Jag Venugopal's Blog

October 21, 2009

On choosing an eBook reader

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 5:57 pm
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Barnes and Noble has released its “Nook” ebook reader.  Sony recently released a couple readers. There are rumors of others waiting in the wings.

 The blogosphere is all abuzz comparing the relative technical specifications of each one of these readers, recommending the one or the other. But I think that technical specifications of the hardware ought to be only part of the consideration when purchasing an electronic device, especially one that is a closed system such as an eBook reader.

 The first consideration in the purchase ought to be the longevity of the service. Generally, you can only buy the “software” (i.e. books) from the company that sold you the hardware.  This is important for two reasons… one, you want newer titles to be available for your device in the years to come. Secondly, you want the device to be supported for a long time, so you can read the books you have purchased, which are useless outside of the device.

 The question to ask yourself is… if I invest money in buying from Barnes and Noble or Sony, will their service be around for the next few years, or  are they likely to leave the market? Those who purchased music from Sony’s online store a few years ago must now be regretting their decision, given that the store has shut down, and the DRM’ed tracks are useful only if copied to a CD and ripped back. Similarly, B&N’s financial woes do not exactly inspire confidence. Of all the major players, I think Amazon’s the most likely to stick to the Kindle or its successors.

 The second consideration is the variety of software, and its price. Sony strikes out here, because it is primarily an electronics vendor, with little experience in book retailing. It is not at all clear that selling eBooks will be Sony’s core business. Thus, it is likely that new titles which are outside the pulp-fiction mainstream may not ever make it to the device. The struggles being faced by Barnes and Noble also raise questions about their willingness to invest in selling books outside mainstream bestsellers. They are an also-ran in the Internet book retailing business, and their brick-and-mortar bookstores are under assault from Amazon. Even on this count, Amazon is most likely to succeed, because books are core to their retailing business.

 A third, and final consideration, is what value is sought to be derived from an eBook reader. Certainly, the readers are more portable, and occupy far less shelf space than the thousand or so books each can carry at a given time. However paper, too, has significant advantages — the primary one being that it is far more resilient to falls or liquid damage. The replacement cost of a paper book is minuscule by comparison. And, it can be read, then given away or resold. It is for this reason that I haven’t yet taken the plunge into the eBook world, preferring instead to read a few limited computer titles directly on my laptop. I’m holding out for price drops on the large Kindle though… when I can read my collection of non-DRM’ed PDF books natively without re-flowing the text, then an eBook reader will make sense to me.

October 20, 2009

Desi vs. Desi

Filed under: India — Jag @ 5:53 pm

Note to my American readers: Desi is a colloquial term used by people of Indian origin to refer to each other. Somewhat similar to the word paisan.

You know your community has finally reached the mainstream when it has its own crooks. Not dealing in penny-ante robbery, but doing it Venti-size. And a US Attorney prosecuting them, who also happens to be of Indian origin.

Such is the case with Indians as of a couple days ago. The scandal involving Raj Rajaratnam (nominally a Sri Lankan, but an ethnic Tamil-speaking Indian) also ensnared a whole host of Indian characters ranging from a VP in Intel (Rajiv Goel) to a senior partner at McKinsey (Anil Kumar) and a Moody’s analyst (Deep Shah). The US Attorney prosecuting them is Preet Bharara.

Now the quiet-wage-earning-professional-Indian stereotype can be safely laid to rest.

PS: Recommendation to US Attorney Bharara… send these guys to Tihar jail in Delhi (general ward). That will be far greater punishment than any American judge can ever impose on them.

Dragging paper into the digital age

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 2:55 pm
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True to my reputation as Inspector Gadget, I recently bought a Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe.

The Pulse Smartpen is a little contraption that writes on special paper and does two things ordinary pens can’t… it captures handwriting digitally, and optionally, captures an audio recording that is synchronized with the writing. It is a brilliant idea that will appeal to a whole class of users in business and education, provided that some issues are addressed.

The first issue I can perceive is the legality of recording a conversation and people’s comfort with their voices being recorded. This being a state subject, different states have different laws regarding this. The state where I work (Rhode Island) appears to allow it, provided that people have no reasonable expectation of privacy when the recording is being made (e.g. in a business meeting). The state where I live (Massachusetts) forbids this, unless all parties agree to the recording being made. Additionally, people are sensitive about their words being recorded, and may not give their approval for such recording.

If both these objections are overcome, (say by far thinking managers, who make it OK to use the smartpen in meetings for their department), the pen is an excellent business tool that kicks corporate notetaking and minuteing a few notches higher.

A second issue is that the smartpen can only work with specially printed paper. The software uses a minute grid of dots to help it discern the position of the pen on the page. Livescribe sells notebooks with this special dot pattern (“dot-paper“) for a reasonable price (good paper quality, not that much more expensive than generic notebooks). Livescribe also provides a way for users to print letter-sized smartpaper by themselves. This requires a 600-DPI color printer capable of interpreting PostScript. One can print to PCL-only printers, such as the HP range commonly found in offices, with some kludging. In general, there should be no need to do this, because Livescribe’s notebooks are inexpensive and convenient (and for those who have Amazon Prime, shipping is fast and at no extra cost).

By far the biggest impediment I foresee to the success of the smartpen is the complicated technology licensing that goes with the dot-paper. This is licensed from a company called Anoto, based in Sweden, that also has a US office in the Boston area. Anoto has licensed this technology to other companies as well. Most of these licensees are system integrators that provide turnkey forms solution to businesses, along with the pen. Anoto makes money off the royalties from the technology, as well as a cut per sheet of dot-paper.

Some of Anoto’s other partners (e.g. Talario) sell a solution that could be the killer application for Livescribe’s Pulse. This solution provides the ability to print any office document with a dot-paper pattern behind it, effectively enabling the document to be used with the smartpen. An example would be to print a Microsoft Word document or an Excel document, take it to a meeting, annotate it in the meeting, and upload the document with its annotations back to the PC for recordkeeping and emailing. Unfortunately, I do not see this particular application showing up on the Pulse anytime soon… for one Anoto would not want to kill off its other partners’ businesses. For another, Anoto charges the Talario end-user a royalty of 10 cents per page for the dot pattern. I believe that this is excessively expensive, and would significantly hinder the market acceptance of the tool. A student could conceivably print her professor’s lecture notes on dot paper, and then directly annotate them if she could do so free of royalties. At 10 cents per page, it would not be cost effective. It’s similar to Microsoft selling you Windows, and then charging you a fee per mouse-click.

If Anoto were to allow royalty-free printing, and if instead it derived royalties solely from each pen sold, I think in time that it could significantly expand the smartpen market into the business and education markets (all the way from school through university). In the aggregate, it would make a lot of money from the initial pen sale, and subsequent replacement sales to a vastly expanded market.  As an aside, I would be interested in seeing if a smart software developer figures a way of printing a bootleg pattern without using Anoto’s software. That would probably infringe on Anoto’s patents. But, as RSA Corporation’s experience with early bootleg PGP versions would indicate, it is impractical to sue every single end-user.

Nevertheless, students or professionals who like to take notes on paper would be well served by the inexpensive device. Head on over to Livescribe and order your own. Before you do that, look around the Internet for coupon codes (I found one for 25% off in September 2009).

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