Monthly Archives: February 2009

Kindle 2: Amazon Transforms Its eBook Reader Into "The iPod For Books"

Kindle 2: It will be huge…

SUMMARY: Amazon has made amazing progress with version 2 of its Kindle eBook reader. While it still has some shortcomings, Amazon has fixed many of the issues with version 1 of the device. The new Kindle is sleek and thin – and so well-designed and manufactured it’s clear Amazon has taken a leaf out of Apple’s book. Incredibly – to anyone who struggled with the clunkiness of the original Kindle – it now looks and feels like a larger iPod. As a device for reading books, and buying them from Amazon, this will be a real winner. I predict sales will skyrocket. Kindle 2 leaves other eInk-based devices like readers from Sony and iRex in the dust, and will be the breakthrough device in establishing the eBook market.

PROS: There are so many it’s hard to list them all. It’s not a mere update, but a transformation. Lighter, sleeker, thinner. Better-quality graphics with more layers of gray. Integral battery (no more problems with the back falling off). Page-turn buttons re-designed so no inadvertent page turns. Wireless capability much improved. Holds more books.

CONS: Pages still flash when turned. Text-to-speech may be acceptable for visually-impaired people who have no other way of reading, but it’s still too robotic, lacks inflection and is not acceptable as a substitute for reading the text yourself. Still too easy to inadvertently press keys on the keyboard and put it into unwanted search while reading. Seems to be a problem with the Windows driver if you want to synch with your PC.

The first really impressive thing about Amazon’s Kindle 2 was that it arrived exactly when it was promised. I ordered mine several weeks ago, when Amazon was giving a ship date of February 24, and preferential treatment for Kindle 1 owners. Sure enough, on February 24 I received email that it had shipped, and UPS delivered it two days later.

The whole experience with Kindle 2 has been impressive so far. The box it came in was small, sturdy and looked like Amazon’s geared up to ship millions of these things. I ordered a cover to protect it, and that came in the same shipment.

I tore open the box. Now, I’ve been around a long time, I’m not easily impressed. But when I took this sleek, iPod-like device out, I remember I actually said “Wow!”. It’s much thinner than the original, has a metal back like the iPod, feels smooth, sleek, well-designed. It just feels good to hold – unlike K1.

K1 came with two cords, a power cord and a USB cable. K2 comes with one – the power cord comes apart to also serve as the USB cable.

The page-turn buttons on K1 were more like paddles than buttons. You just knew, as soon as you picked it up, you’d end up turning pages when you didn’t want to. Gone. New page turn buttons are smaller and work by depressing the inside of the button, so you won’t turn pages by mistake.

I couldn’t wait to get started, so instead of waiting for the device to fully charge I got cracking on getting the 60 or so books I bought for K1 onto it. And that’s when I hit a problem – and a solution using the improved wireless capability of K2.

I was never able to get wireless connectivity at my home with K1 (I live in the sticks). So I bought my books by downloading them from Amazon onto my laptop and synching from there.

I’d de-registered my old Kindle, and just to be on the safe side I downloaded all the books again from my Amazon archive, this time registered to my K2 device.

I plugged in the USB. Windows Vista detected the Kindle, installed the drivers – and then it happened. Windows Explorer hung when K2 was plugged in. I tried re-installing the drivers, all kinds of stuff. This is the only device I’ve ever plugged in which completely kills Windows Explorer, every time. I guess Amazon stil has work to do on the Vista drivers.

Looked like I was stuck. But when I unplugged the USB cable from K2, lo and behold! – it had a strong 3G wireless connection and started downloading a new book I’d just bought (it comes with wireless on by default). I went back to my Amazon archive on the Web and went through all my books, changing “Download to PC” to “Download to Kindle”, and it worked. Within 15 minutes I had all 60 of my books back – even in the sticks.

A word of caution, though – K2 with wireless on just eats battery charge. Turn it on only when you need it, and turn it off again immediately you’re done, and you should never have to worry about battery life. K1 was the same.

I’d bought the leather case. The K1 case was a joke – the device kept falling out of it. But K2’s had an ingenious new system of metal catches which keep it secure.

Reading was much easier with the new page turns. It took me a couple of minutes to get the hang of the new navigation joystick, but it works just fine and only when it’s wanted.

The keyboard still annoys me. I keep hitting a key (usually “1”) by mistake and putting K2 into search. It only takes up a small area at the bottom of the page but it’s annoying.

Page turns still flash XOR which is distracting. But I had a long flight yesterday, and read two books without ever having to think about battery charge. That was something K1 had already got right.

I tried the text-to-speech capability. Sorry, Amazon, it just doesn’t cut it for me. Too robotic, wrong inflections, reads to me a lot slower than I can read to myself. I wouldn’t even like to use it in the car. However, I’m guessing it’s quite acceptable for visually-impaired people.

When you’re reading a novel, you NEED those inflections. It might work for a user manual, though.

I don’t want to be to picky here. Contextually-inflected human speech from text is a hard, hard problem – one which I’m guessing even a supercomputer might have problems with, far less a pocket-sized device. But this is nothing like a dealbreaker for those of us who just want to be able to read.

I used my original Kindle a lot. You learned to live with its shortcomings – and there were many. But K2 feels like Amazon took all the negative customer feedback and fixed almost everything.

Fixing a lot of small things adds up to a lot. K2 is really a great device.

Everyone’s been speculating about when we’d see “The iPod of eBooks“. Well, this is it.

And the new thinner, sleeker Kindle ought to be easier to slip inside a Ziplock baggie for reading in the bath…

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Experiments in Web Readability: A Book

The Mabinogion, using plain text downloaded from Project Gutenberg, laid out for readability and using downloadable fonts

Last year I began a project to try to push readability on the Web as far as I could using today’s technology, which would also help me be clearer about what I felt was missing.
I started in August, because I’ve been working in the Internet Explorer team at Microsoft, and that was when the team shipped Internet Explorer 8, Beta 2. Microsoft had previously announced that Internet Explorer 8 would use Web-standards rendering by default, and Beta 2 was the point at which I felt standards support became robust enough to try doing some real work using only standards markup.

We have now shipped the final version of Internet Explorer 8, and its standards support received plaudits from some unexpected sources last as the Web woke up to the reality that IE8 is not merely standards-compliant – its has the best support for CSS 2.1 of any of the current Web browsers.

Now, we’re not as far forward on CSS3 as some of the others, but in my opinion the approach the team took (I can claim no personal credit for it) was exactly right. Rather than support a “mixed bag” of some CSS 2.1 and some CSS3, it’s better to fill out one level first before moving on to the next. That seems to me like a disciplined, methodical and dependable approach.

I’d done some work earlier to demonstrate the use of embedded fonts in Web pages to improve readability. However, not being an HTML or CSS guru – but more of a type and design guy, and primarily a writer – I’d used print publishing software to create multiple-column layouts and automatically generate the Web pages from there.

The reaction I got from Web purists – well, it was more like jihad than criticism or useful suggestion…

But they did have a point. The code output from the publishing application was obscure, obtuse, not understandable by any human, and impossible to edit. HTML and CSS validation tools from the W3C, available online (http://validator.w3.org/ and http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator/ ), basically told me I was an idiot, and that my markup wouldn’t pass their scrutiny – ever.

So I decided to teach myself some HTML and CSS and do things the hard way, coding by hand. I tried a few editors, but found the one I liked best was Notepad++, available free at http://notepad-plus.sourceforge.net/uk/site.htm If I’d been more of a programmer, I’d probably have used Microsoft Visual Studio or Expression Web, both of which will also output Web-standards markup. (They also have a lot more programming power, so you can do many other things than just hand-edit code – but that was overkill for someone like me).

Now, I was learning as I went. Mea culpa. You can drive a bus through the holes in my coding. It wasn’t intended as a coding sample. It wasn’t designed for accessibility. I just needed it to work. I did, however, run the W3C’s HTML and CSS validation tools on every page.

Next thing was to decide on a first project. A book seemed like the right way to go, since the layout would be pretty straightforward. I could have merely toyed with a few pages of a book. But I wanted to do a real project – an entire book, from “cover” to “cover”. Apart from anything else, that would reveal any problems of scaling.

I chose The Mabinogion, a book of mediaeval Welsh tales and Arthurian stories, which was translated from the Welsh in 1849 – no copyright problems there!

I downloaded the text from Project Gutenberg. PG has done us all a great service in converting all this public-domain content – but it’s impossible to read as it is, and would really benefit from better layout and attention to readability.

The first thing I wanted to do was create a design which would work with the Web browser in Full Screen mode. All those buttons, address bars, menu bars etc. are great when I’m trying to find content. But once I’ve found it, they’re a distraction; I just want them to go away while I read. Internet Explorer lets you hide everything using the F11 shortcut. Firefox does the same. Sadly, Safari has no FullScreen capability, and neither does Chrome.

I created a title bar at the top, which also had Page Forward-Back and Chapter Forward-Back buttons. The only other features I included on the title bar (I admit, partly out of anti-jihadist mischievousness) were the W3C’s “Validated HTML” and “Validated CSS” logos.

I did not want scrolling. I wanted completely paginated content. There’s no question it’s more readable that way. Of course, that creates a dilemma. Despite the fact that Web content is supposed to be adaptive, it’s not really. Almost 20 years ago, when the first Web browser was built, the engineers involved took the “easy option” of creating the bottomless scrolling window for content.

It was an understandable, expedient engineering decision at the time. It’s much, much harder to set content in pages. But it makes all the difference in the world when you do. Browsers can’t do this yet. And that means you have to do it manually (which sucks, and turns what should be a simple task into a Labor of Hercules).

Isn’t it terrible that the Web today is still paying for an expediency decision taken 16 years ago at NCSA when they developed the first Mosaic browser?

Today, you can do pagination if you’re working with, say, database-type data, or search results – where you’re dealing with lots of individual paragraphs.

But if you want to do the same thing with flowing text that’s meant for reading, you have to decide on a page size, then create lots of pages manually. This approach is totally impractical in any production scenario; however, if I wanted to show the benefit of paginated content, that’s what I’d have to do.

I’ve taken a lot of flak for this approach from people like Joe Clark, who’s accused me of trying to drag the Web backwards by “apeing 19th- and 20th-Century print layouts” (and a lot more). But I’ve been studying text and layout for about 40 years, and I contend that print layouts didn’t happen by accident. They developed as a result of more than five centuries of evolution, to optimize for the way human visual perception works.

The Web, and the computer screen, haven’t changed human perception. And they haven’t yet evolved to optimize for it. So, I’m trying to adapt what we’ve learned over 550 years or so to the Web. I can’t yet get where I’d like to end up – but I know where I’m going.

Anyway, I decided upfront that the page size would be 1440×900 pixels, which happens to be the size of my laptop display – a MacBook Pro (running Windows Vista, which I vastly prefer to OSX).

With the aspect ratio of a typical laptop, single-column layout doesn’t really work; two-column is much better for a book (even that’s a little bit too wide).

Multi-column layout is out there in CSS3; but the best way to do it right now is using Javascript. I found one out on the Web which did the trick. There were issues, which I’ll come to later.

That decision made, it was time to get to what’s probably the most important decision when laying out a book – the body text. I chose Cambria, which is one of the ClearType-optimized faces we created and shipped in Office 2007, MacOffice2008 and in Vista.

I used the WEFT tool to create Embedded OpenType font objects of all the fonts I planned to use in my projects: Cambria, Calibri, and Candara, all from the same ClearType-optimized collection. It has to be said that we have neglected that tool, and it wasn’t as simple or straightforward as I’d hoped. But once I got it working, I could copy and paste the same CSS “@ font-face” declarations into the style sheets for the other projects and use the same .EOT font objects over and over.

I created subsets of the fonts, with only the Basic Latin character set, because I never write in Cyrillic or many of the other languages the complete font supports. That kept the size of the downloadable font objects down. I could have used per-page subsetting or per-site, but that might mean creating new objects every time I added more content – and I only wanted to do this once.

I chose 12point as the body text size (not pixels, a relative dimension, but points – an absolute size). I realized hard-coding the text size would create problems in future, because it didn’t support making the text bigger for people who wanted/needed “large print”. But the point of doing this book was to show that a readable book could be done on the Web.

One other decision I made up front was to make a very clear division between content and formatting. HTML is the child of SGML and XML, in which content and formatting were supposed to be strictly separated.

So I decided to put ALL formatting in the CSS and only structural markup in the HTML. A few times during this series of projects I broke my own rules in minor ways, (like using markup for italics in the HTML because I was in a hurry), but I managed to remain really strict almost all the time.

Contents Page and Page 1 of the book, with two-column layout using Javascript

I found that on a laptop a two-column layout gave line-lengths which were slightly longer than ideal. I’d probably go in and increase margin and gutter sizes to take care of this in a production scenario. I also found that even with these long lines, word-spacing still got too wide sometimes, so I added another Javascript I found on the Web to hyphenate the problem lines.

I defined styles for headings, pull-quotes, etc. I know I allowed the CSS to get a bit out of hand and it could be cleaned up a lot if I went back to it now. But I was learning as I went…

The beginning of a chapter. Hyphenation (again using Javascript) is used to achieve consistent word-spacing in justified text.

Manual pagination was a real slog. I ended up with 112 separate Web pages…

The process of creating them became reasonably automatic after a while. But cleaning up the Project Gutenberg text in order to remove some line breaks, replacing their “inches and feet” marks with the right HTML entity coding for single- and double-quotes, apostrophes, etc. was tedious.

Since quotes are used in the HTML markup, you can’t do a global Search and Replace. And because some of the quotes are opening ones, and others closing ones, you have to make sure you get the right ones in the right places. (Some closing quotes were missing in the PG markup, too). All this means any attempt at automation is limited; a lot of manual supervision is still needed.

Getting columns and pages to break in the right places was less than trivial, too. The multi-column Javascript uses the Document Object Model (DOM), so it isn’t aware of anything smaller than a paragraph.

In practice, that means if you have long paragraphs you’ll end up with weird column and page breaks. The Mabinogion was translated in 1849 – when long paragraphs were much more fashionable than they are now. So it meant going in and doing a lot of manual editing, breaking long paragraphs into shorter ones to make column-breaks work. However, eventually I got it all working pretty much the way I wanted.

I hit a problem later. I was updating my version of Internet Explorer with daily builds, from the Beta 2 with which I’d started. And some time along the way an Embedded OpenType bug crept into the Release Candidate builds. It was fixed long before the final release, but if you’re running RC1 you’ll find the EOT fonts don’t always appear, and the text looks awful. Hitting Refresh is a temporary workaround. Go and download the final shipping version if you haven’t already done so.

Internet Explorer is currently the only browser which supports EOT font embedding, of course.

I posted the finished book on my website:

http://www.billhillsite.com/mabinogion.htm

Then I went back and read it. For the first time ever, I comfortably read a whole book on the Web!

I’ll talk about some of the subsequent experiments in later posts.

Wanted: A Waterproof Kindle…

Kindle 2: I hope it’s waterproof!

Over the past few months I got used to reading on my Kindle. No, it still isn’t the best reading experience. When reading at night – which is when I read most – I’d prefer a backlit screen. The flashing page turns really irritate me, and the page-turn “paddles” are so easy to hit by mistake that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve involuntarily flipped backwards or forwards (sometimes multiple pages).

But I’ve been a voracious reader since the age of three. From the age of ten, and during my early teens in the East End of Glasgow, I would check out eight books at a time from the local public library – and I still had to visit it twice a week (My own two tickets would allow me to check out only two books. But I could get six more tickets by enrolling my father, mother and sister…)

I found I was prepared to put up with the Kindle’s shortcomings in exchange for the real convenience of being able to carry my library around with me – and especially for the ability to buy books online from Amazon.

The biggest problem I have is that one of my favorite places to read is in the bath. Run a nice hot bath, lie back and relax with a book… Aaaaah!

And that’s how my first Kindle died.

Oh, I thought I had the technique down. I never actually held the Kindle over the bathwater. I’d found a way of balancing it against the faucets; only had to reach up and turn the pages.

But, as my countryman the poet Robert Burns tells us, “The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley” (Translation: No matter how good your plan, Mr Murphy will often get you).

I’d just had a lovely bath and a good read, and slipped as I was getting out. The towel caught the Kindle, and – splash!

I quickly whipped it out, dried it off, hoping that water hadn’t had time to reach the innards. But it was gone. Half the screen was solid black, the other half solid white. Taking out the battery, drying the Kindle out, recharging the battery – nothing worked. Dead. Gone. R.I.P.

And of course, my portable library and the book I was reading went with it.

I haven’t lost my library. At my home I can’t get Kindle to connect wirelessly. So I’ve been buying my books on my laptop and downloading them to there, then synching the Kindle. So the .azw books are still there on my hard drive. I just need another Kindle, activated to the same Amazon account.

I decided not to buy another Kindle 1. They were not available on Amazon, and anyway the Kindle 2 was on the way. Perhaps that would fix some of my issues.

Once Amazon unveiled Kindle 2 it was obvious they’re been listening to Kindle 1 customers. Gone are the horrible page-turn paddles, replaced by page-turn buttons which are still large enough to be easy to hit, but don’t automatically turn pages when you pick up the device.

The Amazon blurb for the Kindle 2 says that it now has 16 levels of gray instead of the previous 4, so that should help a lot with photos in books, which were previously awful. I do recollect reading somewhere that page-turns were also less intrusively “flashy”, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, I went ahead and ordered my Kindle 2 a few weeks ago. They’re supposed to be available for customers on February 24, with preference being given to existing Kindle owners. We’ll see. But I’m certainly looking forward to a device that’s thinner, with longer battery life (although I never found that to be a problem with Kindle 1).

And I’m really looking forward to continuing the Terry Pratchett novel I was reading in the bath that day…

The Demographic Dilemma of Web Advertising

Should newspapers and magazines survive onscreen? I think they should, if they can re-think and re-cast their business model to become financially viable. If I buy the New Yorker, or Newsweek, or Time, or the New York Times, or The Scotsman, I do so for a number of reasons.

For the New Yorker, (since I’m not a New Yorker myself) the reasons include the quality of the writing and the choice of subject matter. The cartoons. There’s an identity to the publication which suits me. It’s about the standard of the writing. Blogging has made it possible for anyone to write – but there’s all the difference in the world between writing and great writing.
For a newspaper like the New York Times, or my old alma mater, The Scotsman, it’s about the way a highly-professional news organization has sifted the day’s news from all over the world and decided what’s most important. You may not agree with the choices of any particular newspaper; that’s one reason why you might prefer, say, the Washington Post over the New York Times, or vice versa.
Then it’s about the fact-checking that goes on. I know, newspapers make mistakes, too. And occasionally members of their own staff deliberately distort or exaggerate or invent in order to further their careers. It’s a measure of the organization’s commitment to accuracy that they are ostracized when found out – as they almost always are.
Working in The Scotsman, for instance, I know only too well the hoops through which I had to jump to convince a news editor that the story I’d written was accurate and properly balanced.
Bottom line is, I can almost always completely trust news from organizations which have staked their reputations on it, and who know they’ll be sued if they get it wrong.
Newspaper and magazine revenue today comes mainly from advertising, and little from the sales or subscription. If these publications could do away completely with the financial black holes of print production and distribution, and could translate their existing print advertising revenues into online advertising, there’s little doubt they could be made viable.
So advertising is the key. And therein lies the dilemma. Print publications have a really tough time competing for Web advertising with the likes of Google News, MSN and Yahoo! News. They shouldn’t have to. Advertising in traditional print has always been about targeted demographics. If you place an advert in the New Yorker, for instance, you know exactly the kind of people your ad will reach.
Advertising is sales. And salespeople have always known that a qualified buyer is worth far more attention than a random rubbernecker who walks in off the street. It ought to be worth far more to, say, Tiffany’s, to place an ad in an onscreen version of the New Yorker than on Google News or MSN. Oh, they won’t reach anything like as many people – but the ones they do reach are infinitely more qualified and likely to buy than the average Web surfer.
The situation’s still very complicated today, because print versions of publications still survive, and publishers find themselves having to ride two horses. One is faltering, day by day. But the second is nowhere near up to speed. So they’re doing the splits just trying to stay upright.
Some people believe this makes the case for “smart client” publications like the New York Times Reader (created in WPF) and the Seattle P-I Reader. The argument is that with a smart client reader for the New Yorker, for instance, only the New Yorker could run an ad in that client. The larger news aggregators would not be able to compete (only in that constrained environment, of course).
The jury’s still out as far as I’m concerned. I’m not sure that with the right advertising sales infrastructure in place, and the right attention to readability (with pagination, adaptive layout, great typography, etc) you couldn’t do exactly the same on the Web.
I’d love to hear the views of newsroom staffs, advertising sales people and publishers on how they plan to survive when printing becomes uneconomic, as it inevitably will.

Newspapers: The Titanic Already Hit The Iceberg – How Long Till It Sinks?


Seattle Post-Intelligencer website – the only part of the newspaper to survive?

Well, I haven’t posted on this blog for a few months – been busy trying to get up to speed on Web-standards HTML and CSS, and trying to see just how far you could push readability on the Web.

It’s been fascinating to watch how the inexorable decline of traditional media has accelerated, in part fueled by the global recession. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for instance, announced it was up for sale, and if no buyer emerged within 60 days, it would cease printing. The only part of the organization likely to survive is its Web presence.
News organizations all over the world are going through the same agonies, watching circulations drop, print advertising revenues decline, and are keenly aware that Web advertising revenues are not growing to fill the revenue gap.
I’m an ex-newspaperman myself. But you have to leave sentiment behind; no use trying to preserve a past that no longer makes any sense. Printing of newspapers is an anachronism. Plant trees, pulp paper, print, cut and fold, then ship physical objects to your customers. Can anyone really believe we’ll still be doing that 50 years from now, when you can ship digital news 24/7, virtually instantly? It’s an astonishing waste of energy and biomass.
In the past, the major assets of any news organization were:

1. A news-gathering organization
2. An advertising sales organization
3. A high-speed printing operation
4. A distribution system able to get their product to customers quickly
The first two of these four assets are still worth money. The third and fourth are rapidly decreasing in value. The Titanic already hit the iceberg – it’s just a question of how long it will take for the “watertight compartments” to fill, and sink the ship. And there aren’t nearly enough lifeboats for everyone.
I read last week that a major UK newspaper (I think it was the Daily Telegraph) just installed a new set of printing presses, with the comment that it would probably be the last time its presses were ever upgraded.
To be brutal, I think they’d have been better just sticking with what they had (assuming the presses still worked).
There are worrying questions, though. I’d like to see news organizations which are capable of making the digital shift survive, along with the tried-and-trusted process of fact-checking and verification they have to use.
We’re in a time of revolution. Revolutions always cause chaos. A lot of the good often ends up disappearing along with the bad. If I was running a newspaper today, I’d be building a lifeboat like crazy, setting up a separate financial structure so that the newsgathering and advertising organizations didn’t get sucked down to the bottom when the ship went down, and I’d have my Lifeboat List of staff already drawn up.
We still haven’t seen the real potential of the growth of the digital newspaper. The Seattle P-I, for instance, has something a lot more readable than its website. The P-I is one of the newspapers which has used the Windows Presentation Foundation-based newsreader technology to build an adaptive layout version of the paper. You can download it for free at: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/newsreader/
IMO, they’re wasting the potential by failing to sell advertising in the Reader. Instead, they use ad space for puff pieces about their own staff.
It’s not easy to do. It will take a radically different approach. But the end result is online advertising that’s much better than banner ads or other Web ads of today.
Advertising doesn’t have to be intrusive. People buy the print version of Vogue as much for the high-quality ads as the other content. Online ads can be just as beautiful, and just as readable – not something so intrusive you feel you have to scroll quickly past them.