Through an iPhone, Squinting

If you want a vision of the future, imagine your arm holding up your iPhone — forever

It has been truly delightful to see all the imaginative augmented reality prototypes made by developers playing around with Apple’s new ARKit framework. It’s only been available for a couple of months, but developers have already gone to town with all sorts of fun ideas:

Amid the excitement, it’s easy to forget that we’ve been here before, many, many times. Back in 2015, Apple acquired Metaio, a German company that provided an SDK (software development kit) that allowed other developers to easily make augmented reality experiences. Two years on, ARKit is no doubt far more powerful and far easier to use than Metaio’s SDK, but the principle is the same.

And so are many of the applications. We’ve seen 3D objects superimposed on the real world on iOS device before, powered by Metaio:

And we’ve seen people plopping down inexpensive furniture into their homes before:

I don’t mean to rain on ARKit’s parade. The ease of use, lack of licensing fees, and sheer power means that we’ll be seeing a greater variety of ideas than we ever did in Metaio’s time, and so it’s entirely possible that someone will figure out an idea that makes phone-based augmented reality really take off. This ARKit-powered measuring tape prototype is actually very neat and useful:

But I don’t think this time is different.

All of these videos you see are incredibly misleading — not because they’re faked (they aren’t), but because they make it seem as if your field of view will be filled with the digital reality.

We usually don’t have to worry about this for videos taken by smartphones because in those cases, it’s actually true: when you watch a video on Snapchat or Instagram, you’re seeing what you’d really see if you were there. But when you watch an augmented reality video, you’re definitely not: instead, you have to imagine you’re holding up a phone at arm’s length, and seeing the video on that phone.

Looking at the world through a 5″ window is never going to be comfortable for longer than a minute. I’m sure there will be specific, short experiences like the measuring tape app that do well, along with some tourism and instructional apps, but I very much doubt we’ll see experiences even as long as 5 minutes, let alone 15 minutes.

As for games, so many of the prototypes are basically placing 3D objects on top of real world 2D planes, like your coffee table:

Forget about accessibility or comfort. I fail to see how this is more fun than a non-AR game that isn’t tied to a flat plane. It would be more innovative for AR games to involve manipulating of objects in the real world to influence the digital world, but that’s decidedly tricky when you’re holding up a phone or tablet.

Before you say “Pokémon Go”, let’s be clear — literally the first thing any decent player does in that game is turn off the augmented reality layer (where the monsters are superimposed on top of the real world camera view) because it eats up your battery and makes the game harder to play.

I don’t buy it. And I don’t think Apple does, either. Unlike Google’s shameful boosting of the dreadful Google Glass, Apple has thus far been comparatively quiet about ARKit. I’m sure they realise that most people don’t want to develop their shoulder muscles by using AR all the time.

No, this is all preparation for their future heads-up display — one that really will fill up your field of vision, be perfectly comfortable to use, utterly desirable, and only barely affordable.

Ingrateful Expectations

This week, I bought a new iPad Pro 9.7″ to replace my iPad Mini 2. I use my iPad at home for at least two hours every day, mostly for web browsing and reading magazines, so it didn’t feel like a stretch to spend the not-inconsiderable £619 to get an upgrade. I was particularly interested in the iPad Pro’s new screen (40% lower reflectance than the Air 2, maybe 70+% over the Mini 2; laminated display; etc.), the Apple Pencil support, and most importantly, a 3x speed increase compared to what I have now.

Has my Mini 2 gotten slower since I bought it two and a half years ago? It feels like it, but according to benchmarks, iOS 9 actually increased the speed of the Mini 2 for my most common activity, web browsing. Perhaps the benchmarks are wrong, but it’s also likely that I just expect much more from my devices every year – not just because web pages and apps are becoming more complex, but due to the ratcheting-up of performance on my other devices. When I first got my iPad Mini 2, I’m sure it made my iPhone 5 feel slow in comparison, but my iPhone 6 now makes the Mini 2 feel slow.

And now the iPad Pro makes my iPhone 6 feel slow(ish). That’s to be expected, but more surprisingly, in my tests it loads webpages just as fast as my 27″ iMac from late 2012, which has 24GB of RAM; the iPad Pro has ‘only’ 2GB. Last night I used FaceTime while browsing the web and scrolling in Twitter, and there was nary a hiccup. I’m sure I could make it slow down with, say, a dozen Safari tabs and Grand Theft Auto, but that’s not a common use-case for me.

The display is just as good. Yes, it has lower reflectance, which makes for a more pleasant reading experience (no getting distracted by subtle reflections in front of the text); yes, it can go brighter. But the real MVP is the True Tone feature, which basically white-balances the display by sensing the colour temperature of your surroundings. It’s not headline-grabbing but as soon as you turn it off, you realise just how blue the display would be without it. The ultimate effect is less eye strain because it makes the iPad feel more like a piece of paper rather than some artificial glowing rectangle. I wouldn’t be surprised if True Tone was introduced to all new Apple displays in the next couple of years.

Naturally, the world wouldn’t complete without Apple fanatics who are deeply, personally offended by the iPad Pro not having, say, USB 3 support or 4GB of RAM or a faster Touch ID sensor. Without them, it’s apparently not a sufficiently impressive upgrade over the iPad Air 2 from 18 months ago. I think that’s arguable, but what’s more interesting to me is that there are people who really want to upgrade a 1.5 year old tablet.

Now, we all know people who upgrade their phones every year, and while I don’t care enough to do that, I can understand the impulse because it still feels like there’s a rapid pace of improvements in smartphones. But I don’t know anyone who upgrades their computer every year. In fact, it wouldn’t even be possible to do such a thing on many Macs, because they don’t get updated that often – and in any case, the upgrades would get you a scant 10-20% speed increase.

Tablets occupy a middle ground. Since they share the same core processors as phones, they share the tremendous speed improvements. But their other features are changing less rapidly; people just don’t care as much about the camera or touch sensor on tablets as they do on their phones, because they use their tablets less frequently and for a narrower range of tasks. So I find it baffling that anyone would even want to upgrade their iPad every release.

I suppose people are upset because it’s called the iPad Pro and that Apple are marketing it as a replacement for your computer. If so, that’s unfortunate. ‘Pro’ is a marketing term; the iPad Pro is no more meant for ‘professionals’ than the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro laptop is meant for professionals. The iPad will never be a true replacement for a traditional computer until it’s much more flexible and runs a windowed operating system… but… who cares? Many people don’t need a traditional computer any more, and most people are using traditional computers far less – I know I am. For the rest of the time, I’m happy using my tablet.

How Useful is the Apple Watch, Anyway?

Back when I worked out at gyms, I’d often be found on the exercise bikes. Unlike the other cardio equipment, it was easy to grip the heart-rate monitors, and it was intriguing to see the numbers skip up and down as I went through my routine. But after a few sessions, I stopped bothering. The numbers always followed the same predictable pattern and I wasn’t learning anything new or useful from them.

I feel the same way with fitness devices and the notion of the ‘quantified self’ as a whole. Regularly recording your weight, steps, calories, heart rate, and so on, is useful when you are looking for changes, whether that’s because you’re trying to lose weight, run faster, or detect an illness. It’s good for professionals who are pinpointing exactly how to improve their performance. It’s good for long-term reviews of your weight or heart rate over many months or years. And it’s good for beginners who don’t know much about how their bodies will respond to change. But unless you fall into one of those categories, it’s not really that useful to know that your heart rate was, on average, 70 bpm this week and 68 bpm last week.

When I started running, I found it motivating to track my distance and pace with various gadgets. I stopped routinely recording my runs a few years ago when my habits settled down. These days, I run three or four times a week along two or three different trails, and I know exactly how long and difficult they are. It’s not that interesting for me to know exactly how fast I run because I can’t do anything with that data, and in any case, I can already tell.

There is a huge novelty factor for fitness trackers these days, precisely because everyone is now a beginner – even those people who were already running and walking. It really is interesting, for the first few months, to know how many steps you’re walking. But eventually it gets predictable and at least half the people stop using them altogether.

It’s refreshing that the Apple Watch dispenses with step counts as a primary measure, and to highlight three different numbers related to exercise, movement, and standing; and, by and large, to dispense with numbers as well. But I suspect even this simplified measure will get boring as well.

So if that’s the case for one of the Watch’s best features – fitness – what about the others? One week in, and I have a better idea of what the Watch is useful for.

Communication is, unsurprisingly, the killer app – just as it is for the iPhone. It really is much more convenient to receive texts on your wrist – and much less distracting. Often, when I receive a text or email on my phone, I’ll read it, and then I’ll mindlessly open up a whole bunch of other apps and end up wasting five minutes. With the Watch, I look at the text, and then that’s it. There is no temptation to fiddle with other apps because the screen is too small and frankly, it’s tiring to mess with it for more than 30 seconds.

Dictating texts with Siri is very good. But there’s one thing that’s even better – sending drawings to other Watch owners. In the two days that my partner and I have both owned Watches, we’ve sent a whole bunch of little drawings to each other. I am not a huge texting or emoji person but it’s a lot of fun to send drawings, and I’m surprised there’s been so little discussion about this. Perhaps it’s because so few people actually own Watches. Anyway – don’t let anyone tell you that these drawings are dumb or juvenile. They have hearts of stone.

The battery life continues to be perfectly fine. The more I think about it, the more irrelevant the complaints seem. The Watch can’t really function with the iPhone, which you have to charge daily. Now that we’re all accustomed to that ritual, adding another device on is not a huge burden. I usually end the day with 30-40% charge, which suggests that there is room for Apple to give users the option to keep the display on for longer, especially if they can improve power consumption in other areas.

Other quick observations:

  • The Uber app is no good for summoning cars since it’ll only use your precise location, rather than letting you change it to, say, the corner at the end of the street. But it is useful to keep track of a trip in process.
  • It’s fun to play around with the different watchfaces. I favour the ‘Color’ face, which I change to match my clothes.
  • I’ve uninstalled practically every third-party app. I think this is a major failure for Apple, and it’s going to take some persuading for me to reinstall them. What’s the point of having 3000 apps on launch day when they’re poorly designed and no-one wants to use them? Everyone loses out.

Apple Watch First Reactions

Speed

It’s annoyingly slow. Apps that display information from the internet (social apps, news apps, transport apps, maps; i.e. most of them) can take a few seconds to open, and then a few more seconds to display your desired data. I’ve already installed and deleted entire swathes of apps that suffer from this issue; the NY Times app, BBC News, Twitter, Twitterific, Foursquare, etc.

Compared against the very first iPhone, the Watch is very impressive in its capabilities and speed. Compared against the iPhone 6, it’s hard to justify using the watch at all for these apps. The good news is that any performance improvements Apple engineers can eke out of the hardware will have a knock-on positive effect on the entire watch experience – and I trust that they will have every motivation to succeed.

In contrast, apps that communicate solely with the phone (e.g. Music, Overcast, Calendar) or on the watch (Stopwatch, Timer) are reasonably responsive and useful.

Display

The screen is gorgeous, but small. It’s baffling and laughable that there are so many news apps on the watch. I suppose news junkies may find it entertaining to look at headlines, but the experience is so slow and poor compared to reading a screen of text on the iPhone that I expect few people will bother.

The screen size also makes it difficult to understand and use complex apps, like Maps, Citymapper or Transit. Apple and third-party developers are clearly trying to address this through tricks like Force Touch and by simplifying interfaces and use cases, but they need to do much more work to make the apps useful.

Fitness

The fitness tracking, on the other hand, is excellent. It counts my steps and distance accurately enough that my Fitbit is not long for this world. The built-in Activity app is also really quite well-designed and motivating, to the point that I fear for the future of third-party fitness tracker app developers. Consider the advantages that Apple has over them:

  1. Apple’s fitness tracking app is pre-installed, both on the watch and on the iPhone.
  2. It has access to private APIs and sensors; third-party apps can’t yet track heart rate, operate independently of the phone, or function in the background quite as well.
  3. It can be added to watchfaces as a ‘complication’. That alone is enough to elevate it over any third-party app, and I doubt we will see that capability opened up within the next 2-3 years.

Day 1

I received the watch yesterday morning and proceeded to fiddle with it throughout the day. I initially blamed its slowness on our poor office internet, but it became clear later in the day that it was just slow, period. Tried a lot of third party apps, and deleted almost all of them.

Day 2

Went to the British Library to see the Magna Carta exhibition. Didn’t fiddle with the watch much at all, except to:

  • Play music and podcasts
  • Occasionally look at my step count
  • Let a kid play around with it (he’d been staring at it for ages, his mum was amused)

Battery was still at ~80% by 4pm – very respectable. Then went for a 1 hour run, tracking it as an ‘Outdoor Run’, which took the battery down to ~60%. The watch was initially very distracting and reminded me why I stopped wearing GPS watches – frankly, I don’t need to know my distance or calories in real time. Plus I only realised afterwards how to change the distance units to km (it’s by a force touch on the ‘start run’ screen, obviously).

When I run, I wear my iPhone on an armband so it’s really inconvenient to switch between music and podcasts, or to select specific tracks. The watch – despite its slowness and small screen – made doing those things perfectly easy, which was delightful. For me, that alone is practically worth the purchase price, given how frequently I run and how much I enjoy listening to podcasts and music.

I expect that other people won’t care about that stuff at all (maybe they only listen to a set music playlist, or they keep their phone in their pocket while running, or they don’t run at all) but perhaps there will be other things that they really appreciate. The ability to see the weather or read tweets on my watch isn’t a big deal to me if I have my phone in my pocket; but if you don’t have pockets, it’s a much bigger deal.

So, we’ll see.

Watching the Future of Wearable Gaming

If you’ve been paying attention to the big tech headlines recently, you’ll have noticed the same trend as I have. Apple Watch. Microsoft HoloLens. Magic Leap. Wearable computing is on everyone’s minds (and arms, and faces). But all these people getting excited about their glasses and digital crowns are late to the party. We’ve all been part of an invisible wearable tech revolution without even knowing it.

Does this sound familiar? You strap your phone to your arm, pop your earbuds in and head out for your run. GPS tracks your location, the phone’s accelerometer and gyro sensors give you detailed stats about your elevation and split times, you hear mile markers and pace updates and maybe even zombies behind you, your phone vibrates when it needs your attention — and a dozen other functions besides. I’d bet a decent number of you have this experience multiple times a week. And you know what? That sounds a hell of a lot like wearable computing to me.

So, ignore all those people waving their shiny plastics in your face on stage and telling you its the future of wearable tech. That future’s already here, and fitness gaming is a huge part of it. Let’s have a look.

Belkin

Back in 2008, users of Nike+ and Runkeeper treated the iPhone as a wearable computer. The value of having audio updates of your run, plus a GPS trace and other stats afterwards, far outweighed the inconvenience of strapping on a phone or buying a separate GPS device.

When we designed Zombies, Run! in 2011, it was this added value that we were thinking about: the capability to provide a richly interactive, location-aware running experience. We knew that runners already wore headphones for music, so we made audio our primary mode of output (fitting nicely with our expertise in audio production and storytelling) rather than making people look at the screen.

We also knew that GPS and accelerometer data was just about good enough to serve as an input method. That meant we could see whether users were outrunning our virtual zombies or not. Again, this worked better than making people touch the screen.

That said, without screen-based interaction, we felt we couldn’t make Zombies, Run! truly location-sensitive. We couldn’t reliably direct people to run to precise locations (GPS was and still isn’t fast/accurate enough, particularly for the level of safety we need), or give them frequent gameplay or story choices, or let them see the position of zombies relative to themselves.

Other apps, in fact, have tried these things, and I think the reason they failed is for the simple reason that no-one wants to run while looking at a handheld screen. The truth is, there have been precious few successful games for wearable computers.

Smartwatches

Will the Apple Watch change things? Probably not — at least, not yet. Continue reading “Watching the Future of Wearable Gaming”

Apple Health vs. Fitbit

A new feature of iOS 8 is Apple’s Health App. It’s a way for users to view any health data that has been collected by in-built sensors in the device itself (such as step counts from the phone’s specialised accelerometers), along with data that can been added by third party apps (such as your weight, as recorded by a set of smart scales).

healthapp

The dashboard that Apple supplies is deliberately basic. Everything that can be graphed is graphed, albeit in a very stripped-down way; no scrolling, no trendlines, no regular axis labels, and so on. They’re so spartan that I’m not really sure why Apple included them at all. But the true purpose of Apple Health is not as a pretty dashboard, but rather as a way for apps to share health data with one another.

In Apple’s world, users of a running app wouldn’t have to manually enter their weight in order to calculate an accurate ‘calories burned’ figure; instead, they would authorise the running app to access their Health data so it always has the most up-to-date weight information. Likewise, the running app would synchronise its calorie burn information back to Health so that (for example) a dieting app can have a better view of calories out vs. in.

None of this happens automatically. Developers must specifically build in ‘Healthkit’ functionality, and while Apple may have hoped that everyone would eagerly jump onto their bandwagon, many of the most popular apps have been dragging their heels. The reason is that while adding Healthkit functionality isn’t particularly difficult from a technical perspective, it poses troubling business issues for some companies. Take Fitbit, for example. Why would they contribute the data their pedometer collects – step count, distance count, floors climbed, and soon, heart rate information – to Apple Health when it could result in their customers using a non-Fitbit app to view that data?

Not only do they lose control of the customer experience; not only do they lose the ability to sell their Fitbit Premium subscription; but worst of all, they become commoditised. They’re just the same as any other cheap pedometer, because as far as the customer is concerned, all they are is a bit of plastic that sends bits to a phone.

Fitbit has even more cause to worry with the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6, since both phones include specialised accelerometers that allow them to record steps with effectively zero battery consumption. Indeed, the iPhone 6 includes a barometer that allows it to record floor counts. Theoretically, this means that anyone who owns those phones has absolutely no need of any dedicated pedometer device, Fitbit or not.

In practice, Fitbit is still doing fine. People still buy their devices, and I still use my own Fitbit. Firstly, the data appears to be more accurate:

fitbit

All the screenshots in this post were taken at the same time; you can see that on Saturday 25th October, I walked a lot of steps and climbed a lot of flight-equivalents

Now, while most health professionals will tell you that consistency is more important than precision when it comes to step counts (i.e. it’s more important to know that you’re doing 20% more steps than yesterday, rather than knowing you did precisely 1000 more steps), it’s still nice to see your steps tick up reliably. As for floor climbing, Apple’s sensors woefully underestimate the true count, which is disappointing. But two things are even more important than precision.

One: The Fitbit is almost always with me, clipped to my belt, while (amazingly) I don’t always carry my phone with me; hence more complete records.

Two: Viewing my step count on my Fitbit takes about three seconds. On Apple Health, it takes more like ten seconds (although I could probably get an app that might accelerate that). So I look at my Fitbit more frequently.

Having said all of that, the Apple Watch will eliminate all of Fitbit’s advantages in terms of accuracy and accessibility (due to its fixed position on my wrist) and I suspect that will be the end of my Fitbit-using days.

10 apps the BBC should make

Over the years, the BBC — which started as a radio service — has chosen to move into new, risky platforms including television, home computing, and the internet. It’s safe to say that we’re all quite happy with how those ventures turned out, so my question is, why stop there? The BBC should raise its digital ambitions to create original interactive experiences for computers, smartphones, and tablets; experiences that inform, educate, and entertain.

I am specifically not talking about apps that distribute or repurpose existing content. While the iPlayer apps for TV and radio are very successful, they don’t involve the creation of new interactive content.

iPlayer

Nor am I talking about websites such as the new educational iWonder brand. iWonder is a very well-written and very nicely designed website and it has some excellent articles, but it is not fundamentally interactive.

iWonder

So what am I talking about? I can best explain with ten examples of genuinely interactive apps that would complement existing BBC TV shows and properties (because, you know, it’s all about brand synergy), and are provably feasible and popular.

1. BBC News = BBC News

BBC News app

Credit where credit is due: the BBC News app is a simple yet decent extension of the BBC News Online website, itself an exceptional BBC property due to its world-leading, online-only nature. It’s arguable that it’s not a particularly interactive app, but then again, I don’t think that making it more interactive would add much.

2. The Sky at Night/Stargazing Live = Star Walk

starwalk

Thanks to presenters like Brian Cox and shows like Stargazing Live, there are plenty of people interested in stargazing and astronomy, but do we really expect them to go outside and fumble around with a compass when they could use something much better – like Star Walk? Want to find Jupiter or identify a constellation? Just point your smartphone in the right direction. It’s augmented reality of the finest kind, providing a supremely accessible and highly educational experience. If you combined Star Walk with audio or video commentary, you could provide viewers with a new stargazing tour every week. Perhaps you could even crowdsource counts of Leonids and Perseids meteor showers. Continue reading “10 apps the BBC should make”

Could health insurers subsidise the iWatch?

A major reason why Apple has sold so many iPhones in the US is due to the unusual way phones are subsidised by carriers over there. Very few people buy an iPhone for the full, off-contract $649+ price — instead, they get it for ‘only’ $99 or $199, with the rest of the phone’s cost being built into the hefty monthly contract that they’re bound into for the next couple of years. As far as the US is concerned, there’s not a huge amount to be gained by making a ‘cheap’ iPhone since you can’t get that much cheaper than a $99 subsidised cost.

Yes, things are very different in the rest of the world where pay-as-you-go plans are much more popular and there’s more flexibility in subsidised plans. But there’s no doubt that carrier subsidies have been — and continue to be — a fantastic way for Apple to get people to amortise the cost of a very expensive piece of technology over 24 months. Most people never really used to do that for laptops or computers (unless you count the indirect method of credit cards) but they’ve managed it with phones.

And now there’s the putative ‘iWatch’, the wearable device that many smart people believe Apple is frantically developing right now. This watch will, of course, look amazing — and given Apple’s hires from Nike and from sensor manufacturers, it’s clear the iWatch will have a heavy healthcare focus.

In other words, the iWatch will make you healthier — and who doesn’t want to be healthier? No-one. But who’s willing to pay $200 or $300 for it? I think it’s a hard sell, no matter how many accelerometers and heartrate and blood pressure and pulseox sensors it contains. We aren’t as rational as economists think we are — even if buying an iWatch would make us more than $300 ‘healthier’ (through reduced future healthcare expenditures), we wouldn’t necessarily be convinced. The iPhone is fun and eliminates boredom; the iWatch is much less fun and also kind of a downer, since it might show how lazy you’ve been.

But what if health insurers subsidised the iWatch? They already subsidise lots of other crappy pedometers and gym memberships, which must cost them dozens if not hundreds of dollars per year per member. When I belonged to Pruhealth in the UK, I practically got a premium gym membership for free.

Here’s Apple’s pitch: if you give an iWatch to all of your customers, you can:

a) Incentivise them to walk more/eat less/sit down less (because, yeah, they consent to be monitored) in return for reducing their premiums

b) Provide a shiny enticement for people to join your plan, which is more important than it used to be due to the new healthcare exchanges

What used to be a $300 device now only costs $50 or $100 to the end-user after subsidies (assuming the user stays with the insurer for two years); not too much at all. Insurers get an easy way in to the wonderful world of ‘big data’, customers get a shiny new thing, and Apple gets a steady income stream with a clockwork two-year upgrade cycle with sales driven by insurers that already have hundreds of millions of monthly-paying members.

Related: Micromort Detector (2032), Object 39 in A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps

A few months ago, I finally had what I’d been dreaming of for years – digital delivery of every single magazine and newspaper I read. No more stacks of New Yorkers and Economists lingering on tables waiting to be given away (or more likely, recycled); no more hunting for all the bits of subscription forms hiding in The Atlantic. I was free and the iPad did it all. Even better, I discovered that the New Yorker made far more sense as an actual reporting magazine when you received in on time rather than one week ‘late’ in the UK.

Of course, it hasn’t all been perfect. Each magazine has a completely different method of operation and user interface that conspires to frustrate me in big ways and small. Before a recent trip abroad I dutifully opened up every single content app and synced everything, but The Atlantic proved too wily and when I tried to read the magazine while offline, it sniffily informed me that another update was required. Thanks for nothing. It turns out that because the app delivers both web content and magazine content, it’s often confusing whether you’ve actually downloaded the whole magazine or not.

I shall refrain from going too much into The Atlantic app’s failings (powered by Rarewire) as a reading experience; the fact that it delivers magazine pages as images that are just-about-but-not-quite readable without zooming in; the practically non-existent navigation; the weird text-only mode that is missing images (at least when offline). The short story is that it has very little in common with other iPad reading experiences – apart from, presumably, other Rarewire apps – which is more than enough to cause irritation.

The Atlantic 2

The Economist has been cited as one of the best magazine apps out there. I can’t disagree – it’s simple and it works well. I don’t understand why it isn’t on Newsstand yet, since auto-downloading would be nice, but otherwise I can’t complain. It’s worth noting that you have to swipe left to read the next page though, which sort-of makes sense given its two column layout but is nonetheless at odds with many other apps (other The Atlantic, which doesn’t count).

Economist

The New Yorker is an interesting one. It has the usual Conde Nast engine so the download takes forever and frequently hangs (although last week it downloaded itself automatically, which was great). Despite this, I personally think that the New Yorker has one of the best reading experiences out there. The font size and layout is very agreeable and I like the way in which you flick up and down to read through articles. There are plenty of adverts, but it’s easy to skip them and the multiple navigation options allow me to get to where I want to go quickly (i.e. skip the entire first half of the magazine). If only it were faster.

New Yorker 2

The problem with The New Yorker app, though, is that it has all sorts of weird UI quirks. Articles rarely have genuinely interactive elements, and when they do, they behave in all sorts of strange ways. I gather that red links to supplementary material require you to be online, but I wish they were downloaded at the start. I also only realised last month that you could actually tap the ‘buttons’ on the Cartoon Caption competition page to see the nominees and winners; the buttons just don’t look like buttons. I imagine that a lot of other readers have the same problem of just not knowing what the hell is going on. Continue reading “Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps”

More on the Death of Publishers

If book publishers want to see the next decade in any reasonable health, then it’s absolutely imperative that they rethink their pricing strategies and business models right now. Hopefully this example will illustrate why:

I’m a big fan of Iain Banks’ novels; I always buy them in hardback as soon as they come out. It doesn’t matter what reviewers say, I need to have his books immediately. His latest novel, Surface Detail, came out a few days ago and promptly arrived at my office – all 627 pages of it. I lugged the thing home and began reading it this morning.

Surface_Detail_Hb_500x775

Being a Culture novel, it’s a real page-turner and I found it difficult to pull myself away from it. I didn’t want to lug it back to the office again, not least because I didn’t have any space left in my bag, so I did the unthinkable – I googled surface detail ePub so I could download and read it on my iPad (and iPhone).

I try doing this every six months or so, and I usually end up mired in a swamp of fake torrent links and horrible PDF versions; for what it’s worth, this was mostly out of curiosity, since six months ago I didn’t own an iPad.

This time, it took me 60 seconds to download a pristine ePub file, and another five minutes to move it to my iPad and iPhone. While this was going on, I took the opportunity to poke around the torrent sites and forums that my search had yielded, and discovered a wonderful selection of books, including:

  • Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
  • Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre
  • Jump! by Jilly Cooper
  • The Fry Chronicles, by Stephen Fry
  • Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Solar, by Ian McEwan
  • Zero History, by William Gibson
  • Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward

Now, that’s not all of the current bestsellers, but it’s not a bad start. “Oh, but we’ve still got the backlist!” I hear some publisher cry. No such luck, because some helpful pirate has bundled entire collections of popular backlist novels into single torrents, including:

  • Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels
  • Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Narnia
  • Harry Potter
  • Artemis Fowl
  • Twilight
  • The Hunger Games
  • Every Ken Follett book
  • Every Stieg Larsson book
  • Every Stephen King book
  • Every Douglas Adams book
  • etc.

Pretty much all of these books are available in ePub, mobi, PDF and every other popular format (the non-fiction and literary selection is much worse though, which probably reflects the tastes of the people uploading the torrents – that’ll change soon enough).

I am not a torrent-finding genius – I just know how to add ‘ePub’ to the name of a book or author. I don’t need a fast internet connection, because most books are below 1MB in size, even in a bundle of multiple formats. I don’t need to learn how to use Bittorrent, because I already use that for TV shows. And Apple has made it very easy for me to add ePub files to my iPad and iPhone. So really, there is nothing stopping me from downloading several hundred books other than the fact that I already have too much to read and I think authors should be paid.

But why would the average person not pirate eBooks? Like Cory Doctorow says, it’s not going to become any harder to type in ‘Toy Story 3 bittorrent’ in the future – and ‘Twilight ePub’ is even easier to type, and much faster to download to boot.

After Christmas, tens of millions of people will have the motive, the means, and the opportunity to perform book piracy on a massive scale. It won’t happen immediately, but it will happen. It’ll begin with people downloading electronic copies of books they already own, just for convenience’s sake (and hey, the New York Times says it’s ethical!). This will of course handily introduce them to the world of ebook torrents.

Next, you’ll have people downloading classics – they’ll say to themselves, “Tolkein and C. S. Lewis are both dead, so why should I feel bad about pirating their books?” Then you’ll have people downloading ebooks not available in their country yet. Then it’ll be people downloading entire collections, just because it’s quicker. Then they’ll start wondering why they should buy any ebooks at all, when they cost so much. And then you go bust.

(In case you think this is just a scary story, think again – a conservative estimate this month suggests there are 1.5-3 million people looking for pirated eBooks every day (PDF). A suggestion: If you gave away a free eBook copy with physical books, that might help things. A bit.)

But of course I’m exaggerating. Most publishers won’t go bust. eBook prices will be forced down, margins will be cut, consolidation will occur. New publishers will spring up, with lower overheads and offering authors a bigger cut. A few publishers will thrive; most publishers will suffer. Some new entrants will make a ton of cash; maybe there’ll be a Spotify or Netflix for books. Life will go on. Authors will continue writing – it’s not as if they ever did it for the money – and books will continue being published.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post called The Death of Publishers. Back then, most commenters didn’t believe that eBook readers would ever rival physical books for convenience and comfort. They didn’t think that it would ever be that easy to pirate books. The post caused a splash at the time, but it didn’t change anything.

Here’s an excerpt:

Book publishers have had a longer grace period than the other entertainment industries. Computers and iPods had an easy time besting DVDs and CDs, but it’s been difficult to make something that can compete with a book. It may be strange to hear, but a book is a fantastic piece of technology. It’s portable, it doesn’t need batteries, it’s cheap to print and easy to read. This has led many publishers to complacency, thinking there’s something special about books that will spare them from the digital revolution. They’ve seen so many poor or substandard eBook readers that they think it’ll never be done properly.

They’re wrong. eBook readers are about to get very good, very quickly. A full colour wireless eBook reader with a battery life of over a week, a storage capacity of a thousand books, and a flexible display will be yours for $150 in ten years time. If this sounds unbelievable, consider this – the first iPod was released only six years ago and cost $400. Imagine what an iPod will look like in four years time.

How wrong I was! It’s only taken us three years to get the Kindle 3 at a mere $189, with a battery life of a month and a storage capacity of 3500 books. Sure, it doesn’t have colour or a flexible display, but it does have global wifi and 3G, and it’s a lot lighter than I thought it might be. Give it another year or two and we’ll have that colour as well.

(I was also wrong about scanning and OCRing being the main way of pirating books – turns out it was people cracking the DRM of eBooks that publishers had helpfully formatted and distributed themselves!)

But I was right about the complacency of publishers. They’ve spent three years bickering about eBook prices and Amazon and Apple and Andrew Wylie, and they’ve ignored that massive growling wolf at the door, the wolf that has transformed the music and TV so much that they’re forced to give their content away for practically nothing.

Time’s up. The wolf is here.