading begets reading. We are reading more than we have in years, and enjoying every minute of it.

The future of paper

Of course, paper books still exist — and they most likely always will.

There are still horses, despite the existence of cars.
There are still candles, no matter the ubiquity of electronic lighting.

There is something satisfying about a bookshelf filled with books. And there is a tactile comfort in holding a well-made book in your hands.

But these are not your average books.

And an ebook, of course, requires electricity. As long-lasting as a Kindle battery might be, it does run out eventually. Sufficiently long trips to places without electricity would require a solar recharger (which are, actually, pretty easy to find) or paper.

Once the paper book has become a “thing of the past”, it will still exist. There will still be a market for books that look beautiful, to serve time on bookshelves and coffee tables. There will still be a market for books where the publisher has taken care in the selection of the paper, bindings, font, and so on, where the purpose of the paper book is to give the reader an experience beyond the mere words, which can be delivered electronically.

Paper books will become collector’s items. Pieces of art. The vinyl record of the written word, complete with exquisite cover art.

And they will most certainly be worthwhile.

The pros and cons of a Kindle

With our reasoning complete — what of the Kindle itself? Why the Amazon device, and not a Nook, Sony e-Reader, or some other cheap e-Ink device?

Here at the Big Bad Blog, we lack extended time with these other devices. We can tell you that we played a bit with a Sony device (nice, but not as nice as the Kindle) and with some knock-offs (all of which were poorly made, and not worth your time).

But a central point to consider is this: The Kindle is like the iPod.

Amazon locks you in, much as Apple does in the music world — they have their own eBook format (though the reader can handle PDFs), it’s integrated with Amazon’s Kindle store.

Throw in the 3G version — which means that you automatically connect to 3G networks worldwide to buy and download books, not that you get to pay a monthly fee to a mobile operator — and a larger selection of books than available on other devices, and the user finds themselves in a seamless environment. Hot and cold running books, on tap.

If you love books, buy an e-Reader. We know you’ll love the Kindle, and suspect that you would probably love the Nook.

You won’t regret it.

The iPad: Ripples and ramifications


The iPad. A few weeks ago, Apple announced their latest new product to much fanfare, and the Internet went wild. Some were saying it would be a “game changer”. Some thought it was a bust. Some made sanitary napkin jokes. Few said nothing.

But what is the iPad? Does it really change the game — and if so, what game? And how?

Apple’s previous game changers

The previous game changers from Apple have been the iPod and the iPhone. Each of these changed the way we interacted in a particular market.

The iPod was the first popular MP3 player, and its existence — together with the iTunes store — brought music lovers away from their CD collections and into the world of MP3s. It legitimized the format, and was the beginning of the end for the music industry’s status quo. The ripples from this are still being felt, with the RIAA launching regular lawsuits against customers who download music illegally.

The iPhone was the first non-business phone to truly integrate the web into a mobile device. The Blackberry might have been there first, but their business-oriented approach limited the audience. Suddenly, we are all walking around with the Internet in our pocket.

We might not all have iPods and iPhones. We may have Zunes, Droids, or a Nexus 1. But the fact that we have these things — and the reason for Apple’s primacy in these markets — is due to Apple either creating or recognizing unseen markets for these types of devices, and having those markets seemingly appear out of nothing, overnight.

What is the iPad?

In order to figure out if the iPad is a game changer, we first need to understand what it is. The iPod is a music player. The iPhone is a phone. While portable music players and mobile phones had been around for a long time, Apple’s approach to these changed our approach as consumers. If the iPad is to change a game, that game needs to be identified first. Apple does not have a history of new ideas, but of new, intuitive, approaches to old ideas.

A few things that the Internet tells us when we ask what the iPad is:
PC Magazine calls it “a gigantic iPod touch.”
This Is London calls it “a tablet PC.”
As a “tablet PC” is rather nondescriptive, was can turn to MTV, who call it “a hybrid between an iPhone and a full laptop”.

Apple themselves do not describe it. They instead talk about how good it is for web surfing, how thin it is, and how many Apps are available.

Given Apple’s approach, we at the Big Bad Blog tempted to declare it a “bust”, rather than a “game changer”. If it is only a big iPod Touch, then we already have those. Making a bigger one is not revolutionary, and will not change any games. Lacking true laptop functionality (which cheaper netbooks tend to have), while providing few (if any) features unavailable on the more portable pocket-sized versions of the device mean a niche market and little appeal.

However, things change if we stop defining the iPad based on features available in other Apple devices. If we stop considering it to be a big iPod, or a “tablet” device — variations of which have been around since the 1970s, and never found traction — and begin to consider it to be an eBook, things look different.

Now, eBooks might be a small game to change, but they are a game. The iPad has a 9.7-inch display, the same as that of Amazon’s Kindle DX (but larger than other Kindles and the Sony eReader, seen on the right), and comes with plans for an Apple bookstore similar to the iTunes music store. This is different. This has a target.

Why do the Kindle and the Sony eReader not interact with the internet? Allow you to use e-mail? Allow you to copy a quote and save it in a document file, spreadsheet or to Tweet it to the world? These are things that we would like an eBook to do. The iPad does this.

In fact, when we look at what’s new — a screen that is the same size as that for other eBooks, the book store plans, and the long battery life — they all seem designed to compete with the other eReaders out there, as opposed to having been by chance.

So the Big Bad Blog is declaring the iPad a game changer — but we might not notice, because the game is small and Apple seems afraid to call the iPad an eReader.

The future of the eBook

Which brings us to the eBook and the game that is to be changed. The publishing industry is already in upheaval — the Kindle and Sony eReader have gained enough of a market share (of avid readers) that book publishers are now beginning to worry about those same things that the music and movie industries have been worrying about for years. But they are also still fairly rare — you might not even know anybody who has one.

The reason is that they are expensive and limited in functionality. If you only read Twilight books and Dan Brown novels, it’s a waste of money — particularly given that publishers are pushing for new eBooks (meaning the content) to cost $14.99, on top of the price already paid for the reader itself.

The iPad might be expensive as well — in fact, even moreso — but there’s an intermediate level of reader out there — ones who do not read a new book every week, but do read regularly beyond the bestseller list. A flashier, fancier device could cause these people to consider making a purchase that they would not have made otherwise.

Here at the Big Bad Blog, we think this will happen. While the change will not be as fast as with the ubiquitous mobile phone — many are still hesitant to leave paper behind — in ten years, people will think that books that do not allow their readers to send an e-mail or make a call on Skype are primitive.

Students will lead the change

Why ten years? Because we need a group of students who move through University with eBooks in their pockets to enter the workforce and disperse.

The huge advantage that eBooks have is with those who carry around multiple books. One book? No different. Five books? Big difference. University students have reading lists, textbooks, books checked out of the library for research on a paper. Books that they have to stay in the library with in order to research a paper.

Imagine, if you will, the student with an iPad.

This student can choose a place to sit: The library, at home, the coffee shop, under a tree in the quad between classes. Wherever they are comfortable. They can pull out their iPad.

They check the assignment on the course’s webpage. They then do a bit of online research to find what references will be useful. They go to the Apple Bookstore — or even the University Library’s page of books that students can checkout as eBooks — and get the required references. They read them, occasionally flipping over to the word processing App to make notes or copy a quote over. They pull up e-mail again, before heading off to their next class, and send a note to their professor with a question that has come up about the assignment.

The student runs off to class, and pulls up the course textbook on their iPad. Or the reading material being discussed that day.

The iPad is the student’s dream. All their textbooks, in one 1.5 pound device. Plus interactivity, e-mail, word processing, the Internet. Add in games, YouTube and recreational uses and you have something that is well worth the asking price.

What needs to happen to win the race

We at the Big Bad Blog have yet to see the device that will clearly become the leading ubiquitous eReader. Amazon and Sony have a headstart, but Apple’s vision is closer to the one that might successfully repeat the experience of the iPod as the top portable music player, or of Windows as the top operating system.

We at the Big Bad Blog think the key is the student population. They are the ones for whom an eReader which does not limit itself to the reading of books can become a necessity, rather than an expensive bookshelf full of DRM-limited titles. As the students graduate into the workforce, the next generation of adults will be accustomed to eBooks and have already made a choice regarding their favourite brand.

The success story will not be easy. A few things need to be done to find the hearts of students, and bring eBooks into an academic setting as the norm, rather than the exception:

Versatility: This is where the iPad has a head start. Holding all the books you need is useful, but not enough — word processing, e-mail, and the Internet all need to be available if the eBook is to be the defacto portable tool for the student. Games and videos are needed if the eBook is expected to become something they love, rather than a versatile textbook.

Multitasking: Websites everywhere have taken Apple to task over the lack of multitasking on the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Apple has happily ignored them — it helps to make the devices secure, while not truly limiting their functionality. The nature of the way we use the small portable devices makes multitasking unnecessary, in the end. This will not be true for the iPad, or eBooks in general. A student will find themselves needing one (or more) books open, the word processor open, and perhaps a chat with other students they are working with. The device that will win a student heart needs this functionality. If the next generation of iPad does not introduce multitasking, it might be a device that changes the game by revealing the true potential of eBooks, but becomes irrelevant itself shortly thereafter.

NCBI, PubMed and Journals: There are certain sites and many publications that publish the research that students and academics need to use. eBook makers need to look at these, and ensure that these can be easily accessed by those using their products. The ability for a student to search through articles in academic journals cannot be undervalued.

The University Library: University libraries are the traditional source of material for students. Putting deals in place that allow for students to “check out” eBooks “owned” by their University library can give an eBook a strong leg up on their competition, along with potential revenue from the University library. Checked out eBooks could contain DRM, and only be accessible for a limited period — two weeks, for example — before they expired.

The Google Factor: Google has been leading the way at moving old books over to digital. Because of this, any successful courtship has to have Google as a partner. Or will Google step in with their version of an eBook, leveraging the work that they have already done? As much as the iPad looks to change the future of the eBook, old texts and searching technology will be valuable to the academic community. If we are right about the student population being the gateway to leading the market, Google could quite well step in with their own device and change the marketplace dramatically.

The Big Bad Verdict

The iPad is a game changer — but it could also be a bust, if it is not marketed properly, or fails takes on a life of its own beyond Apple’s current (apparent) marketing plans.

So long as it is viewed as a “big iPod”, a competitor to Netbooks, or a successor to the unsuccessful tablets that have occasionally surfaced over the past forty years, it will be a bust. It does too little that is new, at what is still too high a price point.

But other eBook makers will have taken note already. Eventually one of these — or an unseen competitor that has not yet revealed themselves — will create a device that properly meets the needs of University students. That device will gain traction and become a market leader.

And ten years after that, paper books will be like records. The connoisseur might prefer them. The collector might have shelves full of them. The rest of us — who are around now and reading — will remember them fondly. Future generations will not understand references such as “paperback”.