Dear Amazon: We just want changelogs!

After pulling Neal Stephenson’s new book Reamde from the Kindle store, Amazon replaced it with an updated version yesterday. The whole saga is detailed at Teleread.

While perhaps not as disturbing as the time Amazon infamously pulled copies of 1984 from users’ Kindles, I would still have been annoyed if my copy of Reamde suddenly changed.

The issue here is a lack of transparency. Amazon informed customers that the book had been replaced, but only cited the changes as: “the version you received had Missing Content that have (sic) been corrected.”

As it turns out, most of the fixes were relatively minor. But users were not provided with that information up-front. They had to blindly make a choice to either lose all their accumulated bookmarks and annotations when switching to the new version, or keep a potentially fatally flawed copy.

Amazon seems to have an odd aversion to changelogs in general. They don’t provide them for updates in their app store either. If I’m going to trust Amazon to provide me with access to content, they need to trust me in return with the information I need to make informed decisions.

Why I’m not sold on Bloapp

Sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

There’s been a lot of excitement on librarian blogs and twitter accounts today about Bloapp. The service converts your blog into an app… sort of. Now excuse me while I put on my cranky old man hat:

I understand that apps are cool, and mobile websites don’t grab the public eye as much. But there’s one question I always try to ask myself when looking at a new technology service or product: What purpose does it serve? In the case of Bloapp, I’m not sure there’s a payoff beyond getting to say “I have an app!”. And even that statement turns out to be not entirely true.

What does a blog as app accomplish that a blog as mobile-formatted website doesn’t? Apps only make sense when they provide something above and beyond what a webapp can do. Do you need to use a device’s camera or accelerometer? Do you need offline access? Then an app is your thing. A blog doesn’t benefit from any of those doodads.

If Bloapp gave you an actual installable app distributed via Apple’s app store, that real estate grab alone might be worthwhile. But it doesn’t. Instead, users must first install the Bloapp app. They then scan your blog’s QR barcode, which adds your blog to their list of blogs that they follow inside the Bloapp app. That sounds an awful lot like the process of subscribing to a blog in an RSS reader to me, or even just saving a bookmark to an app.

I’m all for playing with new products and services to see what works. I just don’t think Bloapp is one that makes sense. Apps are shiny! But libraries shouldn’t jump into them without a real use case in mind. We don’t want to turn our users off of the concept too early.

Geotagging my photos for greater datanerdery

When I do my year in photos project (every odd year since 2005) my worst librarian tendencies surface and I get somewhat obsessive about organizing them and making sure all the metadata is just so.

This year I’ve got a new wrinkle in that mix: geotagging. GPS data can be embedded in a photo, enabling all kinds of cool mapping stuff. Mostly I just like looking at where I’ve been this year in Picasa:

When I take the daily photo on my phone, all’s well with the geotags. The phone uses it’s GPS function and embeds the coordinates in the photo. But my phone’s camera isn’t amazing, and I try to use my Canon camera instead when possible. The Canon has no embedded GPS, so has no way to know where each shot is taken. Sure, I could manually place them on a map in Picasa or Flickr, but that’s tedious and inexact and requires a more detail-oriented memory than I usually possess.

I could also upgrade to a new point & shoot camera with GPS built in, but I’m not willing to face that expense right now. I wanted something that would tie my phone’s GPS into the camera. I didn’t expect to find much, but somewhat surprisingly there’s actually multiple options to do this:

First I found the aptly named Geotag Photos software. There’s two pieces: a phone app (for both Android and iPhone) and a desktop application. Turn on the phone app while you’re out taking pictures. It logs your position at regular (configurable) intervals. When you’re back at your computer, the desktop application compares photos’ timestamps with the gps log from the app. When there’s a reasonable match, it adds the tag to your photo. In my experience this works very well, but requires that I remember to turn the app on and get it logging before I snap a shot. That’s not a big deal for a day of frequent shooting, but for spur of the moment stuff it becomes an issue. I should note that the mobile app can be significant battery hog too.

Second is LatiPics. I’m a little astonished that Latipics has such anemic coverage on the web, because it’s pretty amazing. Latipics removes the separate mobile app from the equation, using only a desktop app. Instead, it pulls locations from your Google Latitude history. I already have Latitude turned on and logging, so it requires no extra effort on my part. Otherwise, the desktop application works a lot like Geotag Photos – it compares photo timestamps to my Latitude log, and adds geotags to the photos where there’s a match. This is pretty much my ideal solution (see the aforementioned lack of extra effort), but Latitude updates my location at somewhat random intervals and as a result doesn’t always provide a precise location for a photo. And of course, LatiPics requires you have Latitude history logging turned on and use a phone that can regularly update the service.

A third option is using an EyeFi SD card. I haven’t tried this personally, but don’t think it would suit my needs. EyeFi geotagging relies on examining your proximity to wifi access points, and so is less precise than a real GPS unit. And if you’re not in range of any wifi networks, it can’t do any tagging at all.

Geotag Photos and Latipics have different strengths and weaknesses. I find that I use both as a result: Geotag Photos for higher precision when I’ve planned taking pictures well in advance, and Latipics as a slightly less precise ‘better than nothing’ backup plan for spur of the moment opportunities. I should also note that Latipics is free, while Geotag Photos’ mobile app costs about 3 Euros.

(As a perhaps obvious final note: there’s clear privacy issues with sharing geotagged photos online. Mythbuster Adam Savage once accidentally revealed where he lived via a geotagged photo. Just be careful and use common sense.)

Upcoming presentation: Computers in Libraries 2011

I’m very excited to be presenting briefly at Computers in Libraries in DC next week! Come see me at 4:30 on Monday, 3/21. I’m not quite sure where I’ll be, but I’m part of the Cybertour series of quick presentations. Here’s my slides in advance, though they probably make more sense if you hear my talking that goes with them:

Virgin’s Project – app overkill

cover of Project, issue 1Earlier this week, Virgin launched an interesting new project. It’s called, well, ‘Project’. Project is essentially an iPad-only magazine. The key word is only. I’d link you to an article in the magazine, but I can’t.

See, Project has no real web presence. They maintain a blog, but that blog’s content is entirely separate from the app’s articles. The only way to read those articles is via the iPad app ($2.99/issue). This restriction cuts to the heart of my ongoing concern with app culture. As I’ve said before, Apps lock up data and go against one of the central ideas and advantages of the open web – the ability to link between pages.

Project could have the most fascinating articles in the world, and nobody would know. The Project app has no copy/paste option, no real export ability at all. The only included export feature (and I use that word loosely) is emailing a screenshot of one page of an article to someone. I’d be embarrassed to share info with anybody that way.

Without the ability to link articles, Project loses out on the magic Google juice. The only way to find text in the article is by random browsing through the pages. Nobody will ever just stumble across a Project article unless they were specifically looking for it in the first place.

Jeff Bridges wanders through a Project article via videoI understand that Project wants to experiment with magazines in the emerging tablet world. And it admittedly has some nice features integrating video and slideshows into the pages (Jeff Bridges wanders around the cover and a couple of interior pages while you read (see screenshot), and the effect is not unlike a photograph from Harry Potter). But locking all the content inside an app is a huge misstep.

Why not go after the tablet market with an HTML5 webpage instead? I’m willing to bet that 90% or more of Project’s multimedia functionality could be replicated on the open web. The result would be cross-platform (other future tablets could read it too), and the content would be linkable and Googleable. Lock it behind a subscription wall if that’s the desired business model, whatever. But on the open web users could at least stumble on an abstract or summary. Just put it on the web somehow. I’m not saying Project’s content is particularly amazing, but with the existing model how would anybody even find out? It’s impossible to post a link to an article on my blog, twitter account, or anywhere else.

Or please, at least allow readers to copy and paste text snippets. If I ever wanted to quote a Project article, I’d have to transcribe the text word by word. In the year 2010, that’s insane.

Apps have their place, but locked-down magazines aren’t it. This kind of thing hurts the internet.