e-Books

As an avowed “book smeller,” I feel deep guilt as I admit that I am addicted to e-Books. Now that I have access to my books on my kindle, on my iPad, and on my droid* synching across all the platforms, I am in this “always a book all the time” mentality. With a shock I realized I have read more books this year so far than the last three years combined.

Strange.

I do like the smell of libraries and I love to browse around bookstores. I like the feeling of opening and browsing a book. But paperback books that lived in my bag that I carried around with me, for whatever reason, didn’t get read. They ended up in piles next to my bed and gathered dust. I would buy the books and intend to read the books and then shelve them.

Now I am hovering books at a high rate — I am nearly done with the second 1000+ page book of the year — and they are all e-Books. It is a bit disconcerting and I’m not certain if this is because the Kindle is extremely portable and fits conveniently in my bag, if the iPad is a decent reading device, the “always-on” nature of the books, the ubiquity of the Amazon Kindle app**, or all of the above.

But hey, I am reading again, and at speed. This can only be a good thing.

I do wish Pynchon’s books were available in eBooks, though. GRRR. I shake my fist! I would be reading them all, his entire catalog, right now.

* …although I find books completely unreadable off my droid.
** iBooks lasted about 30 seconds with me. I stick with the Kindle app exclusively.

iPad Apps

I’m having some mild bandwidth problems lately and I was disappointed with the lack of a good WordPress app on the iPad so posting has gotten mildly sporadic. I swapped out my netbook for my iPad as my “go to” travel computer and, after having used it for a while, came up with a list of apps with high value. I am hoping to find something decent for blog posting but nothing has come up yet.

Stuff I have given high marks to so far and are worth buying:

Amazon’s Kindle Reader: I found I cannot stand Apple’s iBook’s application but I can read from Amazon’s Kindle Reader for hours without eyestrain or issue. Also, it syncs up with my Kindle seamlessly, grabs me books from our eBook archive, and looks very nice on the screen. It must be the iBooks choice of font because I don’t use it. Amazon Kindle Reader for the win.

Reeder: A beautiful RSS reader that integrates seamlessly with Google Reader. It makes reading feeds feel natural and has clean integration with services like Instapaper, ReadItLater, etc.

myTexts: A clean full-screen editor that turns the iPad into a distraction-free writing work surface. Works beautifully with a bluetooth keyboard. It performs all the saving and backing up of documents automatically, has several syncing/exporting options to get text off the iPad. Integrates with myTexts for MacOSX.

Good Reader: PDF reader that gets better with every update. Beautiful presentation of PDFs on the screen with easy navigation options. It looks beautiful with full color PDFs and the text is easy to read. It makes purchasing gaming PDFs seem like a good idea.*

DropBox: Easy access to cloud storage. Integrates with several apps, including Good Reader, for file display. Makes it trivial to carry around a huge number of PDF books and call them up at will, WiFi Gods willing.

TabToolKit: The reason I wanted an iPad — the app that sold it to me. (You can look at it here.) It plays fully voiced Guitar Pro tabs — thousands and thousands can be found complete and of decent quality online. For learning songs on the guitar, it’s fantastic. It is not quite as good for piano because it only shows one hand at a time — if it could multi-track, it would be the perfect piece of software.

Plants vs. Zombies: No one gets their life back until the game is defeated.

Wikipanion: It makes Wikipedia feel like a Real Boy. In landscape mode, it integrates table of contents, links, and inline media beautifully. Want to learn about the Han Dynasty? Portugal? It feels like reading from a book and it’s comfortable.

Instapaper: Instapaper alone is magic. Instapaper long-formatted on the iPad with no ads for clean reading makes long articles on the web worth it.

Carcassone: Yes, this is only the iPhone version of this application but it scales nicely. It has local LAN iPad support. It has internet iPad support. It’s Carcassone!

There’s other stuff, of course: my addiction to Puzzle Quest, Battle of Wesnoth, Youtube, etc. But these are the apps that have, so far, really stood out with usability and utility.

Update: I use the word “beautiful” way too many times in this post and I apologize for way lazy writing. But they do look nice on the screen when it isn’t all smudged up with fingerprints.

* I have a hard time reading PDFs off normal computer screens.

Droid Test

I just installed the WordPress app for the Droid. I’m experimenting with it a little bit to see how hard it is to compose and post to the blog. So far it’s quite decent although it makes me wist greatly for good droid bluetooth keyboard support. The lack of bluetooth keyboard is a small problem.

But! Not bad. I elected to use the clicklet keyboard for entry and it is definitely passable.

Kindle FTW

People who have been within a 20′ radius of me know that I have been reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, an extremely strange post-modern 1200 page book. I will write a review and some thoughts on the book when I have more time (and boy do I have thoughts on said book which rivals Neal Stephenson for non-ending endings) but this is about the accomplishment: I have not been able to read a book of that significant length in years, and not since Katie arrived.

While I am not 100% sold on e-books, and it will take another decade to ween me off the idea that books should have a distinctive smell*, the Kindle, being light, thin, and can fit into my purse without any hassle, has meant a return to reading again — at least for me. I have always preferred GRAND EPICS of EPICNESS to short books and the weight simply became prohibitive.

This makes me think a bit more about the arguments on how e-books are killing reading or killing readership. I am left unconvinced and cold. A book != a tv show. A book is fundamentally better.  I’ve found that the portability tradeoffs are allowing me to read more than I have in years. I only have a datapoint of one, but I am beginning to suspect Someone is Wrong on the Internet.

Anyway, I find I can heartily endorse the Kindle for reading ridiculously long books. A good translation of Brothers Karamazov** (Bantam Books) has now appeared there so I can enjoy the long metaphysical, religious, and fundamentally strange discussions between the atheist brother Ivan and the pious brother Alyosha. I was struggling with a bad translation from the Russian. Dostoevsky is a major guilty pleasure and the Kindle is giving me more opportunity to cram it into the little cracks of free time in my life.

* I always associate Stephen King’s The Stand with a very pagey sort of smell.
** I will never be on a first name basis with Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky. I won’t even get to Fyodor M. Sadness.

Notes and Sundries

1. I have no idea if LJ has fixed their interface for cross-posting yet. It was broken as of last week.

2. Eric corrected me: you can still buy a regular hard-drive click-wheel iPod. They are available on the Apple site.

3. We did more experiments with the iPad and found, with a MiFi, it makes a more than acceptable travel Internetty netbook. Combined with the Apple bluetooth keyboard or the iGo stowaway, typing is pretty straight forward on the device. Eric dragged it around and the MiFi makes it a portable web machine.

4. I fiercely love This American Life and not just because Sarah Vowell is a frequent contributer. If you listen to only one podcast on earth, this is the one I recommend. This week’s episode, “The Inside Job,” has a great 40 minute piece on how hedge funds looted the economy with CDOs and CDSs. If you ever want to hear anything, listen to episode #355: Giant Pool of Money.

5. I am fiercely addicted to Pokemon: Heart of Gold. I have already put a staggering 40 hours into that game. As a flat-out fun and enjoyable DS game, I completely recommend it. And if you have friends (or children) playing it with you and trading pokemon with you, then the game is fantastic.

6. I am pissed there’s no Borges available for the Kindle. KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

7. Wil Wheaton on Big Bang Theory tonight! You should all watch it. Really. You SHOULD.

Gadgetology

I took some ribbing yesterday at work about my profusion of devices — and that I refuse to use a big computer. I only work off laptops now. I have become truly mobile. I took an accounting and discovered — ta-da! — I carry a profusion of devices! Right now I have with me:

What: Palm Tungstun E3
Why: I have carried this Palm for years and it was a replacement after my previous Palm died. It serves only one purpose: to run as a mobile check register. It syncs up with Quicken 2007* on MacOSX when I reconcile my checkbook every two weeks. If I could move this function to another device, I would and I would retire this old device.

What: iPod 80G 3rd Generation (with clickwheel!)
Why: This is my perfect single-use device. It carries my entire music archive PLUS it hosts my podcasts PLUS it shows me video podcasts when I care about seeing video podcasts. And it is completely EOL’d** by Apple so when it died — and it will die as it is hard drive based — I will be very sad and be forced to get a iPod touch that will do none of the new iPod things and all of the old iPod things because what I have now is what I want.

What: Amazon Kindle (newest one)
Why: It’s easier than carrying around a book. And I always, always, always have a book. Also, the books no longer get smushed up in my bag because they’re on my Kindle in a nice carrying case. I was not much sold on the Kindle but if you’re like me and you always have a book with you to read, a Kindle is actually a surprisingly good purchase.

What: Motorola Droid with Android 2.1
Why: It’s a cell phone! A PDA! An email client! A twitter client! A web client! It runs maps. It runs Yelp and Urban Spoon. It gets me movie tickets. It has a tiny ssh client and shell. It streams Pandora. It multi-tasks. It mates cleanly with its Ubuntu mothership. You will pull my Droid from my cold, dead hands. I love gadgets but I irrationally love my Droid.

What: HP Mini with Ubuntu 9.10 OS
Why: At 2.5lbs and in its own bag, the Mini is somewhere between a gadget and a computer. Whenever I have wifi, I whip it out, get it online, and off I go. More powerful than my droid — and bigger screen, and better keyboard than the slide-out one — sucker gets me online and I can surf, blog, tinyMUSH, etc. For, what, the $250 I paid for it, it has been a seriously robust gadget. Also, Ubuntu. I totally recommend Ubuntu for a netbook if you’re a hard-core geek.  It also works as the above mentioned Ubuntu Mothership.

I carry absolutely no Microsoft gadgets. Somewhere along the way Microsoft became totally irrelevant to my lifestyle. It wasn’t sudden. It happened gradually over time. I don’t even need Word at home since I’ll use iWork stuff if I absolutely have to word process (but I do have Word/Excel/PowerPoint for MacOSX so that is the last vestige.) I have an ancient habit from when I was about 14 of writing everything in a flat text document and then, as a final step, transferring it somewhere that has fancy fonts. I’m even doing it right now. I am, in fact, just typing into a flat text file.

But I carry two Ubuntu gadgets. Perhaps the OSS movement is making more sneaky inroads than I thought.

* Yes, I am aware of the upgrade but I’m not sure it has a mobile client and the mobile client is what I care about.
** End of Life.

The End of Innovation?

I freely admit this post is a “Someone is WRONG on the INTERNET” reaction but it has gotten under my skin as the meme jumped from blog posts to podcasts and yesterday, I briefly saw it mentioned on a website of actual yea olde Main Stream Media.

The meme, started on the original Cory Doctorow post on Boing Boing and then passed around by hand through word of mouth, states the iPad hails the “end of innovation.” Perhaps because my job is spending hours trying to see the forest for the trees, I look at components and devices and say, “How is this leveraged? How is this used? How can I employ this in a creative and interesting way to get maximum value?”

Some devices have one use. I don’t complain about the walled garden of the firewall or the intrusion prevention system. Some have many uses, like my Droid. Some are in between. One uses the tool for the job.

Holding the iPad in my hands, I asked these questions and all I see is the beginning. I know the interface is new and the whole cosmos of interface software and cloud-based storage will take 9 months to a year to appear and show people this new “thing” is more than a dumb xterm for streaming Netflix like from the years of the VAX. A year from now this question will be silly and forgotten. Today it’s the hot hot hot meme.

My thought process works through the device like this — and I like me bullet point lovin’:

* Before last week, a tablet was a $2000 device that required tethering to the host computer and was used for special purpose computing in drafting and art. Microsoft had tablets and *tablet software for years but they never bothered to bring it to market. Suddenly, we have a brand new market, and with a new market comes new competitors, new market pressures, and with new market pressures comes the pressure to fix issues, improve systems, and make things work. Look! Free Market! Capitalism! Innovation! This is what we, in the US, do best!

HP is throwing the gauntlet with HP Slate, which runs Windows 7 and the Notion Adam Ink will have the unbelievably slick Pixel Qi interface. But Apple got there first and has a head start…

* The nub of the argument revolves around the Apple Store. I find I do not have a core issue with a final auditing process on software before releasing it to the world.  Is it a horrible and terrible thing that an audit process is in place to keep software that crashes devices or is full of malware or turns your nice little device into a zombie host? I understand the world is not as seeped** in security as I am, but I see this as more a double prong:

1. It is a basic security check on software before it goes to market.
2. It forces developers to do the boring parts of a project and not just the exciting and interesting parts to make a completed application.

No one complains that XBox Live is a walled garden. Or the Wii App store. Or, hell, Best Buy. If you want to experiment with software and systems, new laptops are cheap and Ubuntu is a damn fine OS for that purpose. Yes, okay, perhaps it will take up to 6 weeks for your software to come to market via the Apple Store but this is a new pressure and a new set of regulations. You cannot simply release broken software and patch, patch, patch. (I am talking to you, OSS.) I for one am sick of the endless beta cycle.

* Another complaint is that one cannot write code on the iPad. First off, I doubt this will be true forever and I see an interesting market in a combination IDE and drag-and-drop construction kits to build new, cool things organically and on the fly like LEGOs. Second, no one is stopping you from joining Apple Developer Connection, downloading the toolkits and going to town on your own MacBook Pro or wherever you write code. What, someone cut your fingers off? They give you the SDK. They give you the developer guide. They give you podcasts. They give you sample code. They give you Human-Computer Interface*** guides. Youtube is full of lectures from Universities that give you an introduction. How much more do you want? Steve Jobs to come to your house?

Yeah, okay, you cannot write code right on the device (yet) but I cannot write code write on my washer, either, but code still runs in there in an embedded chip.

Of course, if you have an objection to Objective C, I’m right there with you. That’s a different argument for a different day.

* I heard, “You cannot make music on it! The MacBook Pro came with Garageband and now they don’t give me that and I am just a passive listener! I will never discover my magnificence as a composer!****” Really? Have you never heard of Google? I hear it’s on computers now. Can you not type “music software ipad” into it? Perhaps you can use that browser that comes on the iPad.

Less sarcastic: Anyone who has ever sat down to a DAW knows the mouse and keyboard are completely inadequate to the job. DAWs like Logic Pro or Pro-Tools require a small galaxy of tactile peripherals to hook to the computer to get it to work satisfactorily. Eric bought me Synthtopia’s MiniSynth Pro which, although being largely monophonic, was a joy to use. Yes, I don’t feel the ridges of the control surface under my fingertips but music production is a tactile art and it felt far more natural to push on buttons and push sliders with my fingers than clicking and dragging with a mouse. If anything is going to explode with the iPad, it’s this — electronic digital music production, DJing, mashups, and new music.

No, you cannot record live to it (yet). Nor can you hook a control surface to it (yet). I wouldn’t want to do any mastering on it and these applications desperately need access to cloud storage. But if anything is going to explode, it’s right here because it’s comfortable, easy to carry, and multi-touch for full five-finger action. When Propellerheads has something out for it, I will need to be alone by myself with it for a little while to cry.

* “I can’t draw on it! I can’t write my novel on it!” Considering tablets were designed and created as artist control surfaces to computers for a more natural interface, I won’t even go there because the stupid, it burns. Suffice to say, I hear Brushes for the iPad has gotten incredible reviews.

As for writing your novel, I do suggest a cheap netbook and dropbox. Or a bluetooth keyboard and the iPad dock and dropbox. Either/or.

* “I can’t open it and see what is inside! I can’t do my own hardware mods/maintenance!” I know I am a terrible engineer but I see this as a feature. I like building and modding machines, too. But I don’t want to foist my modded machine on millions and millions of people. Is it terrible to get a system into hands of those who are perhaps not a member of the Computer Priesthood who don’t want to or have to worry about upgrading their video cards and drivers? I mean, I don’t know about you but I love my Xbox360 and I don’t crack that sucker open… and no one says you cannot build your own tablet out of components. We need to learn and accept that bug reports, crash reports, and random failure due to hardware incompatibility is not an option any more, people do not want to support their own hardware, and move on from that point.

This is making me deeply crazy. The iPad is a peripheral device to your main MacBook Pro. It’s a surface. Surfaces have been around for a decade and all computing has not stopped yet! I do not think anyone is going to be doing any music mastering or live editing of full motion pictures or doing full animation or controlling supercomputing***** on it quite yet. On the other hand, DJ software using fingers to organically mix and scratch pieces together to build a track? Awesome. Unbelievably awesome. And the price is right.

The iPad has some features I am not thrilled with. I cannot read books off it because it makes my laser-eyes bleed. I tried and went back to the Kindle. Some of the software is rough around the edges. The integrated cloud storage it desperately needs isn’t there yet. I don’t like the smeary fingerprints. It is just a tad too heavy. But the end of innovation? Turning computers into completely passive devices and you into a passive drone? Don’t you have a TV for that? For people who claim to love science fiction and see the future, the minds seem pretty damn closed.

I have ranted. I am done now. Maybe.

* Fantastic tablet software, actually. If the HP Slate works, things will get interesting, fast. But Microsoft hasn’t been able to ship anything good in years save the Xbox360.
** Or as fascinated with. I need to go get help for my addiction to all things botnet.
*** This is the rub, right here. No more writing terrible interfaces. That’s where the innovation apparently ends — you have to buck up and put on big boy pants and produce code people want to use and can work with in a natural way. And In the End, the Command Line.
**** This one got under my skin because it was a comment made on the Slate Cultural Gabfest and I almost threw my Droid out the window. Except I love my Droid.

***** If you don’t think I’m not thinking about cheap surfaces and controlling huge distributed computations across clusters then you are crazy because I have had that thought.

Ars Technica reviews the iPad

I meant to talk about where I think we’ve been and where I think technology is going and where the innovation really is but I got hammered today so it has to wait until this evening.  But meanwhile, I give you the extremely (and great) in-depth review of the iPad from Ars Technica:

The iPad isn’t a big iPod touch—an iPod touch is a miniature iPad that restricts the full multitouch experience in exchange for offering greater portability. With the iPad, in contrast, you get multitouch the way it was meant to be done.

via Ars Technica reviews the iPad.

ComiXology

The big question I have gotten all day is:

“How are comics on the iPad?”

It’s no big secret that I am a comics nerd. I do prefer my comics to be indie but comics are comics and I will go read X-Men or Justice Leage with the best of them. Knowing comics on demand were on the iPad, I was chomping at the bit to check it out. At first I thought only the Marvel app was available which delivers only Marvel comics, but there’s an app called comiXology, which the Marvel app is built on, which delivers indies and creator-owned and small-house and Dark Horse and Image and a fair number of Manga publishers if you’re into Manga. I’m not, but to each his or her own and you can read Manga off the iPad.

Tonight I have read issues of Walking Dead (excellent), Action Philosophers (interesting) and Mark Millar’s Wanted (excellent). The bastards give away the first issue for free and then dangle the rest of the series for pay.

Dear god, I need to delete my iTunes account because I am so doomed.

Okay, so. First off: search and sort by writer, publisher, genre, title. I cannot find any Grant Morrison (hmm) but I can find some Bendis on the two apps. That’s good. Several excellent series are available in their totality.

Second: reading comics on the iPad is a religious experience. The screens are crisp and bright and easy to read. The colors are deep and true. You can click to zoom in on the panels. Reading feels comfortable and natural. It is a flick of the finger to change the page. You can buy issues or entire graphic novel collections.

Third: Buying means clicking on the big happy BUY NOW button. It charges my credit card and downloads the file and puts it in an on-iPad library. Older comics are $0.99, newer are $1.99 and most collections are $9.99. They’re cheaper than the print versions.

I hope someone sends in a rescue team because I might call in tomorrow with ebola. Also, only partial libraries are available so far but this will get better, fast. Pretty soon huge runs of comic series will be available to click, download, and read on demand in bright, easy to read color.

I give comics on the iPad two thumbs and a toe up.

On the iPad

I wanted to buy an iPad for Eric’s birthday but he had a high water mark: if Papers, essentially iTunes for research paper and article management, came out with an iPad reader application, Eric would want an iPad (very badly). He has the iPod client and while it works, it is difficult to read papers on an iPod Touch. The screen real estate isn’t there.

Papers came out with a rather nice native iPad reader that syncs with the master Papers application running on Eric’s MacBook Pro. He knew I was taking in my precious MacBook Pro for service — the i key, of all things, died on the keyboard and it turned out to be challenging to type without an i — and if I happened to walk out of the Apple store with one he would not be upset. I asked the guy at the counter if they had any in stock and they had 15 left, so I sucked the cost and took one of them.

Having used one now, I have a bunch of thoughts on it in completely random order:

* If you believe the iPad is the “end of innovation” your mental box is very small indeed. The iPad is disruptive technology. It’s something that fits between laptops and smartphones. We don’t know where it will go (yet). But us in the tech world should be used to this sort of thing by now. The Internet was a disruptive technology. Refridgerators! Telephones! Off-set Printing! They happen.* The world moves on.

* Today, the iPad is a big iPod. This is undeniably true. I will never sell anyone different. Most of the available software is iPod software running in large screen mode**. However, the software coming out natively for the iPad show tantalizing glimpses of the future. The iPod can convey information, play music, and do many excellent PDA things but it does not have a the real estate for comfortable comics, movies, or PDFs.*** The native iPad apps are amazing.

* Katie already has an iPod Touch she adores. At first she complained the iPad was too heavy. Once she got her hands on Peggle she was ready to go. As a device for children, it’s magnificent. It’s hard to say how magnificent it is until you put one in your own child’s hands. Add that with the Kindle app downloading full-color children’s books for easy and comfortable reading and you start to see the future.

* Eric’s Papers reader and the Goodreader PDF reader blew me away with how crisp, clear, and readable the PDFs are. I could not read off an iPad for hours and hours like I can a Kindle but I can manage a PDF. We won’t talk about the comic books apps because I’m in danger of bankrupting us all.

* For scientific research, the iPad is a godsend. Being able to get papers, Omnigraffle, quick sketch, quick note-taking, it is the perfect in-hand device for making quick notes and then syncing them back to the MacBook in the office. It fits comfortable in a hand or on a bench without the clunkiness of the clamshell case of a laptop or the space of an actual computer.

* We showed it to my Mom and she was amazed. The first impulse was getting one for my Grandmother. The 3G version will give her what she doesn’t have now: easy email, an easy way to carry thousands of pictures, an easy way to get to streaming movies. She would never need cords, a router, or have to ever put discs in it or worry about maintaining her hardware. All she needs is a $30/month subsidized no-contract 3G wireless and 16G iPad and it’s a computer my Grandmother can use.

* Eric and Katie have already played two-player checkers while using the iPad as a portable board between the two of them. Having a portable card/board game device is awesome. It’s hard to play board games on the iPod — Eric and I played Catan on his iPod and it was difficult to see the board — but imagine being able to turn and place Carcassone tiles with your fingers. The board games are exciting! They are!

* My impulses for the device usage are completely different from Eric’s or Katie’s or my Mom’s. This is what opens my eyes: we all have this one device and see different things. I see a platform where I can load synthesizers on it and make music easily without having to bring up a whole rig — and a few are already available. I cannot get a full portable keyboard with an iPod, but a multi-touch iPad is a much different story. Katie sees movies and games. Eric sees PDF and information management. My parents want the netflix streaming.

To sum up:

I did not expect to be as blown away by the device as I am. I was somewhat iffy on it when it came out and didn’t expect to want one or need one. After all, my iPod is a 3rd Generation iPod with an 80G hard drive and a clickwheel. I hold the iPad in my hands and it is not my netbook and it is not my MacBook Pro. It is a device I can hold comfortably in my hand and read comics, or make music, or play games without ever having to worry about having to be the system administrator. It’s something else completely different. It’s a powerful concept.

And yeah, sure, we’ve been trying to do tablets for 10 years and they’ve always failed, but isn’t it neat when someone actually gets it right?

Disclaimer: Yes, I am a Mac cultist, but I use an Ubuntu phone and an Ubuntu 9.10 netbook. I dislike Windows on the computer but you will take the Xbox360 from my cold dead hands. I like things that work more than loyalty to a company or a brand. Apple makes things that work. So does Google. If Microsoft wants to play, then perhaps they should make things that work because blue screens are no longer an option.

* Puzzle Quest!
** I will talk more about what industries I see growing out of the iPad tomororow. I have some serious thoughts on this topic but I am still digesting.
*** As a proud owner of a Droid — which I love — I know there are apps that run tiny and great and apps that need room to breathe. Human Interface design is important, folks!