The revolutionary coffee

If you follow the news, you have probably heard about the Jasmine Revolution that is being brutally crushed by the Chinese authorities.

But here’s an interesting take on it: it might not actually be happening. The authorities may just be randomly arresting people who are just out for a stroll, without a clue that a “revolution” is allegedly being fought.

The blogs and websites themselves are largely invisible to ordinary Chinese as the Great Firewall keeps them out, but they can be seen by the security agencies, who have been swift to react. The organizers, whoever and wherever they are, have repeatedly called on people to gather in a range of popular and public areas in the centre of major cities across China – shopping malls and university campuses – and go for a stroll every Sunday afternoon to call for minor political change. These public areas are, at that time of day, normally filled with young people and out-of-town domestic tourists, all now potential ‘protesters’. Now, because of the number of competing and overlapping security agencies, there is a lot of pressure on the local commanders to make some arrests and to show some success, but there are no genuine protesters, just some bemused local tourists and a lot of foreign journalists. So some young tourists get beaten up and taken away, and some journalists get smacked around.

Image by Michael Vincent Manalo. Found at My Modern Metropolis.
Webcomic is Virtual Shackles, by Jeremy Vinar and Mike Fahmie.

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”.

A (fake) guest blogger

This Tuesday is like all Tuesdays. I write a blog article about science or technology-related policy — either government, corporate, or both.

This Tuesday is different from other Tuesdays. I am in Bulgaria with extremely restricted access to the Internet.

It is an unfortunate truth that these articles take more time to write. I need to find the particular topic, research and find references. Then I need to form an opinion (forming it prior to informing it is not something I’m in to) and develop arguments supporting it that I am happy with. Finally, I must find or produce some images to include with it, and go through the lengthy editing process during which (if I find a logical error, particularly) I may need to rewrite a large portion of the whole thing.

You see how this is impossible. Luckily, there’s the folks at Mashable. They recently wrote a list of social media blunders, and what can be learned from them. Thank you Mashable. I will comment on what you wrote, rather than generating my own content. You folks really know how to help a guy with hotel Internet troubles.

1. Facebook’s News Feed
It’s hard to argue with Mashable’s take here — prepare users for major changes, and be “proactive in responding to criticism”. I put that second part in quotations, because a response is necessarily reactive, and cannot be proactive. But their point is good — be so reactive that people consider it to be proactive.

Funny thing, though, Mashable misses the big problem here. There are two big concerns from users in social media: The first is privacy — they want to be sure that they can limit their stalkers in some way, if they have some. The second is ownership: They want to retain the right of pulling content off the site, if it becomes valuable (or dangerous) to them, somehow.

Social media providers should be asking themselves two questions every time they make a change:
1. How will people being stalked by an ex feel about it?
2. How will people who suddenly realise they are looking for a job and want to remove the connection between their name and the photographs of them drunk, in drag and licking farm animals from the Internet feel about it.

If Facebook asked these questions, they would have no problems. Sadly enough, these are the primary concerns their users have.

2. Sony’s DRM creates security holes in users’ computers.
I have to assume that this should be #1, and they only put Facebook there to separate the two Facebook entries. Putting security holes in computers is most likely illegal in most countries. Sony broke the law.

Don’t break the law, kids. It’s bad policy. You get caught.

3. Motrin Moms
I’ll have to trust Mashable on this one. I never heard of it until now.

4. Astrospace Twitter Account
Another one I never heard of. This is, apparently, about a single Twitter user (aka Tweeter). I’m not sure if this makes it the best one (something all of us could potentially learn from) or the worst (does it really belong with the Facebook entries, or Sony’s multi-million dollar losses?). But hey — it’s there.

5. Facebook redux: Changing the TOS
I’ve already spoken about this, and there is more to come tomorrow, so I won’t go on about this anymore.

Plus, I already talked about Facebook in #1. I’m good that way.