technology

On Google Glass

There's an ongoing debate between some friends of mine and I about Google Glass, the Google project to be launched this year that puts a smartphone interface before your eyes like a pair of glasses. My friends think that Glass is a terrible idea, because it's important to them to be able to put the smartphone away and interact with the world unmediated. One friend compared it to the "gargoyles" in Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash, who live their lives constantly recording and documenting every minute and so are always at a remove from reality, unable to experience it without mediation.

Some of the same friends who complain about Glass also complained about cell phones when they started becoming ubiquitous ('if I'm not at home I don't want you to be able to reach me') and later complained about smartphones ('those things are useless'). And while I do still know some hold-outs without cell phones, almost everyone else has a smartphone now and enjoys it. It takes a certain amount of adjustment, especially for us old fogeys who didn't grow up taking the Internet for granted, but once you realize that you can get public transit directions to anywhere while standing on a streetcorner, look up a random fact over dinner or purchase a birthday present for instant delivery while at a birthday party, the value of a tool like a smartphone starts to hit home.

Using Their Machines Against Them: A Manifesto.

In the mid to late nineties, Eric Rosenfield and I founded a webzine called YanktheChain.com, which was an attempt to duplicate in internet form the sort of xeroxed zines that helped drive the underground music scene of the eighties. That attempt more or less failed, but we did end up doing some cool and interesting things, giving me the opportunity to publish a satirical hitlist entitled "This is not a hitlist" in response to an earlier post that had gotten a warrant issued for Eric's arrest in the State of Connecticut. Eric later plead no contest to the charges, which were, frankly, bullshit and I got off scott free. Much of this was done in pursuit of one of our many mottoes and mission statements, in this case the fun idea that we had been "Using Their Machines Against Them Since 1899."

At this point, it's clear that "Using Their Machines Against" them is an idea whose time has come. At this point, three things are clear 1.) Various large and powerful political entities are fucked up and are more concerned with covering their asses than they are in doing The Right Thing™ 2.) Occasionally, if not for the outrage in the blogotwitterverse about the villainous actions of these entities, nothing would have been done about it. 3.) There is a lesson to be learned from this.

The lesson is that the time has come for a strategic view of how exactly the asymmetrical warfare of the electronic proletariat, by which I mean the people who make the communications economy work, against the electronic capitalists who own the means of production can actually be fought. More importantly, this model is one that gives a way forward for those of us who want to do something to shape politics and challenge the status quo of global capitalism in the years to come.

The iPad: Not the Writing Tool I'd Hoped For

I had high hopes. Something as portable and powerful as an iPad could be an amazing writing device, a tool you'd carry around with you all the time anyway, lightning quick to boot, and (almost) always connected to the Internet for instant back-up. Plus, the iPad's lack of multitasking is practically a feature for writers—no more constant alt-tabbing to the web browser to procrastinate. Brilliant. When I found out there were writing programs for it that synchronized directly with Dropbox, the service I use to back up and synchronize my files anyway, I went out and bought one, along with the Apple keyboard dock.

Now the iPad is amazing at a lot of things. For web browsing, watching videos (non-flash of course) and reading comic books it's perfect. There's an app called "Reeder" which has completely changed the way I interact with RSS feeds, allowing me to effectively take Google Reader on the subway. But alas, after trying out the major word processing options, all were missing key features that I'd come to take for granted, making them annoying to use at best.

The iPad is NOT a Kindle (or Nook) Killer

The iPad is basically a big iPod Touch with optional 3G internet, optional external keyboard and the ability to use iWork. It has access to an Apple ebook store, which is nice, but because it runs iPhone apps it can already read Kindle, eReader and B&N books as well as books from FictionWise and Books on Board through Stanza. So that's just not such a big deal. It's not a Kindle killer because it doesn't have an eInk screen, which means it's backlit, just like the iPod Touch, iPhone and laptops. Though I must admit it looks sweet for reading color comics on.

I'm still waiting for a tablet that can change from eInk to regular screen and back, like some of the technology demos that have been floating around.

What this is: A decent alternative to a netbook, because you can write and read on it, and do low key work related stuff. No flash, which means no Hulu etc, but most Netbooks are too slow for Flash video anyway, whereas the iPad can do video from the iTunes store and from YouTube. And it's supposedly very fast, unlike most Netbooks, and it's going to have rock solid OS software unlike the creaky Windows XP that's on the typical Netbook. So it's a good addition to Apple's lineup, but yeah, not exactly the revolution people were thinking about.

Why I Hate Cory Doctorow

First, yes I've read his books. Well, some of them. Well, part of one of them. I got fed up and stopped because it was stupid and poorly written. But that's neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that I hate Cory Doctorow, I hate Boing Boing, and it's time somebody called Doctorow and his cohort of yes-men what they are: a bunch of assholes.

Normally it's not something that I feel like wasting too much time on, the hate of all things Doctorow. I mean, live and let live, right? If people want to waste their time on his weird brand of egomania, that's fine. I'm not going to worry about it. Just like I don't worry about that douchebag from Wired who wrote the Longtail book justifying the hegemony of global capital or nutjob libertarians like Eric S. Raymond advocating for creepy lifestyles dedicated to polyamory, computer programming, and owning guns. By and large the creme de la creme of geek nobility are fairly safely ignored. Although I have written elsewhere of the danger of confusing "geek chic" with "being cool," usually these people are no threat to anyone or anything I care about because the things they care about (file-sharing, Linux, web pornography, SF fandom, memorizing monty python sketches) are not things that I give a damn about one way or another. Occasionally tho, these people cross over into my real world life and I'm reminded that they are out there, festering, and are even occasionally presenting the danger of being taken seriously by real people. That, my friends, is a possibility I find absolutely intolerable and so am setting aside my usual Laissez Faire approach to The Doctorow Problem to outline in detail why it is that I can't fucking stand the the man.

Sony's New Readers and Library Announcement

Sony had a big press conference today, not only for the new regular ($200) and touch-screen ($300) ebook readers already announced, but also for a big new $400 touch-screen reader with always-on 3G Internet courtesy of AT&T free of charge ala the Kindle.

Gizmodo has the rundown, but here's the highlights: The 3G device will be called the "daily", and will be available in December. The always on 3G will only have access to the Sony eBook store (so far), so no web browser like the Kindle(?). The new device is bigger than the Kindle (7"), but smaller than the Kindle DX, priced between them and, unlike them, touch screen so you don't have to deal with those annoying buttons. Also it's much purtier than the Kindle. And, of course, all the new Readers reads ePub books, like those sold at Fictionwise, Books-On-Board and Powell's World of Books. Unlike the Kindle models.

More big news is that the Sony eBook store has made deals with a number of public libraries, including my own New York Public Library, to have automatic access to library ebooks from the Sony software. All I have to do is type in my library card number and it will download the book, which will automatically expire and delete itself, with no possibilities of late fees. Normally, I'm against DRM'd books that delete themselves, but hey, library books are free, so who really cares. I'll take free books that delete themselves over no books.

Sony also announced some kind of literary Twitter service, which strikes me as very odd. Something to keep an eye on, anyway.

Of course, if the 3G Sony Reader was the same price as the Kindle 2, then we would really have a horse race on our hands. As it is, it's still exciting to see that Sony is trying to innovate and staying in the market, and the $200 reader (when it's finally released) I think is still a killer device.

Also, whither the Mac version of the Sony software already??

Update: Gizmodo has a comparison chart of the 3G ebook readers

Update 2: Mac version of the software finally released!

Sony Going Epub

The big news in the ebook world is that Sony, creators of my beloved PRS-505 ebook reader, are going to make all the books at their store in the open epub or Adobe's DRM'd version of epub format, effectively killing their proprietary LRF ebook format. There's been a lot of criticism on Teleread of the NY Times brushing over the fact the Adobe's format is just as proprietary as any other, though some think the ease with which it can be hacked may be a bonus feature. However, any move towards open standards I'd say is a good thing.

One thing nobody seems to be pointing out though, is that if the LRF format dies, any books I have in that format (which I probably paid good money for) will soon become useless. Sure my PRS-505 will still read them, but when I upgrade to a different reader sometime in the future, will it be able to? This is, of course, one of the problems with proprietary, DRM'd formats in the first place, if the format goes down so do your books.

Also, this emphasizes the fact that ePub is becoming the defacto standard ebook format, and the Kindle is really the only ebook reader now that can't read it. Inevitably, it must come around.

Sony's New Ebook Readers

I've been in Michegan and Chicago, hence the radio silence, but for now here's a story from the NY Times about Sony's new ebook readers which are supposed to go on sale by "the end of August". There will be a $300 touch-screen successor to the PRS-700 and a $200 successor to the PRS-505. That latter price point could kill off the $250 Cool-Er Reader and the (still AWOL) BeBook Mini. Via GalleyCat

The State of Ebook Readers July 24th, 2009

You may recall that back in May at BEA I was told by the makers of BeBook that their $200 BeBook Mini eBook reader would be available at the "end of June". It's now almost the end of July with no BeBook Mini to be found. Word has just come out that the device would roll out "within the next 2 to 3 weeks in Europe for 200 Euros, which is currently $284 USD, quite a bit more than promised. I, for one, feel lied to.

In other news items of interest:

  • Amazon recently dropped the price of the Kindle to $300
  • Rumors are flying about an Apple tablet device early next year. (This has been a rumor for so long though that I'll believe it when I see it.
  • Also, Barnes and Noble recently launched its own ebook store and iPod Touch/iPhone app, with an associated Plastic Logic ebook reader device promised soon. I can't, however, seem to find a straight answer about what format these books are in, and what kind of DRM they have (they pretty clearly have it, since the books can only be read using the various BN applications and can't be printed).
  • The Sony Reader 700, which, unlike the 505 model, had a touch screen but was criticized for being too expensive and having too much glare, seems to have been discontinued.
  • And finally, much bruhaha about Amazon deleting books from people's Kindles and refunding their money without telling them, which folks are comparing to Barnes and Nobles sneaking into your house at night, taking your books and leaving some bills on the table. Bezos recently apologized for this, but I think it's pretty clear why we, the book buying public, need to stand up against DRM. If you buy something it should be your property, not loaned to you by some corporation who reserves the right to tell you what you can do with it or take it back from you.

So here's what the playing field looks like right now in the US. Note that in addition to companies' own ebook stores, there are many (non-Kindle) device-agnostic ebook stores like FictionWise.

The Kindle: $300 (or $490 for the DX which is bigger and supports PDF) always on 3G Internet, large ebook store, but no support for open formats like ePub or, on the regular Kindle, PDF.

The Sony Reader 505: $279, though less, ironically, on Amazon where it's $268. Reads PDF and ePub as well as Sony's proprietary format. Large ebookstore for the proprietary format books, but it only works with Windows (though a Mac version has been promised soon). See my review.

The Cool-Er Reader: $250. The cheapest ebook reader. Reads PDF and ePub. Has a decent sized bookstore, though without the loss-leader pricing of Amazon or Sony.

The BeBook: The regular BeBook reader is still on sale for $279 and supports ePub and PDF without any company-specific bookstore. Besides the fact that the BeBook people are liars, there's no reason to ever by this device since it's the same price as the brand-name Sony Reader.

iPod Touch. $230 - Cheaper than all of the above, it doesn't have the eInk screen of the other ebook readers, so it's not as easy on the eyes. It does, however, have lots of features that the eInk devices can only dream about: WiFi Internet browsing, games and the whole panoply of the App Store, not to mention the fact that with Stanza, the eReader App, the Kindle App, and the BN eBook App, the iPod Touch has easily the largest selection of books available of any ebook reading device, including your home computer (which can't read Kindle books). Or, I should say it has the largest selection of ebooks available on any device save for its brother, the iPhone, which has everything it has plus 3G, a camera and the ability to make phone calls. The iPod Touch and iPhone have much smaller screens than the other devices, but fit in your pocket, and have touch screens.

Keep in mind that it's obvious that a lot is happening in this market and things could change any minute.

Kindle for iPhone/iPod Touch Sucks

The Kindle app for the iPhone/iPod Touch is easily the worst ebook reader I've ever tried to use. First and most annoying, the text is full justified, and there's nothing you can do to change that, which on the tiny iPod Touch screen makes huge, gaping spaces in between the words. Then, you can't change the font, only a limited number of font sizes, and the only options for coloring are black on white, white on black, or brown on sepia. There's no search feature to speak of. And worst of all, when you look to see how far along into the book you are, it says something like "169-172". Turn to the next page and it says "172-175". Huh? What does that mean. I tried to find some kind of built-in documentation, but the "help" button takes you to a web page (no help if you're not online, which frustrated me in the subway this morning) and on the webpage you have to navigate through a bunch of stuff about the Kindle device before you get to a FAQ page that tells you almost nothing about the app or what the mysterious numbers on the bottom mean.

After some creative Google searching I did find a page on the Amazon site that mentions that the Kindle uses "location numbers", but no explanation of what those numbers are actually supposed to mean.

What a piece of garbage. It wouldn't be so annoying if Sony wasn't dragging its heals about getting me a replacement Sony Reader after I broke mine (which deserves another post all by itself, WTF Sony?? It's been weeks! But I digress). This book I really want to read digitally is only available to me through the Kindle store or the Sony Store, and as Sony formatted books are basically useless without a Sony Reader, the Kindle won out. (Needless to say I would much much much prefer the book in an open, non-DRM'd format (cough ePub cough cough) that I could read on any device and with any program, so I could bring it into a real ebook reader like Stanza. But instead I'm stuck with this crappy software as the only way to read something I ostensibly own and should be able to to what I like with. Gah.)