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6 posts from August 2011

TOC SneakPeek Webcast #2 Archive

Screen shot 2011-08-28 at 2.43.45 PM Last week we held the second of our TOC SneakPeek webcasts. SneakPeeks are where we give you a look behind the scenes at some of the most interesting publishing technology/platform startups. Each SneakPeek speaker is either from a company in pre-release mode or about to go public with a significant update to their existing product. This SneakPeek had a nice mix of both and featured the following speakers:

Rochelle Grayson, BookRiff

Craig Tashman, LiquidText

Paul Canetti, MagAppZine

If you missed the live webcast you'll definitely want to check out the archive. Rochelle and Craig covered their platforms that are going live in the next few months while Paul provided coverage of how MagAppZine can be used by book publishers (as well as the new features and pricing model available in their 2.0 release).

My Interview with Nelson Saba, CEO of Immersion Digital

If you're interested in seeing how modern tablet functionality can be used to enhance old content you definitely need to check out the Glo Bible iPad app. It's one of those apps that's wonderful to use and it will also inspire your thinking about digital content development and presentation.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Nelson Saba, CEO of Immersion Digital, the company behind the Glo Bible. We covered a wide variety of topics including the freemium content model, dealing with development for multiple platforms and the community aspect of content. I've embedded the interview below and encourage you to check it out. Nelson is an extremely bright, insightful leader who's produced a wonderfully rich and engaging iPad app.

What Amazon Can Learn from HP's TouchPad Debacle

HP might have set a record for the shortest-lived tech gadget of all time. The summer was already underway when they introduced their TouchPad and it's already been killed before fall arrived. I was both surprised and disappointed in HP's decision. The poor sell-through BestBuy reported for the device was obviously a clear sign of weak performance overall, but to kill a tablet so quickly is remarkable...especially since the tablet marketplace has such a bright future.

My question isn't "why did they kill it?" but rather "why did they launch it?". The tablet market hasn't changed since the TouchPad launched on July 1st and surely they didn't expect to see it fly off the shelves when it was priced similarly to the iPad but with almost no apps. 

So HP made a huge mistake and lost a good deal of money along the way. I started wondering what Amazon might be able to learn from HP's missteps as we get closer to a possible release of the much-rumored Android Kindle tablet. Here are a few points Amazon ought to keep in mind:

1. Just because you build it doesn't mean they'll come. That only works in Kevin Costner movies about dead baseball players. The iPad's gravitational pull is incredible right now and that had to influence HP as well (although is it any stronger than it was 2 months ago?). I've had an iPad since day one though and I'm ready to ditch mine when Amazon comes out with their tablet...assuming they don't screw up any of the other points below).

2. All the advertising in the world won't guarantee success. For the brief time it was out I couldn't turn on the TV or open a newspaper without seeing a TouchPad ad. It makes you wonder if they would have been better off using all that advertising money to subsidize a lower device price for consumers (see item #4 below).

3. Don't try to invent a new tablet OS and don't over-modify Android. Rumors suggest Amazon will go with Android but I hope they don't get too cute with customization to make it uniquely Amazon/Kindle-ish, locking out general Android apps. Maybe the lesson here is from B&N: Don't force customers to hack the device just so that we can treat it like a full-fledged Android tablet. HP should have ditched webOS and gone with Android as well, IMHO.

4. Pricing is critical and a price advantage to the iPad is important, especially for initial success. HP couldn't sell TouchPads at iPad pricing levels but they immediately sold out when they reduced the low-end price to $99. When I checked with my local Fry's Saturday afternoon I was told the TouchPads sold out shortly after the store opened. Think about it. Yes, $99 was a great deal for the hardware but these people were buying a tablet based on an OS with almost no apps and definitely no future. Amazon is obviously in a much better position to create an ongoing revenue stream, beyond the device purchase, with future content purchases. Here's to hoping Amazon doesn't feel compelled (or arrogant enough) to price at iPad levels.

5. Make sure you've got a wealth of apps available on day one. If indeed Amazon bases their tablet on Android they've already got a strong base of apps. That's another mistake HP made by thinking they could get everyone fired up for webOS. Almost nobody bought the webOS phones so why would they suddenly buy a webOS tablet? My concern here is that Amazon will force customers to only buy apps from the Amazon Android appstore. That would be extremely disappointing and, again, force a lot of customers to hack the device to get the most out of it.

6. Be in it for the long haul. Really? HP gave up that quickly? Heck, even RIM is sticking it out longer with their PlayBook and that device has no decent apps to speak of! Fortunately for us though, Amazon has proven they're in the Kindle platform for the long haul. The original device was ugly and far from a mass market success but they stuck with it and are now the 800-pound gorilla in an extremely important space.

I'm saddened by HP's quick exit from the tablet market. They could always relaunch their hardware efforts around another platform but I imagine they'll need to lick their wounds a bit first. Competition is good though and I was hoping they would have built something to give iOS and Android a run for the money. Now let's just hope Amazon doesn't make any major mistakes like this -- I really want to switch from iOS to Android but I need a reasonably-priced tablet first!

Porous Paywalls and Book Publishing

Felix Salmon recently wrote an article talking about how the New York Times paywall is working because it's porous. He contrasts that to other paywalled sites who haven't enjoyed the same success as the Times. As I read Salmon's article I was thinking less about pourus vs. rigid paywalls and more about DRM'd vs. DRM-free books.

There are definitely some similarities here. At O'Reilly we believe in a DRM-free world because we trust our customers and we believe they value our content enough to pay for it rather than steal it. It would be naive of us to think this philosophy totally eliminates the illegal sharing of content though. We just happen to believe those situations shouldn't cause you to penalize all your customers. Shoplifting happens from time to time at your local grocery store but that doesn't mean the store manager should put everything under lock and key.

But it was only when I read Fred Wilson's follow-up post to Salmon's article that I realized what other connection this has to book publishing: advertising, sponsorship and other revenue streams. As Fred points out, the Times doesn't necessarily have to charge for each online page view since they run ads on every page served.

I'm not suggesting we can suddenly give away book content and make the exact same amount of revenue with advertisements. But what I am saying is that advertising and its close cousin, sponsorship (e.g., "This book brought to you in part by..."), can and will play a role in the future of book publishing. Every publisher won't necessarily experiment with that model but many will.

24symbols is a great example of how this can work. 24symbols offer both freemium (free, ad-supported content accessible only while online) and premium (for-pay, without ads and can be read offline) models. The customer decides which option they prefer. That last point is critical. 24symbols isn't just serving up free content and hoping that alone will somehow create a successful business model. They're also offering an ad-free offline option that some number of users will upgrade to. They key is to make the premium service feature set compelling enough that customers want to pay for the it.

Will 24symbols be successful? It's too early to say (although I'm a huge fan of Justo Hidalgo and what he's doing with 24symbols; if you missed it, check out his presentation at our TOC SneakPeek from earlier this year). But I'm convinced the future will bring more advertising-based book publishing experiments, not fewer. And as I've said before, I can see a future where Amazon offers two versions of many (if not all) Kindle titles: an ad-free version with pricing similar to today's models and a second one with ads but at a lower price. Amazon has taken the first step with the hardware itself by offering the lower-priced "Kindle with Special Offers." As Jeff Bezos mentioned in the 7th paragraph of Amazon's most recent earnings announcement, "Kindle 3G with Special Offers has quickly become our bestselling Kindle."

Customers are already voting with their wallets and overwhelmingly choosing the advertising-subsidized version of the device itself. These results will undoubtedly encourage Amazon to start experimenting with ad-subsidized content as well.

Services like 24symbols and the Kindle platform are one thing, but the next logical step after that is for publishers to expose more of their content to the major search engines. How long will it be before some of the current New York Times bestsellers are fully and freely readable online with ads? If the stories are good enough and the premium alternative offers a significantly better reading experience (e.g., no ads, can be read offline, includes other features/services, etc.), some number of customers will upgrade, just like they're doing with Times subscriptions.

In Search of Smart E-Reader Apps

Why are e-reader apps so dumb? They pretty much let you read the content, make a few highlights/notes and that's about it. Btw, by "e-reader apps" I'm talking about dedicated devices (e.g., Kindles, Nooks, iPads) as well as apps on other platforms (e.g., Kindle apps on Windows, Mac, iPad, etc.). I feel like these apps and devices are at the same stage the mobile phone was prior to the iPhone's release. They're not as smart and powerful as they could be. Let me give you a few examples:

Automatically gathering collections. Let's start simple here. The original Kindle just placed all your content in one place. It was a huge step forward when Amazon finally enabled collections. Why do they have to be done manaully though? For example, I download a Kindle sample or two every week and I've quickly forgotten about ones from a few months ago. Why doesn't the Kindle allow me to have all samples automatically drop into a "Samples" collection? Or how about enabling auto-collections based on category? I read a lot of baseball and WWII books. How about automatically dropping those new purchases into category folders with those names for me? Make it user-configurable so that anyone who likes having everything plopped into one enormous, unmanaged home folder can continue doing so. (Btw, I'll bet those are the same people who leave everything in their email inboxes and never use folders there either.)

Be more aware of what else is on my device. This is a big one for me. For example, the Kindle app on my iPad is like a silo that has no intention of communicating with other apps or content on the device. Let's say I'm reading a book about The Eagles and I also happen to have a number of their albums on my iPad. I'm at a point in the book where Don Felder talks about how he came up with the riff for the title track of Hotel California. How about letting me touch the name of that song on my screen (in the Kindle app) and give me an option to play the track while I read? The e-reader app just needs to discover what other content is on the device and make the connection to it in the book I'm reading. Pretty simple stuff. In fact, there's a cool iPad app called This Day in Led Zeppelin that does it, so why can't e-reader apps do it too?

Leverage the capabilities of the device. My iPhone and iPad both have map apps so why can't their respective e-reader apps add map links to every location named in a book? So anytime New York, London, Yankee Stadium or any other location appears in a book I could simply touch it on the screen and a map of that location pops up. I could then either look at it from an aerial view, street view or whatever other option is available. No coding is required by the author/publisher; it just happens automatically in the e-reader app as it parses the content it's displaying.

Give me reminders. I recently rediscovered an ebook I started reading many months ago. Thanks to all those samples I download this one eventually got pushed off my home screen and was buried several screens in. I had completely forgotten about it. How about another user-configurable option where the app tracks my reading habits, recognizes that I had been reading that book for a few weeks then completely stopped and so it nudges me with a message like, "Remember such-and-such book? Have you forgotten about it?" This isn't the first time this has happened to me and I've got to believe others have run into the same problem as well.

Let me know about related books I might be interested in. Yes, Amazon does a fine job emailing me throughout the week based on my purchase habits. Those messages are starting to feel like white noise though and I rarely open them anymore. I know this isn't for everyone, but I'm OK with Amazon nudging me with in-app or in-book suggestions. Heck, isn't that what the whole "Kindle with Special Offers" device is all about? I don't think they should limit those deals to a particular device though. Why not open it up to any Kindle customer, regardless of whether they're reading on a Kindle or just through a Kindle app? As a consumer I'm telling them it's OK to advertise to me! I sometimes miss a new release or other product I might be interested in, so feel free to tell me about it in the app, not just via email. Again, this is obviously a feature some people won't want, so make it user-configurable.

I'm sure I'm just scratching the surface here on the type of functionality that will eventually find its way into all e-reader apps. I just wish it would happen sooner rather than later. All the e-reader apps I use are moving forward at a glacial pace. That's why I suggested earlier that Amazon should open source their e-reader apps. Let the community help add these features and they'll appear sooner. I'd still love to see that happen.