Old books new looks

I read my first proper e-book 17 years ago. It was 1994, and I enthusiastically devoured Bruce Sterling‘s (free!) digital release of The Hacker Crackdown, scrolling through it line-by-line on a  small CRT display. At the modem speeds of the day, it took around 7 mins to download it, and it must’ve taken me a week to read it.

While it was common to write long form content – books, essays, dissertations, and the like – on computers, it is interesting how uncommon it was (for anyone but the author) to read such content on computers. Essentially, computers were a write-only medium when it came to books.

At the time, I knew it was a bit strange to read a whole book this way, but it was a great experience. The book was about the computer culture of the time, and so it was appropriate to be reading it hunched over a computer. However, the process of discovering that a book exists, getting it, and then beginning to read it – all within half an hour – was very satisfying.

Given how long ago I started to read e-books, I’m a little late to the party regarding the modern generation of them. This has now been rectified.

I had to buy our book-club book as an e-book through the Kindle app on our iPad. Not only was it available in time for us to read it compared with buying it for real or borrowing it from the library (it took much less than 7 minutes to download), but it was also:

  • cheaper (less than half the price),
  • easier to share between Kate and myself (no risk of losing multiple book-marks),
  • easier to read in bed (self-illuminating, so less distracting to the other person), and
  • took up none of the scarce space on our bookshelves (given that the book turned out to be not-very-good).

And with the latest book-club book, Bill Bryson’s At Home, I found myself wishing it was an e-book rather than hard-cover. While it would’ve been a lot lighter (the iPad 2 is 600g versus the book at 900g), it was more that this book mentions all sorts of interesting things in passing that made me want to look into them in more detail before continuing. It would’ve been much more convenient to jump straight to a web browser as I read about them, rather than having to put the book down and find an Internet-connected device in order to indulge my curiosity.

All the various advantages that e-readers and tablets have over their physical book counterparts remind me of the advantages that digital music players had over CDs, cassettes and records. However, as I’ve written about before, the digital music player succeeded when it was able to offer the proposition of carrying all one’s music, but e-readers cannot yet offer this.

Apple’s iPod, supported three sources for acquiring music: (i) importing music from my CDs, (ii) file sharing networks (essentially, everyone else’s CDs), and (iii) purchase of new music from an online shop (iTunes Music Store). For e-books on my iPad, it’s not easy to access anything like the first two sources, while there are at several online shops able to provide new reading material. As a result, the iPad (or any other e-reader) doesn’t really offer any way for me to take my book library with me wherever I go.

Although, that would be pretty amazing, it’s honestly not that compelling. I could go back and re-read any book whenever I want, but that’s not actually something I feel I’m missing. I could search across all my non-fiction books whenever I needed to look something up, but really I just use the Internet for that sort of thing.

The conclusion may be that books aren’t enough like music. The experience of consuming music – whether old media or new digital – is sufficiently similar that the way for technology to offer something more is to, literally, provide more of it – thousands of pieces of music. However, for books, the new digital experience of books may end up being a very different thing to the books of old.

Already, there are books with illustrations that obey gravity and can be interacted with,  books that are like a hybrid of a documentary and allow you to dig deep as you like into the detail, and we’ve only just started. If these are the sort of books that I’m going to have on my iPad in future, why would I want to be putting my old-school book collection on there instead? I can also imagine publishers seeing the chance to get people to re-purchase favourite books, done with all the extras for tablets, in the same way that people re-purchased their VHS collection when they got a DVD player.

So, while my book-club e-book experience wasn’t materially different to the one I had 17 years ago, we are going through a re-imagining of the digital book itself. If it took journalists 40 years from the first email in 1971 to officially decide to drop the hyphen from “e-mail”, then the fact that we still commonly have a hyphen in “e-book” suggests it’s not a mature concept yet, despite the progress of a mere 17 years.

iPad 2: Cameras ain’t cameras

I’m an enthusiastic user of the iPad 2 that arrived two weeks ago. It was everything I could expect, except in one respect: the camera.

Actually, there are two cameras – the front-facing 480×640 (VGA) resolution camera and the rear 720×960 resolution camera. Given that the iPad 2 display has a resolution of 768×1024, neither camera is capable of filling the screen to its full potential. However, given I was most excited about the video calling potential of the iPad 2, it is the front-facing camera that concerns me the most.

Comparing that camera to a VGA  resolution web cam that I had around (the Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks that according to Wikipedia was first released in 2002), it is definitely of higher-quality. You would certainly hope so, given the decade for technology to improve in the interim. But, it is still only VGA – just 0.3 megapixels.

Image on the left taken by Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks, and image on the right taken by Apple iPad 2 front-facing camera

Although, when you then use the FaceTime application on the iPad, the quality takes a noticeable dive. Based on some info from a jailbroken iPhone mod, it seems FaceTime actually runs at 240×320 resolution (i.e. 0.08 megapixels).

Same picture as above, but through the FaceTime app on the iPad 2.

Since FaceTime for the Mac supports video calling up to 720p resolutions, it’s not a limitation of the protocol. But it’s apparently also the same resolution that Skype runs on the iPhone (and hence iPad), so trying a different app won’t change that.

The whole video calling experience does not show off the best of the iPad hardware, however the camera and the reduced resolution used in FaceTime is just good enough to achieve an acceptable result. Given that Apple normally aims to delight and amaze with their devices, this doesn’t meet my expectations.

While I can see how it could be better, FaceTime is still slick enough to have encouraged me to use it many times since we got the iPad 2 – it is a good video-calling device. That doesn’t stop me hoping that will be a future firmware upgrade that will at least restore some of the lost resolution.

Also, in the same way that the lack of a camera in the iPad 1 created a clear point of difference when the iPad 2 was released, the low-quality camera in the iPad 2 gives Apple the opportunity to fix this in their next iPad. (If they could find some way to include a directional speaker, that would be awesome too.)

Placing video calls on the iPad 2 has confirmed for me that it could be an incredible device for this use case, and I hope that Skype releases an iPad app to create a bit more competition here (and open up the range of people that I can call). We might get better video calling resolution, yet!

Is mobile video-calling a device thing?

Ever since I’ve been involved in the telecoms industry, it seems that people have been proposing video calling as the next big thing that will revolutionize person-to-person calling. Of course, the industry has been proposing it for even longer than that, as this video from 1969 shows.

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One thing not anticipated by that video is mobile communication, and video calling was meant to be one of the leading services of 3G mobiles. When 3G arrived in Australia in 2003, the mobile carrier Three sold its 3G phones as pairs so that you’d immediately have someone you could make a mobile video call to.

Needless to say, the introduction of 3G didn’t herald a new golden age of person-to-person video calling in Australia. So, despite all the interest in making such video calling available, why hasn’t it taken off? I’ve heard a number of theories over the years, such as:

  • The quality (video resolution, frame rate, audio rate, etc.) isn’t high enough. Once it’s sufficiently good to be able to easily read subtle expressions/ sign language gestures, people will take to it.
  • The size of the picture isn’t big enough. When it is large enough to be close to “actual size”, it will feel like communicating with a person and it will succeed.
  • The camera angle is wrong, eg. mobile phones tend to shoot the video up the nose, and PC webcams tend to look down on the head. If cameras could be positioned close enough to eye-level, people would feel like they are talking directly to each other, and video calling would take off.
  • People don’t actually want to be visible in a call, for various etiquette-related reasons such as: it prevents them multi-tasking which would otherwise appear rude, or it obliges them to spend time looking nice beforehand in order to not appear rude.

But despite the low level of use of video calling on mobiles, there is one area where it is apparently booming: Skype. According to stats from Skype back in 2010, at least a third of Skype calls made use of video, rising to half of all calls during peak times.

One explanation could be that Skype is now so well known for its ability to get video calling working between computers that when people want to do a video call, they choose Skype. Hence, it’s not so much that a third of the time, Skype users find an opportunity to video call, but that a third of Skype users only use Skype for video. Still, it’s an impressive stat, and also suggests that super-high quality video may not be a requirement.

Certainly, I’ve used Skype for video calling many times. I’ve noticed the expected problems with quality and camera angle, but it hasn’t put me off using it. I find that it’s great for sharing the changes in children across my family who are spread around the world, and otherwise difficult to see regularly. But a tiny fraction of my person-to-person calls are Skype video calls.

However, I’ve ordered an Apple iPad 2 (still waiting for delivery) and one of the main reasons for buying it was because of the front-facing camera and the support for video calling. I am hoping, despite all of the historical evidence to the contrary, that this time, I am going to have a device that I want to make video calls from.

The iPad 2 seems to be a device that will have acceptable quality (640×480 at 30fps), and it is large enough to be close to actual size, but not so large that the camera (mounted at the edge of the screen) is too far away from eye line. So, they may have found the sweet spot for video calling devices.

If you know me, be prepared to take some video calls. I hope that doesn’t seem rude.

iPhone Innovations

Spectators at the iPhone DisplayIn my previous post, I described the iPhone as appearing to have incremental improvements, but also as allowing the promise of mobile data to be realised. Isn’t this a contradiction? How can minor innovations make such a difference?

I explained how Apple managed to do that with the iPod, compared to other digital music players at the time. It looks like they might have done it again with the iPhone, compared to other WiFi-enabled PDA-phones. Many of these PDA-phones appear to be functionally equivalent to the iPhone: they make calls, play music and movies, manage email and calendars, and allow you to browse the web. HTC has had such devices for a while, and we’ve also seen them from Motorola and Nokia. So, what’s new?

There are basically two types of data that you might want to access when mobile: your personal data, which can be synched to the mobile device; and external data, which these days is made available via the web. The former has been long solved (e.g. iPod) but the latter has been problematic for mobile devices. The main problem is basically that the web has been designed and developed for desktop computers, and not mobiles/PDAs.

Perhaps the most complained about difference between the web for PCs and the web for mobiles, is that on a mobile the web can be expensive and slow. Continual improvements to mobile plans (including caps and bundles), mobile CPUs (along the lines of Moore’s Law), and wireless broadband technologies (such as HSDPA) are addressing these complaints, and will eventually be good enough for this complaint to have little substance. However, for now, increasing numbers of mobile devices, including the iPhone, support Wi-Fi which will provide an equivalent experience to desktop computers in terms of cost and speed. As few people will need to browse the web as they walk or drive, Wi-Fi coverage in hotspots will often be suitable.

No, for the web to work on mobiles, three things need to work equivalently to a PC: input, output and page functionality. The iPhone has brought improvements to what is typical for a PDA-phone, and these are sufficient to gain PC equivalence in these areas.

Most web sites are designed with the assumption that the web browser has a PC keyboard and a PC pointing device like a mouse. The iPhone provides an on-screen QWERTY keyboard, and through its touch screen provides the ability to use your finger as a pointing device. Pretty much all previous touch-screen PDAs assumed that you would use a stylus as a pointing device, but this doesn’t work well on a phone as (i) it means you need to operate the device using two hands, and (ii) it slows the use of the device because before you can do anything, you need to extract the stylus from within the PDA first. The whole UI of the device needs to be completely overhauled if you don’t have the precision of a stylus, e.g. small ‘X’ icons in the corner of a window are too difficult to press to close applications, and scroll-bars along the side of windows are too difficult to manipulate. However, on the iPhone, to scroll a window, you simply wipe your finger along the screen. This is the first time a PDA-phone has managed to provide equivalent input to a PC without needing a stylus.

Most web sites are designed for a screen that is wider than it is tall, i.e. a landscape or horizontal layout. With more desktops and laptops coming with widescreen displays these days, this design principle is likely to become more extreme. However, because PDA-phones need to work when held as a phone, i.e. vertically, so that there is sufficient distance from the ear to the mouth, most mobile devices attempt to display web pages on a screen that is taller than it is wide. When web pages designed for a PC are shown on such devices, the browser either has to (i) shrink the font size so that it becomes unreadable, and needs to support some kind of zooming in-and-out, or (ii) reformat the web page so that it is laid out in a column, which is almost certainly not what the web page designer intended. The iPhone supports vertical display, but also horizontal display; all the user has to do is tip the device sideways. In horizontal display, standard web pages are apparently quite readable.

Most web sites are designed for display on a web browser with equivalent functionality to Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. This is not just that it support full JavaScript and dynamic HTML for all that Web 2.0 goodness, but that it supports all the really badly generated HTML out there which is ill-formed and certainly not standards compliant. The Apple Mac has had its own desktop web browser for a while now called Safari, and a version of Safari is included in the iPhone. This should cope with pretty much all those web pages out there that depend on full web browser functionality.

So, that’s it. Three apparently “incremental” innovations – stylus-free touch screen, ability to display horizontally, and a full web browser – are enough to provide an equivalent experience to browsing on the PC. Similar functions have all been seen before, but not quite the same, and not all together. And together they allow the promise of mobile data to be realised.

Legacy of the iPhone

So the world knows that yesterday Apple and AT&T officially began selling that hybrid iPod-mobile phone device called the iPhone. And we’ve had such high expectations of it that even Web luminaries like Om Malik have written that we’ll have to talk about eras Before-iPhone and After-iPhone. I think he’s right, but not for the reasons he lists.

When Apple launched the iPod in October 2001, it clearly changed the digital music business. However, it wasn’t obvious at the time to all technology commentators. For example, CmdrTaco, editor of the popular tech site Slashdot, reviewed it thus: “No wireless. Less space than a [Creative] nomad. Lame.” For to an embittered tech journo, the iPod initially seemed more hype than revolution.

A year earlier, in September 2000, Creative launched a similar music player called the NOMAD Jukebox (or DAP Jukebox in the UK). It was the first widely available MP3 player to use a hard-disk to store its music, and so could store a massive 6GB of music files. A major problem with previous MP3 players was that unlike the portable CD/MD/Cassette players that they competed with, only a limited amount of music could be carried around. Hard-disks had reduced in size, and including a 2.5″ drive in the NOMAD Jukebox was a genuine revolution.

However Apple bettered Creative’s device in three key areas. Firstly, while the NOMAD Jukebox connected to computers using USB 1.1, the iPod used Firewire, which was an order of magnitude faster, and enabled people to upload their music collections to the iPod painlessly. Secondly, the iPod had a 5GB 1.8″ drive, which allowed it to be smaller, lighter, and have a longer battery life (for example, the NOMAD Jukebox advertised battery life was 4 hours, compared with the iPod’s 10 hours). Finally, the iPod possessed many novel design elements, with the scrollwheel (initially mechanical rather than touch-based) and the white earphones being worthy of note, and clearly identified iPod owners from others.

On the other hand, the iPod was initially very expensive, e.g. US$399 compared to US$237 for a typical MP3 player at the time (e.g. Creative Nomad 2 with 64MB in January 2001), was not supported on PCs (it would not be officially supported until July 2002 according to this iPod history), and did not integrate with an online music store (iTunes Music Store would not be launched until April 2003). So you can see why an expensive product, with “only” incremental improvements at best, and targeted at a niche market could be dismissed at the time.

However, even though it was too expensive for most people shopping for a digital music player at the time, it became the aspirational product in its category because its meagre innovations allowed the promise of digital music to be realised: listen to all of my music when on the go. Despite Apple’s previous lack of presence in the market, the desire for both the function and form of Apple’s product forced all other digital music players to follow suit.

So, now we have a similar event: Apple is entering the phone market, which it has never been in before, with one of the most expensive products, which appears to have incremental improvements over innovations already in the market, but there is an incredible desire amongst the public for ownership of it. It allows the promise of mobile data to be realised: access all of my data when on the go. It will become the aspirational mobile phone, and mobile phones to come will need to respond to its function and form.

That’s if it can pull it off. It’s a much bigger task than getting a digital music player right, because it also has to be an effective phone and Internet device. When the user reviews come in over the next couple of weeks, we’ll see how well they’ve done it.