News Round-up: The Consolation Prize Edition

So this week brought not one, not two, but three updates to major e-reader devices from (arguably) three of the biggest players in the market. None of the three are groundbreaking updates, but three in one week? That’s … well, actually that’s pretty common. There are so many e-readers out there now that they’re bound to start stacking up on top of each other. But they are beginning to feel like consolation prizes without any major changes.

The first update of least import: Amazon Kindle‘s ad-supported model (called the Kindle with Special Offers) now includes the 3G model as well as the Wi-Fi only. The new model will be $164 – yet another $25 saving from the version without ads. As I’ve said before, I don’t really think $25 is enough of a saving to feel like a complete sell-out, but Amazon is making a case that there are some people out there who want the ads. Their argument is that the ‘Special Offers’, like shopping centre coupons, will attract the thrifty – presumably a key Amazon market. Another argument has it that Amazon might be trying to startup a Groupon-like deal network. (Groupon is called ‘Stardeals’ here in Australia).


Kobo is also issuing an update to its e-reader. The new Kobo sounds pretty good, but until I’ve played around with it I’m still feeling a bit suspicious. The original Kobo reader felt a bit on the cheap and nasty side and the software was low on basic e-reader functionality. The new one, called the Kobo eReader Touch Edition, definitely sounds better: unsurprisingly it offers a touchscreen that is used to flip pages. Initially shipping to North America, it’ll be priced at $130, with the original Kobo slipping down to just $100.

Last, but certainly not least, is Barnes & Noble’s new Nook, apparently subtitled the Simple Touch Reader. This one has, you guessed it, a touchscreen. But it actually looks pretty good (pictured at the top of the page). The market B&N are aiming for here is the same as the Kindle. The new Nook is dead simple: no hardware keyboard, a simple interace, very light in the hand (lighter than the Kindle 3, I believe) and matching the Kindle 3’s excellent battery life. It has Wi-Fi only, and will sell for $139 (though only in the US for now). It claims to have only one button, but the press release also says there are ‘side buttons’, so I’m not sure if there’s a wire crossed there or what. It illustrates an interesting trend, though, towards touchscreens.

Personally, I like a touchscreen on a device that I can actually interact with at a reasonable speed – like Apple’s iPad. But on an e-ink reader? I’m actually kind of fond of the buttons on a Kindle, knowing that when it’s pressed, it’s pressed. The delay (and there will always be a delay with e-ink) doesn’t bother me as much because I know I’ve pressed the damn button and it’ll respond eventually. When I’ve played around with Sony Touch e-readers before there is sometimes a frustrating delay between swiping to turn a page and the device responding. What do you guys think about touchscreens on an e-ink reader? Touch is the preferred interface method with Sony’s readers, and people seem to love them – so perhaps I’m dead wrong. Sort me out in the comments below.

Easter Round-up

Easter has come and gone, and big things have happened in the world of ebooks! Sorry about that, couldn’t help it. That really is a big creme egg. Apologies for my lack of posts the last week or so, the unholy trinity of Easter, moving house and my special lady friend leaving the country for two months has left me with little time to keep you up to date. But rest assured, I’ve been keeping up to date – so I can hopefully fill you all in on the interesting tidbits that have been floating around the ebook blogosphere of late.

Amazon still doesn’t have a tablet but everything indicates it is on its way – perhaps even as early as this year. Quanta, a Taiwanese notebook manufacturer, has reportedly received an order for between 700,000-800,000 tablets that have been traced back to Amazon for delivery in the second half of 2011. Now, don’t take this too seriously just yet, these kinds of rumours are rife when it comes to companies like Amazon and Apple. However, there is other evidence. E Ink, the company behind the technology that powers the Kindle, Sony and Kobo readers, has announced that there will be no improved displays this year, which suggests that Amazon may not launch an update to last year’s Kindle 3. Amazon has also taken a commanding position in the Android operating system community (the OS that runs on the majority of modern smartphones manufactured today) by releasing their own version of an app store for Android devices. Unlike Apple’s iOS devices (iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads), any company can set-up shop on Android. Amazon are pitching their marketplace as a more curated (read: Apple-like) alternative to Google’s in-built and often chaotic Android Marketplace. Like Apple, Amazon has access to millions of credit cards and a very slick one-click ordering system. Along with the Kindle app, this puts them in an excellent position to launch a reader-centric easy-to-use tablet for readers who aren’t swayed by the single-function Kindle readers (but who don’t want to buy an iPad). Stay tuned for more news on this topic – definitely something to keep your eye on.

Apple seems to have relaxed their grip on the reins just a tad in their own App Store. News surfaced this week that Apple has struck a deal with Time in which they will allow use of their in-app subscription service (i.e. magazines that auto subscribe to new content) for free to existing Time magazine subscribers (that covers Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and others). Previously Apple had forced magazine publishers to charge a separate subscription for iPad readers, thus ensuring they were the ones to collect precious subscriber information and a 30% slice of the revenue. It’s too early to tell if this reflects on a general loosening of the restrictions on content publishers in the App Store – but we should all keep our fingers crossed.

The Association of American Publishers released figures suggesting that of all trade books sold in February 2011, ebooks were the highest sellers. The surge has been attributed to recipients of Christmas e-readers stocking up on reading material, but it’s still a great result for ebook enthusiasts. Regardless of how the AAP reached this figure, it’s now impossible to deny that ebook sales are moving faster than most industry insiders had estimated (at least in the US). This was followed by the announcement by Hachette (one of the oft mentioned Big Six US publishers) that ebooks now account for 22% of the US arm of the company’s revenue.

Closer to home, our very own Booku has announced that despite expectations that they would lose money in the first twelve months they already have a positive cash flow. Ebook sales are startlingly good for a new start-up in this space – proving that there is an appetite for ebooks sold by Australian retailers.

Well, that about covers the major developments of the last couple of weeks. Stay tuned for more regular posts. Same bat-time (or a series of other similar times), same bat channel.

iPad 2 Sells Out in the US: Should You Buy One?

 

As some of you may already know, the iPad 2 was announced on 2 March, and released on Friday in the US to much fanfare. News has officially surfaced about the tablet sales over the weekend and it seems overwhelmingly good (for Apple, at least): the iPad 2 has completely sold out, and sold more than half as many again as the original iPad. What does this mean for Australians – and more importantly, what does it mean for you?

The answer? Not much. Going by the early reviews of the second iteration, your decision to get an iPad should not be much different from when the first one was launched last year. If you were waiting for Apple to iron out the bugs for the second version, then wait no more – the iPad is ready. If you were dubious about the iPad the first time around, then it’s likely you’ll feel exactly the same way now.

Almost a year on from getting my iPad, I realise that although it’s a desirable product, it is something I found a use for rather than found useful in and of itself. It is a gadget, and as a gadget lover it is a beautiful thing. As an editor, I’ve found the iPad far more useful than I thought it would be. It’s versatile enough to read any manuscript you can throw at it, and as a device for editing it is as good or better than a laptop. As an avid reader of websites, blogs and other social media, it is a device that fits somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop. It’s also fantastic for travelling – ten hours of battery life takes you a good long way into a long haul plane trip. It is not ideal for writing – the on-screen keyboard is great for short bursts of text but for the most part it is inferior to a laptop.

For most casual users of a computer who are not yet in the habit of checking social media sites or email every hour or so, it is less useful than a laptop, and not as specialised as an e-reader in either battery life, screen quality or heft. And that means it falls between use cases. I am not an average user, and the iPad is not an average gadget.

For the most part, people still don’t really know why they want an iPad (or any tablet for that matter). Apple seems to be adjusting their own expectations as well. The original iPad was launched with a keyboard dock and a suite of Office-like apps. The iPad 2 has dropped the keyboard dock and is now concentrating almost entirely on casual media creation – it sports new video editing and music mixing apps, as well as a photo booth app for taking and editing photos.

Having said all that, if you’re still entranced by the shiny new iPad 2, and you have the money, then you should get it. This is a purpose-defining gadget – something you will use once you own, because it is a pleasure to use. If you’re a reader of ebooks, despite all my reservations about the direction Apple is going in, it is still more open and more versatile than a Kindle (or any other straight e-reader).

 

GIVEAWAY WINNER

It’s my pleasure to announce the winner for my last post’s giveaway. Congratulations to Melinda! I’ll be in touch with Melinda by email this evening to arrange the $100 worth of Booku Bucks.

Sony Reader (Finally) Launches in Australia

Sony’s line of ereader devices have been around since 2006, but for the first time the company has made them available for sale in Australia. Sony has done a content deal with the Kobo / Borders ebook store so owners will be able to load up ePub books from those stores. They’ll be making two models available, the Sony Pocket ($229) and the Sony Touch ($299), but sadly don’t have any plans for now to release the Sony Daily Edition, a model that uses 3G wireless technology so that readers can download books on the fly.

So is this too little, too late? These latest models of Sony readers have been around for a year, and have already been superseded by the cheaper and some would say superior Kindle 3. There are some things about the Sony readers that are unique, but more importantly than that, Sony’s move into Australia is evidence that the rest of the English-speaking world is finally taking us seriously as an ebook market.

So is the Sony worth buying? Your answer depends largely on your philosophy. For the most part, the Sony readers are considered technologically inferior to the Kindle, but more open. The screen technology is a little more advanced on the Kindle, particularly noticeable in the Sony Touch, whose touchscreen layer detracts from the screen contrast, making the text seem a little less sharp and a bit greyer on the vaguely grey background. Nonetheless, it is an e-ink device, so that means you can read it full sunlight and the battery life is long (in comparison to something like a laptop or an iPad). The touchscreen itself is kind of fun, but to those who are used to using iPads or even an iPhone, they do feel a bit old hat and unnecessary. The Kindle just has buttons, but they work just fine. The touchscreen does enable you to take notes on the pages of the book you’re reading with the stylus, but there’s no way to export these notes, so the editors among my readers won’t really get much use out of this function. Additionally, the Kindle ebook library, via Amazon, is massive in comparison to what you can buy for the Sony readers via Kobo or Borders.

So in that case, why would you buy a Sony? The benefits of these devices are accessibility. Unlike the Kindle, which exists in an entirely closed environment, managed completely by Amazon, Sony readers can access almost every kind of DRM (except Amazon’s), and read multiple file types, including PDFs, Word files and rich text – without having to be converted for use. These features make the Sony readers a great choice for those of us who desire interoperability above all else. The Sony Readers will also be available in physical stores in Australia, unlike other readers, giving them an edge when it comes to selling in.

Having said that, for my money, the Kindle 3 is still the best e-ink reader out there for now. It’s far cheaper, and the process of buying books, annotating and checking words in the dictionary – not to mention the access to your books you’ll have through your PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad or Android phone through Kindle software there – is worth the trade-off of being stuck in the Amazon ecosystem. For now. I’m happy to see a Kindle competitor launched in Australia, but I’m looking forward to something a bit meatier from Sony in the future – if they manage to hold on against the Kindle juggernaut for long enough.

Review: International Kindle

As much as I would like to review my brand new iPad for this column, I feel that I haven’t yet had enough time to wrap my head around it, so I’m going to start my series of ereader reviews with Amazon’s International Kindle.

The Kindle has been around for quite a while now, first with the US-only Kindle 1, then the US-only Kindle 2 and the DX (the A4-sized reader). Late last year they finally opened up to the rest of the world with the international versions of the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX. As mentioned earlier, Amazon did not consult with any publishing companies or even the local telecommunications companies before launching the Kindle internationally – they struck an international roaming deal with AT&T in the United States in order to arrange wireless internet on the devices, and used their existing catalogue of books (which they have gone on to remove from many local Kindle stores because of territorial copyright claims).

Despite this, in comparison to other ereader devices available in Australia, the Kindle experience is overall the best (for now, at least).

The Kindle is an e-ink type ereader. This means that the screen is not backlit, and simulates the look of a page. For those who haven’t seen this technology before, it’s not quite as good as a printed page. It looks a bit like a giant calculator screen. The upside is you can read it in direct sunlight, and you can read it for hours without giving yourself eyestrain (or running the battery down – with wireless turned off, my Kindle runs for about two weeks without needing a charge). The other features of the Kindle are pretty standard – you can search your ebook, there’s dictionary support and you can highlight and make notes on your books as you go. It also has rudimentary free wireless internet access – which in Australia can only be used to search the Kindle Store and buy books. The Kindle can even read your books to you in a haunting computer voice that will probably give you flashbacks to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Kindle Store is the most comprehensive source of ebooks in Australia at present. Additionally, with a few simple tweaks it is quite easy for Kindle users to get around territorial copyright restrictions to get access to the full 450,000-book range of the US store (a pretty big drawcard, at least until Australian publishers make their content available to Amazon and other vendors in Australia). There are positives and negatives to the Kindle way of buying books. Obviously there are DRM issues, but that goes for every generalist ebook store at the moment. However, in addition to this, Amazon uses a proprietary ebook format and DRM that they purchased from Mobipocket (another ebook store, now going the way of the dinosaurs). What this means, for those of you scratching your heads, is that unless you crack the DRM on a Kindle book, you will never read it with non-Amazon software.

Additionally, the Kindle is incapable of reading any other form of DRM except its own. This means that if you buy a book from Barnes & Noble or Kobo or Dymocks you will not be able to read them on your Kindle (again, this is assuming you do not crack the DRM on your ebooks, and most people will not). This is Amazon’s way of keeping you in the family – they maintain the biggest range of ebooks, woo customers in and then lock them in forever. Apple did the exact same thing with the iTunes Music Store and the iPod – and Amazon are fighting to win in the ebook wars.

So basically the Kindle is a double-edged sword. It is feature rich, content rich and is cheaper than most other ebook readers available in Australia. However, it is fraught with problems: a lack of content on its Australian ebook store, DRM lock-in evil juju and even Orwellian removal of books after you have purchased them. Having said that, if you’re in the market for a dedicated e-ink reader – the Kindle is your best bet. If you’re sitting on the fence about ebooks at the moment – hold off for now (and read my iPad review when it goes up in a week or so).