Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Ebook Tangle

The Kindle and other e-readers are gaining popularity. They are small portable devices, with long battery life, that excel at mimicking books. People who have bought one love it, swear by it and claim that it has enhanced their reading experience.

I'm just not convinced. I've been trying out the Barnes and Noble Nook which is a promising product. But once you look past the novelty value, there are a lot of things that are broken with the ebook model.

First, let's look at costs.

Here's the rough breakup of costs for a bestselling book:
  • 45%: Retail
  • 15%: Author royalty
  • 10%: Wholesaler
  • 30%: Publisher, of which printing is roughly 10%, marketing is roughly 7%

That is for a bestselling book. For the average book, author royalties are lesser, and the publisher takes a bigger cut since the average book fails more often. Publishers buy back all unsold books, which raises their costs. So logic would dictate that for average books, which are inherently riskier to print, ebook prices should be dramatically lower.

For a $10 book, the printer, the retail and wholesale contribute $6.5 to the cost of the book. Ebook distribution is nearly cost-free, but even if we say that the distribution of the ebook costs $1, we can reduce printing, retail and wholesale from $6.5 to $1, bringing the price of the book down to $4.50 from $10. Why aren't ebooks at this level? Many books I've seen at Amazon and Barnes and Noble are roughly the same price as a discounted paperback. At that price, and free shipping for orders over $25, why would I bother with a book that requires a special device to use?

Some Kindle books are cheaper: these are usually mass-market paperbacks. But even here, the paperback version is discounted to be about the same cost as the ebook. This is true of many books on Amazon, and only in rare cases are there differences between the paperback and Kindle edition. Hardcover books are more expensive than ebooks, no doubt.

Ebooks aren't currently cheaper, which is usually countered by the argument that ebooks are a superior product. I don't agree with this. Ebooks are closer to book rental than book purchase. Amazon doesn't allow you to loan a book you have purchased. Barnes and Noble has a feature called "LendMe", which allows you to loan a book to someone with a compatible reader. For 14 days. Once. I couldn't believe this till I saw it myself. What's worse, I'm reading an old translation of "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy, which is in the public domain. I bought that on Barnes and Noble's Nook reader. It costs $1, which is reasonable, even though it is in the public domain and available on Feedbooks. But the real problem is that I don't get any rights over this content, even though the copyright has long-since expired. The LendMe feature just allows a single 14 day loan of this public domain book. After I am done with a book, I usually give it to a friend who I know will enjoy reading it. In many cases, I don't want the book back, and I won't be reading it again. But my friend certainly can enjoy it, and perhaps loan it out to somebody he knows. This cannot be done with ebooks.

An often hyped feature of ebooks is the ability to keep your entire library with you at all times. I doubt I'll be reading Anna Karenina again, at least for a decade. How often do people re-read a fiction book, anyway? This notion that people would like to carry their entire collection at all times is marketing make-believe. The only books I'd like to do this to are reference books or textbooks, both of which are currently unavailable in ebook format. Students might benefit the most from being able to carry a single device rather than a heavy backpack, but look at the textbook publishers. They aren't about to give their lucrative monopoly on textbooks away for nothing. I haven't come across any college textbook that is either cheap or electronic.

Another problem with ebooks is that you don't actually own the book. When you buy a paper book, you have some rights as the owner. You get a first-sale right: you can sell it to your friend for half the price you got it at. This keeps the textbook market lucrative for second-hand shops, and affordable for students who drank their summer paycheck away. You get the right to lend it to friends and family, for as long as you'd like, without letting the store know. You get the right to leave it in a busy train for the next commuter to read. None of these are available to you with ebooks. With ebooks, you are purchasing the right to read the book, and nothing else.

As a book rental, ebooks might work. The screen on the reader is crisp, and it makes for easy reading. But it is no better than a real physical book.

At the very least, I'd want a few fixes before I subscribe to this model:
  1. Ability to lend/borrow books without constraints. Multiple times, and with no time limit.
  2. Ability to transfer ownership: even if it is a limited number of times. Publishers are fine with physical books changing owners because physical books degrade over time. In that case, allowing a book to change hands fifteen times seems reasonable.
If ebooks are going to cost as much as paperbacks, they should carry the same privileges. If you want to restrict the rights the owner has, you have to make them cheaper.

Edit: August 2, 2010: In case it isn't clear from the article: I think ebooks hold a lot of promise. I'd be happy if I could substitute my heavy bookshelf with a lightweight device. I have tried looking for textbooks (Computer Science and Statistics), and those are unavailable. Two recent purchases were: Introduction to Data Mining, and India After Gandhi. Both these are unavailable as ebooks.

Also, I'm aware of Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg, which is how I read books on my phone. I wanted to see if buying a public domain book (from Barnes & Noble) granted you the rights you had. It doesn't.

Finally, if people have websites from where they buy ebooks, especially technical content, I'd be glad if you could leave a comment for everyone to read. A person pointed me to, which is a good website. O'Reilly media sells ebooks too, though they are more expensive than Amazon's price for the paper books.

Cheers, and thanks for the comments.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The democratization of culture

Back in the day, before the age of the Internet, culture was something that was given to us. Back before the age of the TV, culture was participatory: you made music, you played music. TV ruined that all, people were stuck to the television set, and discussions revolved around what everyone watched at home. When I was growing up, we didn't have TV for our formative years, and it was annoying that I couldn't discuss television shows with my peers. TV used to create culture: when someone you knew appeared on TV, it was a big thing!

Fast forward fifteen years, and TV has lost much of its culture-making powers. For one, there are too many channels, thinning out what people watch. For another, most of TV is a colossal waste of time: ten minutes of good programming inside a forty minute show, with twenty minutes of advertising: for a total of one mind-numbing hour. Even news shows have sunk to pointless blabbery: I was watching a show one day and they were reading messages that people sent to them via Twitter!

A lot of popular culture now is created by people. Some wonderful, down-to-earth videos have hit it big on online video sites. This wedding entrance won the attention of many people. Watch the video: it is simple, beautiful, and has 53 Million hits. It made Chris Brown's song famous. Or Russell Peters, the brilliant comedian. I first heard about him through friends. His videos became massively popular on youtube: college kids were mailing each other the video. Long before TV was aware of him, he was a celebrity. And when he toured, people showed up because they had seen him earlier. Or this kid, playing Paschelbel on his guitar, became insanely popular. A news reporter went to find him, and write an article on the mysterious funtwo. Culture was created by someone that mainstream media was unaware of.

This is just the way it should be: creation is an essential human activity: we want to make, to create, rather than just be passive consumers.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

When monkeys record movies

I'm disappointed by popular TV shows. My friend recently introduced me to 24, a TV show that he said I would completely fall in love with. He has the complete DVD set, which was thrust in my hands, in the hopes that I'd enjoy the show, and we'd have something to talk about.

We started watching the show, and what first struck us was the mad camera shake. It felt like the camera work was done by a monkey. On crack. It wasn't long before my nerves gave up, and I paused to have a shot of vodka to steady my nerves. My wife stuck with it, and watched the entire show. But at the end, she too had a headache.

This isn't the first time we've had to suffer at the hand of monkeys. The recent Star Trek movie had abysmal camera work: every scene was shaking madly, which was headache-inducing in the theater. At the end of the movie, I was glad to be out of the hall. Some Indian movies have had this as well: Wednesday had similar camera work, as did Yuva. In these two movies, the story is gripping and nice, but the shaky camera spoils the entire scene. I've been told that it is supposed to convey suspense or drama. To me, all it conveys is amateurish recording, and a director who is asleep.

Yesterday, we watched "Murder on the Orient Express", directed by Sidney Lumet. The comparison couldn't have been more striking. Scenes were beautifully done: emotion was portrayed by excellent acting, great direction, and a sober human behind the camera. Ingrid Bergman's acting was excellent: as was Lauren Bacall and Anthony Perkins. Despite the weak ending, the film was remarkable and gripping. The scene with Lauren Bacall holding the blood-stained knife was so dramatic, it made me jump from my seat. It was enough for Lauren to have a stern expression, for you to know what she had in her hand. If the director can't make the actor convey emotion, you either need a better actor, or a better director. Placing on a monkey behind the camera doesn't help.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Open Source, it isn't just a buzzword

I have got a few Android phones: in addition to my shiny new Nexus One, I also have a first generation HTC G1, also lovingly called the Dream. It is the very first Android phone to ever hit the market. The latest Android version is 2.2 (Froyo), and vendors are pushing this release to their devices. It is more common to see verion 2.1 (Eclair) on devices. In addition to these version numbers, you might also see versions like 1.6 (Donut) or 1.5 (Cupcake).

The G1 came out with the very first version of the OS: 1.0. A user who bought a G1 with a two-year commitment will see his contract expire in December this year, and there are many users still with G1s. In the space of two years, more than four new versions have rolled by, a remarkable achievement for any platform.

Android is open source, which means that the source code is available for anyone to view. Love the alarm clock but want to change one little thing? Here's the source code for the alarm clock: go right ahead. The source code is a wonderful reference when you want to see how the 'official' applications do things: which can save you hours of reading documentation. I referred to the source code for my recent bug fix in Barcode Scanner, for instance. It saved me hours of experimentation, since I could see how the official Settings program worked. There was nothing to guess, nobody to ask. Most of all, I didn't need anyone's permission.

The general view is that customers don't care whether something is open source, that they're not interested in the source. It might be true that the average customer won't read Android source code, but there is an important distinction here. Even if the average customer can't read the source, the availability itself is valuable. Let's go back to my G1 for a second. The final version of the OS that it can support is 1.6. HTC, the manufacturer, doesn't want to put much effort into this device. They would like to invest their valuable engineering effort in their new products. G1 customers, on the other hand, cannot move so fast. Some are tied to a 2-year contract, and might not want to pay $180 for a new phone. If there are a few smart software engineers with G1 devices, they can probably figure out how to load new versions of the Android Operating System on their phones. Once they get it working, they can make it available for everyone to use.

This is exactly what has happened with community-produced firmwares like Cyanogen. There is a vibrant community of software engineers, who have old devices, and can take advantage of the Android source code. Even if it takes a month of developer time, spread over thirty developers, that is a day each: well within the reach of recreational hacking. They recently released Cyanogen 5.0.8, which is based on version 2.1 of the Android source code. They didn't have to ask anyone for permission, and all the work was done in their spare time. I recently downloaded this release, after using Android 1.5 on that phone for a long time. While I downloaded the release mostly out of curiosity, I was amazed at the effort and the skill of the hackers. It is one of the best Android firmwares I have used on the G1. It is stable, it has all the critical Eclair features, and it supports a few features that Eclair did not have: applications can be stored on the SD card, USB and WiFi tethering is available, and the interface is beautiful. That a few hackers can produce something this good is remarkable. Of course, they didn't have to write everything from scratch: they had the source code. An old device like the G1 is given a new lease on life because of the efforts of a few hobbyist hackers and the existence of the source code. Cyanogen is available to everyone, at no charge, and it is very easy to load the new version on phones. Even if you couldn't read and understand source code, you can get the firmware, load it on your phone, and benefit from the source code being available.

The source code gives customers a lot of control over their destiny. Like Cyanogen, customers can develop their own releases. They can add features (tethering, Apps on SD card) that are missing in the official release. They can remove features they don't need or find offensive (privacy intrusions). They can verify that the source code is not malicious. They can continue development if the original project dies out completely. Something like this is impossible with proprietary systems, where customers are completely at the mercy of the vendor to provide updates, features, and releases.

With Cyanogen 5.0.8, I'm loving the Dream even more. Thanks, Cyanogen!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Teach me something!

Just came across "Show me do", a website that contains a wealth of tutorials about programming. All the videos can be downloaded at no charge, and they form a wonderful introduction to computer programming. I wanted to learn Blender for quite some time now, and this series of lectures look perfect for a beginner like me.

Show me do also has great Python tutorials. Python is probably the best introductory language: perfect for kids and adults alike. It works on every computer, and is free to download and use. Give it a shot!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Crying to Uncle Steve

Will Verizon work with iPhone 4?
Mail Steve!
Mail Steve!

Mail Steve!
Mail Steve!

Waiting for the iPhone, and can't wait a bit?
Mail Steve!
Mail Steve!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The dictatorship in India

I was recently reading "India: After Gandhi", and was shocked to find out how close India came to a dictatorship with Indira Gandhi. Everyone knows about Emergency, but I didn't know that Indira successfully repealed the writ of Habeas Corpus. And that four out of the five judges of the Supreme Court agreed to having it repealed!

I wonder why this stuff isn't taught in schools: this is exactly the kind of history that is useful and cautionary, unlike the pointless memorization of dates and figures.

At some level, Indians are poor historians. We get a fair amount of our history from external records of visitors: the Arabs, the Greek, the Chinese. We just don't consider History important enough to record and pass to the next generation.