2010-01-28

Permalink 09:30:33, by Eric Baber Email , 1424 words, 17462 views   English (EU)
Categories: Thoughts

Finally, the wait is over – some thoughts on the Apple iPad

Over the past few months rumours about a new Apple device – variously dubbed the iSlate, the iTablet, and the iPad – have abounded. The wait is finally over; on 27 January Apple announced its new device, the iPad. Here are some thoughts of mine about the iPad, in particular from the point of view of publishing.

If I had to summarise the iPad in one word, it would be this: convergence. It brings together a multitude of features and functionalities that are already available on the market: a screen not too big and not too small (9.7 inches – nearly the same as most netbooks); wireless access and, in some versions, 3G access; a touch-screen (“virtual”) keyboard roughly the same size as that on a netbook; and multimedia, web-browsing, e-mail and general computing capabilities. So what’s new?

Well, not much really – at least not in terms of general functionality. But then the same could be said about the iPhone when that came out (all it really did was converge disparate functions which were already available in different devices), and that proved a groundbreaking formula which other mobile phone manufacturers have yet to rival. Is the iPad therefore likely to revolutionise the consumer market yet again? Let’s see.

First, some facts. The iPad has a 9.7 inch screen (nearly the same size as the Kindle DX – that’s the large one). It’s 0.5 inches thin and weighs 1.5lb, which is very thin and fairly light. It doesn’t have a physical keyboard; instead the screen can be used as a keyboard for inputting text. A final figure is the price: starting at $499 that’s half the price of what many people were predicting. If you want 3G in addition to wireless connectivity the price goes up, as it does as well for more memory.

Steve Jobs in his launch presentation went to great lengths to outline that what they were trying to build was a third type of device, between the mobile phone and the laptop. He more or less acknowledged that that space is currently being filled by netbooks, but stated that they were just “small, cheap laptops”. The iPad, meanwhile, is “the best”: “the best way to experience the web, email, photos and videos”. A tall order. So will it garner some market-share from the netbook market? Almost certainly, since it is lighter and even more compact since the keyboard is effectively integrated into the screen, and because the screen quality may well be better than that of most netbooks. For some, though, the absence of a physical keyboard will prove uncomfortable, so this feature is unlikely to allow Apple to entirely corner this market.

Another of the main device-genres it is going head-to-head with is the dedicated ebook reader such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. And it will almost certainly steal some of its market share since those two devices are fairly limited in what they can do (allow you to read books, and, in the case of the Kindle, also do some limited websurfing and emailing), and are black-and-white only. The iPad offers significantly more at an only slightly higher price. However, dedicated ebook readers will still have one over the iPad in terms of ease of reading. Ebook readers typically deploy a technology called e-ink; this makes reading off their screens nearly as comfortable on the eyes as reading off paper. The screen on the iPad meanwhile, like those on computer monitors and mobile phones, is backlit, making it tougher on the eyes to do extensive reading (and, incidentally, draining the battery much more quickly). So for some consumers the added functionalities of the iPad will be attractive, while others will prefer a device which does less, but does that better.

Apart from the hardware, though, the other big selling point for the iPad is the expansion of its iTunes store to not only offer music and apps (which, incidentally, also work on the iPad – a huge bonus), but also “ebooks” in epub format. I put “ebooks” into quotation marks because the epub format does not just support text, but also embedded audio and video, animations and more. This will allow publishers to create much richer content, and distribute it easily and directly to the consumer. Whether this will constitute a complete revolution is questionable though. iTunes really was the first of its kind when it first came out – the first mechanism for buying music in pretty much any way a customer might want to buy it – on a song-by-song basis, the entire album, the entire album plus a video, etc. In the case of educational content, though, this isn’t the case: there are already a multitude of channels available through which customers can buy digital content: http://www.ebooks.com , http://shop.ebrary.com , http://waterstones.com/ebooks , publishers’ own websites and so on. Apple will no doubt point towards its new media-rich format, but again that’s not new; companies such as http://www.blankpage.ch already provide this on a range of platforms, meaning consumers don’t have to buy yet another piece of hardware. So this will make it a bit more of a challenge to Apple to convince customers that their offering is unique.

What it almost certainly will do, though, is drive the market towards devices of a similar size with colour, multimedia capabilities, ultimately on a screen which will become better and easier on the eyes than the current one. This in turn will push the market towards content that is multi-media rich: instead of just plain text, consumers (I hesitate to call them “readers”) will be more interested in content that mixes the written word, audio, video and more – much like CD-ROMs have been affording us for nearly two decades now.

So what does all of this mean for publishers?

  • For some publishing areas such as the school- and textbook markets, publishers need to expand the type of products they offer. Many already offer multimedia-rich content; at the moment this is distributed on CD-ROMs and online. They will almost certainly need to repackage these types of product in the form of self-contained ebooks in iBook or other formats as users expect to be able to download one chunk of content which contains all the relevant multimedia elements. Also, much of the current content is aimed at the teachers, for use in the classroom; new content aimed specifically at learners will need to be developed as entire classes of students kit themselves out with iPad- or netbook-like devices
  • Publishers need to keep a close eye on both entrants to the market and ones coming into the educational market from other angles. Companies specialising in producing educational films, for example, have a skillset and experience vital for this new type of product. In the same way that traditional paper-based publishers will need to branch into these areas new to them, some of those film companies will expand their skillset to embrace text and other multimedia. The smart money is likely to be on collaborations, partnerships, mergers and the like – constellations of entities that complement each other and are able to bring new products to market quickly.
  • Another group of entrants will be users themselves as it is likely that making content for sale through the iBook Store will be similar to selling content through the app store, i.e. open to virtually anyone (upon approval from Apple), not just large publishing houses. This can be seen either as a challenge or an opportunity: publishers can either look purely at the content model and see user-generated content as competition, or else take a wider view, and think about what services they might be able to offer content-generating users.
  • Probably the most complex piece will prove to be the sales and distribution model. Publishers utilise different distribution channels - local retailers, direct-to-institution sales, direct-to-consumer via their own websites etc. Apple’s new infrastructure will make the relationship of publishers with their distributors potentially more complex than in the past as geography becomes less of an issue and tracking of sales and marketing activities will become more complicated.

All in all therefore a mixed bag with regards to whether the iPad will herald a revolution or merely an evolution. Of course, what may just make the day for Apple is the iPad’s form factor – the look and feel which Apple is so good at, and which has made millions of people hold the iPhone in their hands and say “wow”. As they say, watch this space.

2009-08-10

Permalink 10:18:49, by Eric Baber Email , 766 words, 15285 views   English (EU)
Categories: Articles, Thoughts

On (e)textbooks in the (ELT) classroom

The New York Times came out with an article about how the traditional, paper-based textbook is going the way of the dodo and how it'll ultimately be replaced by teachers putting together their own learning paths for their students based on materials that are available online for free. This predictably has caused the various camps who have strong opinions one way or the other over how the educational sector should operate to jump on this as being the ultimate truth, or as being complete nonsense. Personally, I think neither of these points of view are particularly helpful, and that we need to look at the realities of how teachers and the educational establishment actually works. Here are some of my predictions and opinions.

  • For students to be able to access core material digitally, all students in a particular school need to have their own electronic reading/working devices (laptops, netbooks, ebook readers, whatever). Percentage-wise globally speaking, especially in the parts of the world that ELT reaches, this isn't going to be particularly widespread anytime soon. In those areas, paper-based textbooks will persist for some time yet.
  • Like it or not, many teachers aren't hugely interested in putting together a bespoke set of materials for each class every day. They've got 20+ teaching hours per week, grading of assignments to do, homework to mark, their own families to look after... They like having a clear learning path with related materials mapped out for them and their students from the beginning to the end of the term/semester/schoolyear. This means that even in classes where all learners have their own devices, most teachers will prefer it if they can work with one piece of content which will see them through the entire schoolyear. Sure they'll supplement it here and there along the way, but they'll still want one core set of materials they can work through linearly.
  • Let's not forget that it's rarely actually the teachers who decide what happens in the bigger picture; instead, that's done by Directors of Studies, principals etc. Concerns that they have include overall quality control (we like to think) - i.e. they want to be able to tell parents/educational authorities/school inspectors that all learners come out having had the same learning opportunities. This - unfortunately, perhaps - is one of the largest things against learning personalisation. Schools nowadays have to protect themselves from being sued, and one easy way of doing that is assigning the same textbook/coursebook/set of materials to all learners of a certain level/age/whatever. It also protects the school from less-good teachers in that they can argue that if the materials at least are good, that can make up for shortcomings of individual teachers. Yes this may straightjacket the better and more enthusiastic teachers, but that's the way it is.
  • Following on from that, in many parts of the world, teachers have only received very basic training, may only be fresh out of schools themselves, may have ongoing health issues which stop them from being able to teach regularly etc; so having a set of linear materials which they can rely on is vital both for them as teachers and for the learners.

So: death of the fixed-beginning-fixed-end-work-through-linearly coursebook? No. Neither on paper, nor in electronic format (but a shift from paper to electronic core materials will happen gradually as individual markets become more high-tech). And designing materials that build on each other and achieve an externally imposed set of learning objectives (i.e. exams) takes time and professional input. Yes there will be open courseware initiatives, some of which will no doubt produce excellent results. Is it likely that many educational establishments will adopt these though? Not many, I personally don't think. There are too many entities along the line - parents, principals, school boards, even the learners - who want some form of guarantee that the materials have been put together by a well-known brand and a set of people who know what they're doing. This will, of course, come with a price tag. While some educational entities or even entire authorities will consider that price tag too high and go for an open source alternative, I really think these will be few and far between.

None of this is meant to be a value judgement in favour of the book, in favour of a particular form of delivery mechanism or whatever. These are just my interpretations of own observations about how things actually are, and how I think they will continue to be, rather than what some enthusiasts one way or another think should happen.

2009-06-13

Permalink 10:00:14, by Eric Baber Email , 1002 words, 69181 views   English (EU)
Categories: Announcements

Samsung Omnia i900/Windows Mobile: a rant

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I've recently taken on a Samsung Omnia i900 mobile phone.

The main reason for it is that a) I need a mobile with Windows Mobile OS on which to try out various applications, and b) it's got a touchscreen roughly the size of the iPod/iPhone so we can compare apps and content to a certain degree.

Now - I was really looking forward to getting it. And while I wasn't expecting it to be wildly exciting (it's Windows, after all) I was at least expecting it to be enjoyable. You can probably feel a "but" coming on and you're quite right. Herewith a part-rant (thanks for listening!) and part request for clarification. If I've done either the handset or the OS a misjustice, please do correct me - I'd be delighted to be proven a mobile-klutz.

So then - after having it for less than a day, I already hate it. Here are some of my gripes:

- Being Windows, there are lots and lots of options for everything everywhere. On a large desktop screen this is useful, but on a small screen - correction, *touch*-screen - seeing and *accessing* the options is impossible. My fingers are probably average sized for a male, and trying to access options and generally interact with the interface is utterly frustrating. Yes you can buy a stylus, but how old-fashioned is that?

- Speaking of the touchscreen, it needs to be calibrated, in the same way that interactive whiteboards need to be calibrated. The very first time you turn it on it prompts you to tap on the various crosses on the screen in order to set it up. a) I didn't need to do this with my iPod, so how come I need to do it with the Samsung? b) "tap" is completely the wrong word for it. It took me 5 minutes of increasingly frustrated jabbing before I realised (through trial and error) that during the calibration process you need to actually push and hold for around 3 seconds before the screen registers the touch.

- Settings and options are hidden in utterly unintuitve places. It's Windows, but not as we know it, Jim. It feels like Microsoft have taken the various features within Windows, stuck them into a bag, given it a good shake and then let them fall out whereever they felt like it. I have spent inordinate amounts of time trying to find how to turn off the screen lock and other features

- Wireless (1). In addition to 3G it can pick up wireless signals. It picked up my home network alright, but - get this - there is NO field into which to enter the password for my network. I entered it fairly randomly into various fields that were presented to me, but come on, how difficult can it be to have a field called "password". Some publicly available wifi networks and many private networks ask for passwords, so please make it easy to input it!!

- Wireless (2). Having entered my password at random, it *appears* that the Samsung is connected to it. However, when I access my e-mails on it, it informs me that it's connecting to my t-mobile Internet provision. Why?! Surely if I've connected my phone to a wireless provider - which is likely to be faster than 3G - then why isn't that the default connection? I can probably change a setting somewhere that will tell my phone to do just that, but why should I have to - isn't that what most people will want?

- Using Opera on it is sloooooooow. This may have been my connection so far, but pages are very very treacly to load. And once they're loaded, trying to navigate around a page by dragging it around with your finger a la iPod is a nightmare. Sometimes the screen recognises that you're trying to do that, sometimes it doesn't. Oh, and I still haven't figured out how to reliably zoom in and out. It appears that by dragging your finger up/down on the right hand side of the screen that activates zoom, but again that doesn't work reliably. Or is all of this down to the screen not being sensitive enough? If so, can the sensitivity be set? I've looked but haven't found an option for that.

- Here a request for help - this is neither the Samsung's nor Windows Mobile's fault. I'm looking for a good Twitter app along the lines of ubertwitter (for Blackberry). I've tried Tiny Twitter and ceTwit and they have various issues (I can't figure out how to follow a link in a tweet in Tiny Twitter; ceTwit doesn't seem to load people's icons properly; and a few other things). Granted this may be a personal thing, but any other suggestions for Twitter apps?

- The address book and its use is stupid. The address book displays names in the format surname, firstname. If I start a text or email message and into the To: field enter my wife's first name, it's not recognised. I have to either scroll through the address book and choose her name, or if I enter it exactly as surname, firstname it'll detect it, but it won't offer me up her name as someone I probably want to send the message to if I only enter her first name. Primitive.

- THE PHONE IS SO NOISY!!!! Have just arrived at my meeting in London and it's bombarding me with messages like "connecting to web'n'walk"; "found another wireless network - do you want to join" (no, I've already told you which one I want to join!!!) This sort of stuff never happens with my Blackberry or my iPod....

I think that's it. Gary Motteram has just made me jealous by showing me his new touch-screen mobile running Android - looks properly intuitive, didn't need any calibrating etc. I think I'll use the new Samsung for trialling relevant software, and apart from that leave it at home.

Why oh why did Motorola stop manufacturing the Razr - best phone I've ever had...

2009-05-08

Permalink 10:31:53, by Eric Baber Email , 448 words, 4364 views   English (EU)
Categories: Thoughts

Of eBooks and eBook Readers

What with all of the recent hoopla regarding the recently-announced new Kindle DX I've had various conversations about eBooks and eBook readers. There are a number of things that I find so obvious I'm surprised nobody else has addressed them (though maybe they have and I haven't noticed). Here are some of them:

  • The concept of eBooks is great (convenience of transport, ability to annotate etc) but the implementation of dedicated eBook Reader devices just isn't there yet. Page turning is too slow, annotation clumsy because the input capabilities are limited and first-generation etc.
  • The dedicated eBook Reader device (of whatever manufacturer) is a very transient phenomenon, or at best a niche one in the long run. Everything is heading towards convergence: instead of having to carry around more, we all want to carry around less, but while being able to do more. At the moment we have to carry around a laptop or netbook for web browsing, e-mailing, working on files etc; a mobile phone for making phone calls and listening to music; and now we're supposed to buy an eBook Reader device as well which only lets us read text (well, some let us listen to music as well, but.) And the prices of eBook Readers given their functionality is far too high. What I foresee in the next 3 - 7 years is this: laptops and netbooks with dual screens - one backlit one like they have now for fancy graphics in full colour, and a second one with e-ink technology that is far better on the eyes, for extensive reading. A side benefit of that would be that if you use the e-ink screen battery life is significantly longer - always a good thing on a netbook or laptop. The limitation on those at the moment is that they only do black, white and shades thereof - but that's going to change in, at most, 5 - 10 years when we'll have full-colour e-ink screens. At that point we'll go back to having one screen. In any event, the sole USP of eBook Readers - screens that are better on the eyes - will be wiped out as soon as there are netbooks on the market that do everything we want to do on the move.

    Refinements will be in there too - making the screen foldable and unfoldable, meaning the device will get smaller while the viewable screen size will get larger; being able to switch the device from read-only to full-input mode, for prolonged battery life; accelerometer and touchscreen capabilities; integrating mobile telephony into the devices; etc.

I guess the main thing that I'm surprised about is the amount of hype that is generated around devices that I consider limiting, transient, and vastly over-priced.

2009-01-10

Permalink 00:18:36, by Eric Baber Email , 231 words, 54037 views   English (EU)
Categories: Events

CES Keynote speech: Alan Mulally, Chairman and CEO of Ford

Keynote: Alan Mulally, Chairman and CEO of Ford. 8 January 2009, afternoon

Ford Work Solutions + Sync: large screens, voice-activated, wireless devices in cars. Music, Office apps etc.

“Automotive leader in Connectivity”. Infotainment.

Link up with Sony for hardware

Mobile phone central as well

“We're a car company, but we're learning to act like an electronics company”. Working with partnerships

Unifying home and office etc. Culturally specific?

Cell phones will always evolve quicker than cars.

MyKey – key that works in conjunction with car which can be programmed by parents for e.g. Highest speed, stereo volume etc.

HD radio in 2010

Car can automatically dial 911 after accident. Speaks to operator or lets you do it.

Vehicle health report – informs user of state of vehicle

Traffic, directions services. Gathers data from millions of cars such as speed and location in order to plot traffic and reroute drivers

Systems will detect whether your phone has a data plan. If so, it'll stream more services through that plan.

Sync will be able to access Apple apps etc

Access Facebook etc messages through voice commands

Lots of info about vehicle economy so that driver can adjust driving

Ford Focus more economic than some hybrids

Configurable displays in future. “Intelligent” systems, giving driver information depending on habits, time of day etc etc. E.g. At lunchtime, suggesting local restaurant that suits preferences.

Sync available globally in 2010. Europe first, then Asia

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