eBooks – Who’s doing it right?

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking (and writing) about eBooks, usually taking a pretty negative slant toward existing eBook publishers and vendors. DRM, distribution models, even publication timelines – much of it is a huge mess.

But I don’t want to seem too negative – I still think eBooks as a concept hold massive promise. It’s just many of the current implementations that’re flawed. So who’s doing it right? Here’s a handful of companies and products which I think are on the right track:

1. SpringerLink
Much of my thinking centers on the consumer publishing eBook panopoly – the Kindles, Nooks, and similar devices of the world. But there’s of course an academic side to things too. I have major beefs with a lot of the vendors and publishers who provide eBook packages to universities & colleges. Most of these are a topic for another post. But one thing I want to cover here: Many of them commit one of my pet peeve sins by making the books non-downloadable. They can’t be used on any kind of personal eReader device, or even viewed on a PC without an internet connection. But the SpringerLink collection that we subscribe to at UNC provides simple, clean, downloadable PDFs. There’s no password protection on the files, no DRM, no clunky web client we’re forced to use. They trust users to download a chapter and use it responsibly. As a result they’re the first eBook collection I search and show to students.

Sure, I wish SpringerLink had a more flexible format than PDF, but this is a step in the right direction. While other vendors like eBrary are rushing to finish off what will no doubt be limiting device-specific apps for their content, Springer lets readers choose how to consume their text.

2. Fictionwise
Fictionwise.com isn’t perfect, but they’re still my favorite eBook retailer. They sell a large portion of their titles DRM-free, which means they can be read on virtually any device or computer in perpetuity. There’s no license keys to maintain, no chance of a distributor retroactively taking back a sale. They also provide an archive of my purchases – I first bought a title from them in 2003, and I can re-download that book as much as I want today. I can even still get to the titles I purchased which they no longer sell. I wish their catalog of non-DRMed books would grow, especially among current bestsellers, but Fictionwise is still the only place I buy my eBooks from today.

(One caveat – Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise last year. I hope B&N lets FW keep its independence.)

3. Calibre
eBook file formats are far from standardized. There’s .epub, .lrf, .html, .mobi, .pdf… the alphabet soup goes on forever. And of course no one device or program supports them all. The situation is a head-scratcher, and that confusion costs consumers & students time and money. Once upon a time it was a nightmare trying to convert from one format to another. Then along came Calibre.

Think of it like itunes for eBooks. It converts from almost any format to any other format, provides sophisticated yet user-friendly metadata management, and even syncs files with eReader devices. As a bonus, it’s open source & free to download!
Calibre single-handedly increased my ability to read eBooks by roughly 100% (my very scientific measurement, yes), and decreased my frustration even more. It doesn’t work with files locked down via DRM, but that’s a fault of vendors and not Calibre.

4. Comics by Comixology
Technically this is about comics, not simple text, but either way it’s still eBooks of a different sort. Comics by Comixology (henceforth referred to as simply ‘Comixology’) is an iPhone app which sells downloadable comic books. Many of them are adapted from print versions, but optimized very well for the iPhone & iPod Touch’s smaller screen. Panels zoom in and out and flow together. And in a first for digital comics, Comixology even sells issues from many major print publishers like Marvel and Image.

The comics only function on the iDevices, of course, which is something that would usually bug me. But the user experience is so good that I’m willing to overlook it for now. And then comes what I like best about Comixology – the price. Most issues are either $.99 or $1.99, which frankly is what a comic book should cost in any form. Many print comics now cost $3.99, and then after that ripoff I have to find somewhere to store them. As a result, my comic buying in the last couple years has dropped way off.

So $.99 for something I don’t have to find storage space for is a very attractive alternative to me. Example: I recently wanted to read the newest Atomic Robo collection. Amazon charges $12.89 for the print version, down from an $18.95 list price. I picked up the whole thing on Comixology for $4.95, and had a great digital reading experience without taking up space on my living room shelves. Cost effectiveness trumps a lot for me. Many times publishers charge resellers like Amazon the same wholesale price for both print copies and eBooks. This baffles me to no end. Comixology and their content providers recognize how much cheaper digital distribution is, and adjusted their prices accordingly.

I consume comics differently than I consume books. Comics by Comixology (despite their awkward name) is smart enough to realize that I’m not alone in this, and found a way to make the restrictions I usually foam at the mouth over become a palatable choice.

(note: Comixology has multiple apps for the iPhone, and I’m talking about the one specifically called ‘Comics by Comixology’ here.)

Step into the social circle

I was googling around for something work-related this afternoon, and noticed some results it was finding on Flickr. After a quick double take, I realized it was finding a few photos from my Flickr contacts. Weird coincidence, right? That was my first thought. Then I looked closer, and noticed that Google is running a new beta feature called ‘social circle’: http://www.google.com/s2/search/social

(OK, maybe it’s not so new – the Google Blog mentioned the feature’s launch last October. But it’s new to me!)

Essentially, Google knows who my friends are and now searches each friend’s personal web of content. The idea, I guess, is that results from my friends will be more relevant.

But then I thought to myself “Hey self, Google doesn’t own Flickr, Yahoo does! How do they know who my Flickr contacts are?”

After poking around, as best I can figure out their data mining goes something like this:

1. I have a google profile page (http://www.google.com/profiles/Chad.Haefele)

2. On that page, I have a link to my twitter account.

3. Google pulls in my twitter contact list, presumably via the Twitter API.

4. Google checks to see if any if anybody else with a google profile page listed a twitter account that matches someone I follow on twitter.

5. If it finds a match, Google takes a closer look at the matched person’s Google Profile page. Other sources from that person’s profile are added to my social circle search results. If they happened to list a Flickr account, photos from it show up in my search results whether or not I’m actually connected with them on Flickr.

At first I found this vaguely creepy, complete with brief paranoid visions of Google’s slimy tentacles reaching out across the web. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. Every bit of this data comes from a source that the creator specifically allowed to be public. It might be an order of thought removed from what most people consider when posting a link, but I think it’s still kosher. A conscious decision to make this info public was necessary. And I love seeing what simple things like APIs and RSS feeds can mash together.

Most importantly being able to search my social stuff like that in one place is extremely handy. More and more I find myself searching my own twitter contacts’ streams or my flickr contacts’ photos for things I need and opinions I trust or that one link I know I saw somewhere weeks ago and now want to go back to. By adding these search results to my standard daily googling, I get the same high utility from those results even if I wouldn’t have thought to search my social stream directly.

Every so often it hits me all over again: We live in a pretty amazing world. In a lot of ways, the internet still seems like magic to me.

Mobile apps vs. Mobile web

Apple loves to tout their 100,000+ iPhone apps. Android recently topped a respectable 20,000. These are both impressive numbers, but how often do we really need an app instead of the good old-fashioned web?

Apps lock up data and go against one of the central ideas and advantages of the open web – the ability to link between pages.

A user recently asked if our mobile app could add links to Worldcat items from our own mobile catalog items. I didn’t know the answer, but thought it sounded like a worthwhile addition if possible. I remembered seeing a Worldcat mobile interface a while back, and went looking for it once again. I found that Worldcat recently moved from a mobile website version to a mobile app version.

A mobile website is pretty self-explanitory. It’s a website formatted for a mobile screen that you load in a browser. It’s part of the web as a whole. A mobile app is more like any application on a computer – you launch it, do what you need to, then close it down. But mobile apps as they exist today are largely walled gardens, and don’t share data with each other easily (if at all). So while Worldcat has all their records very nicely displayed in this app, it’s impossible for our local catalog to link to them from the browser*.

Worldcat’s regular (non-mobile) site is very linkable. If I want to link you to The Mysterious Benedict Society’s record, I just have to give you this to click on. That’ll still work in a mobile browser of course, but the resulting page is clunky to view on a smaller screen. When OCLC has obviously gone to a lot of effort to get their data into a mobile format, it just seems a shame to ultimately lock it away from other developers inside an app.

And believe me, a native app for a phone takes a lot of effort. I originally tried to write one for the UNC catalog, but the fact that I’m not much of an Objective C programmer reared its ugly head and I had to abandon the effort. The return on the massive investment of my time and effort it would have taken to code an app just didn’t make sense. And a library catalog app wouldn’t even have any extra functionality over the mobile website catalog I ended up with. Our mobile site works on almost any modern smartphone, but if I’d somehow managed to bang out an iPhone app that app would work exclusively on iPhones. I’d have to start from scratch again to get the catalog working on an Android or Palm phone, and what about the countless phones that don’t run apps at all? They’d be left out in the cold.

On the flip side, Apps certainly do have their time and place. They have greater access to the phone’s hardware than a browser, and can use things like the phone’s camera in ways that a mobile website currently can’t. But unless a hardware ability is central to an app’s purpose for being, I’d be hard-pressed to justify developing a full app instead of a mobile website. And now that many mobile browsers can access the phone’s GPS information, a webapp can actually do some basics of what were formerly hardware tasks. For example: I’ve become minorly hooked on the location-based service Gowalla lately, and Gowalla has no Android app – just a mobile website that can use the phone’s GPS to find where I am. It works really well. Full apps are also useful for offline tasks, since they allow caching of data & tools locally for use when there’s no connection to the web.

And apps do have an undeniable coolness factor. It’s a lot more impressive to say “Download our app in iTunes” than to give someone a URL to a mobile site.

But our library catalog & website don’t need a camera, and the very nature of a catalog is searching for information online – nothing can be stored locally in a way that makes any sense. Having a deliverable end product also wins out over the coolness factor with me, especially since I never could have completed the ‘cooler’ project in the first place 🙂

For the current state of the mobile web, I don’t think a mobile app’s advantages are enough for libraries. It’s important to get our information into as many of our users’ mobile devices as we can, and as quickly as possible. An app might come later; if the publishing world ever permits libraries to loan eBooks in a usable fashion, then sure a library eReader app would make sense to develop. But for now, when most of our mobile work is repackaging web data we already have into a new format, a mobile website is the way to go. It’s quicker to develop, works on more devices, preserves linkability, exposes our mobile pages for other developers to build on, and maintains the core functionality we’ve spent so much time developing for our non-mobile websites along the way.

(*As a side note, I did eventually dig up Worldcat’s old mobile web catalog. It still exists! But it doesn’t support direct linking either. This is another thing I’ve run into repeatedly – another argument/rant/post for another time.)

Best of 2009: Video Games


  • Lego Rock Band
  • Beatles Rock Band
  • Halo 3: ODST
  • Uncharted 2

This award is usually my most difficult to assign. Recent years have been filled with game after game of increasing quality & depth. 2009 was no exception.

Lego Rock Band tweaked the now-familiar Rock Band formula into something with a slightly more kid-friendly twist. But, here’s my secret: I actually like it better than the adult-focused Rock Band 2. Lego Rock Band has a sense of humor that RB2 was mostly lacking, and also provides more variation in career mode challenges. Throw in a track list including some of my favorite cheesy rock songs of all time (Ghostbusters and The Final Countdown!) and I had no choice but to buy a copy.

Beatles Rock Band went a different route than previous RB games – it zeroed in one band in incredible detail. From the songs themselves to small details like menu styles and sound effects, everything about this title screams Beatles. It’s also the first RB game to feature 3 part vocal harmonies. I can’t sing well enough to truly appreciate this feature, but witnessing 3 of my friends belt out the harmonies in perfect sync is a great enhancement to the RB experience – I hope Harmonix builds this into all future RB games. I’ve never been a dedicated Beatles fan before, but thanks to this game I’ve discovered a number of their songs that I highly enjoy.

Halo 3: ODST doesn’t really stand on its own. The story is very much a side tale, fitting into a context you can only really grok by playing the other franchise titles. But viewed as a piece of that franchise, the game takes on a new light. By being freed from Master Chief’s main narrative, the story of ODST is free to take some risks – I particularly enjoyed how the ‘bonus’ audio files have a payoff in the central storyline if you gather every one. And the main campaign creates a great sense of loneliness, of being outmanned and outgunned, in a way few other games do. Multiplayers new Firefight mode is a welcome addition to the Halo pantheon, since playing against bots is an option I’ve wanted ever since the original Halo 1.

As excellent as all three of these games are (any one is worth your money), honestly they were never really contenders for the award. Uncharted 2 came along in October and I knew almost instantly it would be my game of the year. The best way I can describe Uncharted 2 is to say it’s like playing an amazing summer adventure blockbuster movie. Sure, the narrative is on rails, but with rails this amazing I don’t really mind so much! Developers Naughty Dog have achieved new heights with voice acting and character animations that I’ve never seen any other game come close to. I believed that Nathan Drake and his compatriots were real people with real motivations and hopes. I’ve never before seen a video game character’s face animated so well that a facial expression alone made me laugh or grow concerned, but UC2 did both repeatedly. Sequences that in any other game would be mere cinematics are fully interactive are instead completely playable here, lending a deeper sense of player involvement in what’s happening on screen.

Plus, they got rid of the annoying zombie enemies that dragged down so much of UC1 for me. UC1 was great, but UC2 is near perfect. I can’t wait to see what they iterate onto with the inevitable UC3.

Best of 2009: Music

This’ll be a short one, since like usual I didn’t listen to a lot of brand new complete albums this year. More and more I find myself buying singles or a few tracks instead of the whole set, and in a lot of ways this category is becoming irrelevant. This is likely to be the last time I give an award. Here’s three albums I really liked in 2009 – I listened to so few that the choices are almost by default, though I did genuinely enjoy them all:

  • The Swell Season – Strict Joy
  • Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
  • The Protomen – Act II: The Father of Death

Melissa introduced me to the more extensive catalog of the Swell Season, since I only knew the music that band members had done for the Oscar-winning musical ‘Once’. We even went and saw them live in DC this year. Their sound is often mellow, with occasional more intense songs thrown into the mix. Strict Joy is an album I love to listen to in the background while I get things done.

Green Day’s latest is a solid rock album – I like it, but honestly have trouble finding much specifically to say. I like listening to this one while driving around.

The Protomen are a fairly unique band. Their music is more Rock Opera than anything else, structured around telling a story based on the old Mega Man NES games. Yes, you read that right. But the opera is told without a single bit of irony or winking at the audience – they take it very seriously. The result is surreal, but if you can get over the barrier to entry of the odd subject matter and let the story wash over you, Act II reveals deep rewards. The Protomen have cleaned up their sound in a major way since Act I, and the details of the meticulously crafted tracks are easier to detect as a result. Act II is also a real album in a way that a lot of other CDs aren’t. The tracks aren’t just a collection of singles – they foreshadow and repeat themes in their music as the story calls for it, linking everything together. It’s near impossible to listen to just one track. Musical styles on the album range from an almost classical guitar sound to synth-heavy tracks that’d fit right into the Blade Runner soundtrack. But each stylistic shift again plays into the changing story elements, and it all makes perfect sense.

Yes, I fully admit that my musical tastes have very often been called ‘odd’ (among other less generous terms!). But that said, I love Act II. I’ve listened to it more than almost any other CD I own (and please do buy the CD, the included booklet fleshes out the story in a way the MP3s alone can’t), and I hope to see The Protomen perform it live someday. Congratulations Protomen, you win album of the year!

Best of 2009: Books (fiction)

I read about 25 fiction novels in 2009, which is pretty average for me. I try to limit my nominations for ‘best of’ awards to books that were actually published for the first time in 2009, which narrows the pool somewhat. Out of what’s left, here’s the short list of my favorites:

  • Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest
  • Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield
  • This is Not a Game, by Walter Jon Williams

Obviously, my tastes tend pretty heavily toward the Sci-Fi and technothriller end of the spectrum. Boneshaker is a very good Steampunk story set in an alternate 19th century Seattle. The action is thrilling, and characters are well-crafted and likeable. There’s zombies, destruction, mad science, and zeppelin chases. If you like those things, you’ll like this book. That’s about all I can say.

Leviathan is another alternate history tale, this time giving us a new version of World War I. Mechanized powers of central and eastern europe face off against the ‘Darwinist’ allies, who evolved their technology biologically. I wrote a lot more about it on Goodreads, so I’ll just link you there: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/75825802
Summary: I like it a lot.

This is Not a Game latched onto my ARG-playing experience, and twisted it into a thriller novel. Williams creates fascinating characters and extrapolates some ARG trends to slightly insane heights. The opening portion of the novel is self-contained and centered on a character’s escape from an economically collapsing Indonesia. This is the strongest section of the story, and in some ways I wish the book had ended there – it’d be my (short) book of the year if it did. The adventure uses near-future technology in mostly realistic ways, and doesn’t push suspension of disbelief. The later portions push more than a bit into ridiculousness territory, and the overall narrative suffers as a result.

Boneshaker was very very good, but in some ways I’m starting to feel over the whole zombie/steampunk/etc craze. There’s too much of it out there too fast. This is Not a Game started out excellent, then dropped off. But Leviathan stayed at excellent the entire way through. So it eeks out the competition as my favorite book of the year! It may be theoretically a young adult novel, but it doesn’t talk down to that age group at all – adults will enjoy it just as much as younger folk. Again, check out my Goodreads review for more detailed thoughts.