Vudu Disc-To-Digital Review

For those of you that just received this promo email…

vudu_promotion

I decided to give it a try with stack of old DVDs. The promo pricing is totally reasonable, but I doubt it’ll last. (50% off when you “convert” 10+ discs, then $2 off your total.) Your existing DVD/BD titles are $2 to convert, or $5 for upgrading a DVD to HDX. For the content I successfully converted, HDX quality is great. Some big caveats to considered before jumping in, though..

  • The Vudu To Go client necessary for the disc matching and verification process is buggy. On my Windows 8 Pro laptop — the only machine I have with a BD player — Vudu To Go would check for BD titles but outright refuse to check normal DVDs, displaying only a nasty error message. I had to use a secondary OSX machine (with a non-BD DVD player) to check DVD titles. I didn’t have any issues with my shopping cart when using two machines, but this was really inconvenient. I would think Vudu To Go on Windows 8 Pro would have the bugs worked out by now.
  • The disc-to-digital disc matching mechanism seemed to mis-match about 1 in 15 titles, such as my retail BD version of “Full Metal Jacket”.
  • Of my properly-recognized discs, Vudu only had rights to convert ~40% of the discs I tried. Understandable, but still a pretty low hit rate for users, especially for anyone like me that would really like to completely toss all discs in the trash, and don’t even have a DVD/BD player hooked up anymore.
  • For HDX quality, both machine and display *must* support HDCP. For example, “owning” Super 8 in HDX would only play in SD when web streaming due to my non-HDCP monitor.
  • Studios, of course, still place restrictions on your watching abilities, even though you’ve verified the disc. For example, I “own” 80’s comedy “Singles” in HDX, but “[t]his title is viewable on PC in SD only.” Lots of stupid crap like that.
  • Web streaming requires flash and uses a non-trivial amount of CPU. On my new brand new Dell Latitude 10 ST2 Win8 RT tablet, it’s totally unusable.
I hope Amazon launches an equivalent, because I’m already committed to an Amazon content library and really, really, really don’t want to keep another vendor. If you only have a few stacks of decent titles just taking up space, though, it’s worth considering!

Textbooks: What Publishers Don’t Understand About The Internet

The Kindle 3G + Wifi eBook Reader
The Kindle 3G + Wifi eBook Reader

Textbook publishers in 2011 still aren’t fully appreciating the impact the Internet will have on their industry. A reasonably forward-thinking individual might optimistically assume the industry is self-correcting towards the wants and needs of consumers, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Let’s explore:

Electronic typesetting.

Physical textbooks obviously can’t be reissued every time a typo is corrected. That’s fine, so we can keep making large textbook changes via en-mass “editions” to save typesetting efforts.

But electronic textbooks have many not-so-obvious differences.

  1. Screen sizes of reader hardware/software vary dramatically.
  2. Even if screen sizes were the same, it is of tremendous value to allow the user to change font and text size.
  3. Some screens support color, while other don’t. A wonderful color graphic may appear a blobby mess on a monochrome reader.
  4. The concept of a “page” no longer exists, due to #1 and #2, above. Content cannot simply say “See page 32.” References must be dynamic links, instead.
  5. Content can (and should be) linkable. Obvious examples are tables of contents and figure references. External links need to be supported, as well as more sophisticated “interactive” embedded content items. (A mathematics textbook with an exercise that asks, “Y = 3X + 2. Calculate Y for the following X values: 0, 4, 5.7.” should also grade the assignment as well. Why do I need a completely different book for this?)
  6. Searching, highlighting, note taking, and content sharing are all critical “must have” features for electronic texts.
  7. Open data interchange is probably the biggest techno-political challenge. Retailers aren’t yet jumping on the opportunity to exchange data with the competition. (But they will need to conceed because it’s what the consumers and publishers will want.)
Adobe's portable document format is a dying beast, as is Adobe itself. PDFs just doesn't work well for textbooks.

For all these reasons, please stop calling your PDF renderings “eBooks” and then calling it a day. PDF documents cannot “reflow” the way a web page does, and make reading extremely awkward because of reasons #1 and #2, above. In short, direct PDF conversions–such as those used by the University of Phoenix–don’t have any of the typesetting considerations or functional niceties of modern electron book formats, and should be avoided. Schools need to stop accepting cheap “Print To PDF”-style textbooks, as well as “eBooks” that can only be read through a web browser using special software that doesn’t support any of the above features. If your eBook implementation is less powerful than a physical book, you’re doing it wrong. Please improve!

Separation of form and content.

Typesetting concerns do not mean all is lost. If anything, it’s a wonderful opportunity to make revolutionary steps in improving the way written knowledge in transferred. As we’ve learned from the web, it’s entirely possible to design for dynamic layouts given you can make at least a few constraints.

Physical textbook typesetting needs to be optimized for a specific target. Electronic typesetting needs to optimize for overall good layout within a range of constraints. Web applications can generate multiple document types for the same content, and with such nimble requirements for electronic media, we can do the same with updated forms of typesetting languages like LaTeX.

eBooks don’t require a local sales representative.

It’s nice, I suppose, to have a rep on call to overnight you a textbook on a moments notice, but that’s not necessary when I can click a button on my iPad. The issue here is misaligned incentives in the payment of distributors.

Doesn't get where this whole Internet thing is headed.

To use a real-world example, my local Pearson rep seems to earn commissions on physical textbook sales to my classes, but not electronic copies sold through Pearson affiliate (or subsidiary?) CourseSmart. She’s always happy to help when I’m interested in buying paper, but suddenly goes unresponsive when I have a tangential question about an electronic book.

It’s not her job to help with online sales. That’s an entirely different business unit or whatever, so who cares about that, right? Here are some great properties of CourseSmart, Pearson’s chosen eBook sales system:

  • You can only access your electronic textbook for about 6 months. That’s right, you don’t own it. You’re essentially renting it for the semester.
  • The pricing is pretty high, especially considering you can often sell back physical books after the semester. You always get $0 after the rental period. Savings? Please.
  • You can’t really do anything neat with the electronic version, like download a simple effing PDF, even if you’re a legitimate, verified instructor that can already download content such as instructor solutions manuals and slides. (They don’t trust us. Trust me on that.)
  • Pearson and college sales/support infrastructure and personal incentives aren’t (yet) set up to fluidly handle electronic texts.
The Pragmatic Programmers offer DRM-free, reasonably priced technical books. Check 'em out!

In short, CourseSmart sucks. I thought it was going to be cheaper, simpler and generally better for students to use the electronic versions, but given the high cost “rent”-like nature and lack of features, it’s not great. Personally I’m looking to switch to publishers that understand ebook-oriented use cases and build their product to fully take advantage of the Internet, rather than just go through the motions. PragProg is a great example of a technical publisher that’s moving us in the right direction. (I send them a lot of business and highly recommend you check them out, too!)

I have to believe that the profit margins on selling an 800-page textbook as a $60 “online view only for 6 months only” product are greater than a $100 hunk of tree, especially considering the expenses of transporting, retailing, and commissioning (or marking up) every step. I suppose many of those people don’t want to go electronic due to fear of job loss, even though the jobs may simply change, instead.

Fast release cycles.

With properly designed exchange formats, textbooks and metadata can be pushed and pulled between publisher, retailer and consumer in under a second. The concept of “this years edition” starts to lose meaning if the publisher can fix a typo and push out a new revision with no more effort than updating a wiki page. This posses serious technological challenges with ISBNs, Library of Congress records etc., but all these things all fixable, and none of the solutions have anything to do with building a new PDF that gets emailed to me. (Even Amazon doesn’t do this right yet, even with their .azw format. When you agree to receive an optional update of a book you’ve purchased from Amazon, you lose all your notes and highlights from the original version. Lame.)

We need to embrace this idea of rapid content change, rather than cling to the idea of annual product releases. We can do it. Really.

Closing thoughts.

All the players in the textbook industry have different incentive systems, but all have much to gain. Rather than using the friendly neighborhood college bookstore as a primary retail outlet, the supply chain process… no, the entire industry, needs a comprehensive dose of cold water to the face. All is not lost, but in 2011? They still don’t get it.

Kindle 3G Upgrade: Mini Review, Recommendations

The "Home", "Menu" and "Back" buttons are now to the right of the keyboard.

I’ve previously expressed my love for the Kindle family of devices, and on a whim decided to upgrade from the Kindle 2 to the new Kindle 3G with 3G and wifi. For others contemplating the upgrade, here’s what you need to know:

Pros

  • The new button layout is way better. Next/Previous button are on both sides of the screen, and Home and Menu buttons have been moved to the keyboard area, along with a new direction pad (“d-pad”) design that is easier to use, albeit different.
  • Smaller device footprint. Kindle 3 feels more compact and portable than Kindle 2.
  • The screen update time is noticibly better, but only slightly so. It’s definitely noticable and a welcome improvement, but don’t expect LCD-level performance here. It’s still e-ink.
  • Wifi! Not that on the more expensive model, you have both wifi support as well as the free 3G access.

Cons

"Next" and "Previous" buttons are now on BOTH sides of the device. A welcome change!
  • $189 for a bunch of marginal upgrades is a tough sell.
  • Keyboard is still ghetto. It feels like typing on a 1990’s scientific calculator.
  • The Next/Previous buttons depress easier than before, but they’re also smaller and don’t have any nubs to identify the button by touch. This seems stupid.
  • Sharper screen. It’s a subtle improvement, but definitely feels crisper.

Recommendations

  • New users should go for it, and light readers should be perfectly fine with the Wifi-only $139 model.
  • Existing users with heavy usage patterns (at least an hour a day on average) should go for it. You’ll love the small speed improvements when highlighting and flipping pages.
  • Existing Kindle 2 owners with light usage patterns should skip this revision. Future models will certainly see further improvements and lower costs.

The Worsening Fragmentation of the eBook Market

On my way to the office this morning my bag seemed especially heavy, the natural effect of stuffing an attaché with a MacBook Pro, iPad, iPhone and Kindle. I felt silly feeling it necessary to keep all these electronic gismos simultaneously latched onto my shoulder within seconds reach of my left hand, each ready to perform some specific task that required firing on its individual display and taking a few milliamp hours off its individual lithium ion battery pack.

Each of these devices is especially good at performing certain types of tasks, to the point that it also feels silly to not use the tool best suited to the job.  To a computer scientist all four of these are technically Turing machines–more commonly known as “computers”–but each has its own practical strength and weaknesses. And while carrying a single device solely by itself one becomes incredibly mobile, taking all four is not. I’m like a sleep-deprived mother of quadruplets sluggishly pushing a custom designed stroller through the grocery store. The monstrousity of brushed metal widgets, cables and wall warts I’m toting reminds me of that fictional car designed by Homer Simpson.

But such are the pro and cons of appliance computing. Not all of these hardware devices are technically needed on this particular Wednesday, but the combination of specialized functions provided by the union allows me a more productive day. I could have left at least one at home, provided that I had a reasonable amount of interoperability between them to shuffle data.

Stop. Oh god. I saw this coming the second Amazon announced they would use their own locked-down format (.azw/.mobi) for eBooks purchased through their store. (Aside: If you’re interested in Kindle encryption you may eventually find yourself at my KindleTools site for finding PIDs.) My biggest of fear with regards to the emerging ebook market is now in full swing. Not only are there subtle, often incompatible (and proprietary) differences in ebook data between reading application software, but most of the time I can’t even legally attempt it. It’s like Microsoft Office vs. Word Perfect vs Lotus Notes vs The People of Earth all over again.

Each content retailer is trying to be the de facto digital ebook data locker for the entire market, and the folks at the top of the food chain–most notably Amazon–have no business interest in supporting standardized (or at least conventionalized) data interchange with less popular consumer applications and devices. But why would they? If they can provide the content and the software and the hardware with a majority of the market, why not do everything possible to lock consumers into the monopoly? Here’s a painstakingly detailed scientific visualization of the current eBook market:

Amazon's view of the eBook market.

Let me make this clear: I am no stranger to paying for books. I read a LOT, and especially over the past year it hasn’t been unheard of for me to spend well over hundred dollars per month on eBook content alone, which I do for many reasons. Here’s the 8th-grade equation demostrating how I can scientifically demonstrate the value of this technology in my life:

Knowledge Gained (in the fictional unit of “knols“, K) x Ease of Future Reference (in the subjective economic unit of utils) / Content Cost (in dollars, $) x Total Consumption Time (in hours, 3600 x s)

This new unit of electronic book value that I’ll refer to as a Vebu–short for “value of ebookS unit”–reduces to this:

Vebu == knol utils per 3600 dollar seconds == uK/3600$s

In other words, we need to maximize the availability of meaningful information (knol utils) at a minimum of money and time (dollars hours) to achieve maximum value for our electronic virtual book libary, Vebu. A simple, unsophisticated yet meaningful quantity.

But here’s how this effed up market effects Vebu:

  • I have no less than 7 different, largely incompatible pieces of eBook reader software on iPad alone, as of today. Kindle, iBooks, Borders, B&N, Stanza, Free Books and Wattpad. (Effect: lower u, lowering Vebu.)
  • Borders, Barnes & Noble and the other brick-and-mortar vendors are freaking out, scaring they’ll become the next Blockbuster of the Netflix era. Each has their own application that works primarily with their own store, but not much else, forcing you to use their reader. Not all software is availble on all platforms, though, sometimes making lookups a major pain, and different retails of course carry different publishers, so it’s easy to unwittingly get sucked into all of them. (Effect: lower u and higher s, significantly lowering Vebu.)
  • None of the distributor reader apps are keen on “sharing” your content with friends/colleagues, forcing others to re-purchase content you should have been able to at least “lend” to them in the freakin’ first place. (Effect: higher $, lowering Vebu.)
  • O’Reilly, PragProg and other publishers don’t think the major distributors should be necessary, and some are leading the charge buy allowing you to directly purchase digital editions in a variety of formats. This is fine–I have no major qualms about this–but since most readers applications are trying to push you to the store of the vendor that wrote the apps, importing data can be a headache. (Effect: higher s, lowering Vebu.)
  • Amazon, already having a huge content delivery infrastructure, offers propriety features such as cross-device synchronization of bookmarks and highlights that isn’t as good in others. The Kindle hardware will also read to you in the car, but they only sync with Amazon services; Apple’s iBooks/iTunes is better with PDFs but doesn’t have text-to-speach; Stanza aggregates many different content sources but isn’t as great with commercial stuff… everything has distinct pros and cons. They’re all different and I have to use all of them because they can’t/won’t talk to each other and I can never remember which damn content locker to which I committed my stuff. (Effect: lower u, higher s, significantly lowering Vebu.)
  • The problem grows exponentially greater as more retailers, publishers, application developers, and independent authors enter the market, intentionally building walls that consumers have no interest in observing.

Here’s what needs to happen.

If you’re Amazon, Borders, B&N, or really any retailer that is gung-ho about becoming the provider of individual data lockers, that’s fine, but you need to give us the key. It’s understandable that you’re reluctant to open up your formats in a way that could be consumed in ways you can’t control, but consider this: if you never figure out how to allow publisher content to cross application and retailer boundaries, you are effictively capping Vebu to artifically low levels. If you instead focus on optimizing all the variables instead of restraining them, you’ll have a platform unmatched even by Amazon. I, for one, would switch to it in a heartbeat.