Ten years of the Kindle

Amazon Kindle & Sony eBook

Amazon is celebrating 10 years of the Kindle so it makes sense to reflect on the device and the service.

Rather like Apple products Kindle is a combination of hardware, software (including content), payment infrastructure and the Whispernet global mobile virtual network.

Like Apple, Amazon came in and refined an existing business model. Companies like Sony made very nice e-readers, but they didn’t have the publisher relationships and market access that Amazon had.

Context rather than convergence

In a time where consumer electronics thinking was all about convergence, from the newly launched iPhone to the Symbian eco-system Amazon were determined to come up with a single purpose device.

Amazon resisted the trend and created a dedicated device for reading. That is why you have a black-and-white e-ink screen and an experience exclusively focused on seamless content downloads.

Yes, they’ve rolled out tablets since, but even the latest range stick to the original Kindle playbook. Some of their decisions were quite prescient. The Kindle was deliberately designed so that it didn’t require content to be side loaded from personal computer like an iPod.

The Kindle has survived the smartphone and the tablet device as a reading experience.

Using the U.S. legal system to clear the field

Amazon was helped out by the US government prosecuting Apple under the Sherman Act. Wikipedia has a good summary of this case. On the face of it Apple was doing a similar structured deal with publishers on book pricing to what it had done previously with record companies for iTunes music.

This case effectively stalled Apple book store momentum and lumbered Apple with overzealous US government overwatch. The consumer benefit has been minimal – more on that later. The irony of all this is the way Amazon has leveraged its monopolistic position to decimate entire sectors of the retail economy.

The interesting thing about this case, say compared to the Apple | Qualcomm dispute is that Apple still kept Audible audio book sales in iTunes throughout this dispute and didn’t look at ways to bounce the iPad Kindle app from the app store. Audible is an Amazon-owned company.

By comparison, Amazon bounced Apple’s TV from its own e-commerce platform and has taken a long time to support the AppleTV app eco-system – long after the likes of Netflix.

Piracy in China

Amazon hasn’t had it all its own way. China had a burgeoning e-book market prior to the Kindle and Chinese consumers used to read these books on their laptops.  Depending which store you used; it might have more books at a cheaper price because intellectual property wasn’t ironed out.

A cottage industry sprang up that saw Kindles acquired in the US and Japan shipped back to China and reflashed with software that made them compatible with the local app stores.

The Kindle brain phenomenon

I moved from the UK to Hong Kong to take up a role and tried to lighten my burden by moving my reading from books to the Kindle. I found that I didn’t retain the content I read. I enjoyed the process of reading less and did it less often. I wasn’t an e-book neophyte I had enjoyed reading vintage pulp fiction novels as ebooks on Palm devices and Nokia phones in the early 2000s as a way of passing them time on my commute.

Talking to friends their experience was similar. I now read on the Kindle or listen to audio books only for pleasure. I tend to buy my reference books in the dead tree format. There is something more immediate about the process of reading from a ‘real book’ rather than an e-book.

It seems that digital natives aren’t ready to give up books just yet. Studies about the use of digital technology and e-books in education are mixed and anecdotal evidence suggests that technology industry leaders liked to keep the level of digital content in their children’s lives at a low threshold.

The Kindle hasn’t replaced the bookshelf and the printing press yet.

Pricing

Disposing of the medium didn’t mean that we got cheaper e-books. On Amazon it is worth looking carefully to see what is the cheapest format on a case by case basis. Kindle competes against print books and secondhand books.

Secondhand books win hands down when you are looking at materials beyond bestsellers. A real-world book is easier to gift and Amazon Prime allows for almost instant gratification. The Kindle starts to look like Amazon covering all the bases rather than the future of publishing. This may change over time, a decade into online news was a more mixed media environment than it is now – but Kindle feels as if it has reached a balance at the moment.

More information
New study suggests ebooks could negatively affect how we comprehend what we read | USA Today
Shelve paperbacks in favour of E-books in schools? | BBC
Study challenges popular beliefs on e-reading | The Educator
Are Digital Textbooks Finally Taking Hold? | Good eReader – makes the case for a heterogenous book environment of standard textbooks, e-books and used books
Do ‘Digital Natives’ Prefer Paper Books to E-Books? | Education Week
Our love affair with digital is over | New York Times (paywall)

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ICMYI | 万一你错过了| 당신이 그것을 놓친 경우

Amazon marks 10th anniversary of original Kindle, the ’18-month project’ that took 3 1/2 years – Kessel said the team was determined to keep the Kindle a single-purpose device – something where you could lose yourself in a book, rather than a multipurpose piece of hardware that might create distractions.

They were also focused on making it easy for customers by ensuring they could access new books without connecting a cable to a computer for download. That dedication, which lead to a built-in cellular data connection and, eventually, the ability to sync your books across Kindle devices and app, was no small feat. “We said books needed to download in less than 60 seconds, but it definitely didn’t work that way at first,” said Kessel.

Patience was something the team was forced to learn.

“Originally I told Jeff (Bezos) it would take us about 18 months to build the Kindle and we could do it with a couple handfuls of folks. It took us three-and-a-half years and a lot more than a couple of handfuls of folks.”

The Motherboard Guide to Not Getting Hacked – Motherboard – really interesting guidelines

Do Facebook and Google have control of their algorithms anymore? A sobering assessment and a warning | Poynter – is this a ‘SkyNet’ moment? How would you troubleshoot? A lot further out, if you got to sentience at a later date how would you know, particularly if the machine learning system goes down the root of the logic outlined in Cixin Liu’s ‘Three Body Problem’ trilogy

There’s a Digital Media Crash. But No One Will Say It – Talking Points MemoProblem #1 (too many publications) and Problem #2 (platform monopolies) have catalyzed together to create Problem #3 (investors realize they were investing in a mirage and don’t want to invest any more)

Monodraw for macOS — Helftone – OmniGaffle but for ASCI art

The connected home ten years later

A decade ago I worked on AMD Live. A hodgepodge of hardware and software that provided media access where ever and whenever you wanted it.  Here is a short video that we made at the time to bring it to life. The idea was that AMD would be able to sell higher specifications of PC components into the home to act as digital hub. They wanted to push their Opteron server processors into the home.

An engineer came in and spent the best part of a day setting everything up throughout the house prior to shooting the film. At the time much of the streaming boxes didn’t work as promised so some of the screen images were put in post-production. There was a mix of cloud services and home hosted content. At the centre was a PC running Windows Multimedia Centre. There was a raft of third-party apps needed as well

  • Network management apps
  • Video and image compression apps
  • Instant messaging (that wasn’t MSN or Skype – no idea why it was in the bundle)
  • TV tuner software
  • A music jukebox application
  • Network management
  • An AMD GUI which provided a 3D carousel effect and integrated web browser

It was all a bit of kludge.

Digital content was well on its way. Streaming technology was well known but unstructured. RealNetworks had been going commercially since 1997, but the playback quality was dependent on Internet network connectivity, We only started to see widespread DSL adoption from 2003 onwards in the UK. By the first quarter of 2003, DSL was enabled at 1200 of the 5600 telephone exchanges across the UK.

Apple’s QuickTime streaming server was open sourced back in 1999; so if anyone wanted to set up a streaming network they had the technology to do so.

Digital audio content prior to 2003 had largely been ripped from optical media or downloaded online via FTP, Usenet or P2P networks. iTunes launched its music store in 2003.

From a standing start in 2002; by 2004, 5 million devices with a HDMI connection had been sold. The built in copy protection had been developed by an Intel subsidiary and was adopted by all the big Japanese consumer electronics manufacturers.

By 2005, Apple had started selling iTunes movies and TV programmes  alongside its music offering that allowed sharing of an account on up to 5 concurrent devices.

Apple launched its MFi programme in January 2005, which begat a raft of speakers and stereos with iPod connectivity in the home and the car.

Sonos released its speaker system including a wi-fi mesh network and AES network encryption. Flickr had a well documented API that allowed for a fully functioning photo album and picture streaming which was used in early web 2.0 mashups.

AMD Live was on the back-foot from day one. From a high end perspective of audio streaming Sonos had it locked down. For everyone else moving an iPod from room to room had the same effect.  Mini-video servers could be configured from mini-PC boxes, but they were only for the technically skilled. Even the Mac Mini launched in 2005 didn’t make the process much easier. The key advantage is that it could use iTunes as a video source and a playing software.

Back then because it was US centric in its view AMD Live completely ignored the rise of the smartphone as a music playback device.  By 2007, Nokia launched ‘Comes With Music’ which put mobile streaming in play. Apple Music and Spotify have now made streaming effortless. Video playback now comes from devices the size of a thumb drive. New intermediate screens from tablets to smartphones changed viewing habits and the PC has become redundant as the home hub for all but the most enthusiastic AV aficionados.

Marketers: you are not a goldfish and neither is anyone else

I have grown tired of a ridiculous statistic being used so frequently that it becomes marketing truth. It’s regurgitated in articles, blog posts, social media and presentations. The problem with it is that affects the way marketers view the world and conduct both planning and strategy. The picture below is a goldfish, his name is Diego. If you’ve managed to read this you aren’t Diego.

Diego

I realise that sounds a little dramatic, but check out this piece by Mark Jackson, who leads the Hong Kong and Shenzhen offices of Racepoint Global. It’s a good piece on the different elements that represent a good story (predominantly within a PR setting). And it is right that attention in a fragmented media eco-system will be contested more fiercely. But it starts with:

Over the course of the last 20 years, the average attention span has fallen to around eight seconds; a goldfish has an attention span of nine! The challenge for companies – established and new – is to figure out how to get even a small slice of that attention span when so many other companies are competing for it.

Mark’s piece is just the latest of a long line of marketing ‘thought leadership’ pieces that repeat this as gospel. The problem is this ‘truth’ is bollocks.

It fails the common sense test. Given that binge watching of shows like Game of Thrones or sports matches is commonplace, book sales are still happening, they would have to be balanced out with millisecond experiences for this 8-second value to make any sense as an average. The goldfish claim is like something out of a vintage Brass Eye episode.

To quote DJ Neil ‘Doctor’ Fox:

Now that is a scientific fact! There’s no real evidence for it; but it is scientific fact

Let’s say your common sense gets the better of your desire for a pithy soundbite and you decide to delve into the goldfish claim a bit deeper.  If one took a little bit of time to Google around it would become apparent that the goldfish ‘fact’ is dubious. It originally came from research commissioned by Microsoft’s Advertising arm ‘How does digital affect Canadian attention spans?‘. The original link to the research now defaults to the home page of Microsoft Advertising. Once you start digging into it, the goldfish wasn’t actually part of the research, but was supporting desk research and thats when its provenance gets murky.

PolicyViz in a 2016 blog post The Attention Span Statistic Fallacy called it out and provided links to the research that they did into the the goldfish ‘fact’ in 2016 – go over and check their article out. The BBC did similar detective work a year later and even went and asked an expert:

“I don’t think that’s true at all,” says Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University.

“Simply because I don’t think that that’s something that psychologists or people interested in attention would try and measure and quantify in that way.”

She studies attention in drivers and witnesses to crime and says the idea of an “average attention span” is pretty meaningless. “It’s very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is.”

There are some studies out there that look at specific tasks, like listening to a lecture.

But the idea that there’s a typical length of time for which people can pay attention to even that one task has also been debunked.

“How we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation,” explains Dr Briggs.

“We’ve got a wealth of information in our heads about what normally happens in given situations, what we can expect. And those expectations and our experience directly mould what we see and how we process information in any given time.”

But don’t feel too bad, publications like Time and the Daily Telegraph were punked by this story back in 2015. The BBC use the ‘fact’ back in 2002, but don’t cite the source.  Fake news doesn’t just win elections, it also makes a fool of marketers.

This whole thing feels like some marketer (or PR) did as poor a job as many journalists in terms of sourcing claims and this ‘truth’ gradually became reinforcing. Let’s start taking the goldfish out of marketing.

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The Bell Pottinger Post

PR firm Bell Pottinger has got entangled in a mess of the South African government and the Gupta family.  More people have written about this in depth, so I will just link to them at the bottom of the post.

Here’s some thoughts on it all

There but for the grace of God go I – must have reverberated through the minds of at least some corporate communications and public affairs professionals. There is a tension between finding clients that have needs and are willing to pay for high-powered counsel versus the risk that the world may come down on you.

That’s the risk you take when you work with businesses that are involved in sensitive areas or at the edge of the law:

  • Businesses looking down the barrel of antitrust regulation like Google or Qualcomm
  • Businesses involved in the ‘carbon economy’ – Edelman had previously worked for coal producers and fracking projects until they came under sustained attack
  • Big food and big agri: McDonalds, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola are all targets. Monsanto has been of concern due to GM crops
  • Mining
  • Multinationals doing business in sensitive countries like Myanmar
  • Defence
  • Questionable regimes: Ketchum’s work with Russia is the stand out example or H+K Strategies arrangement of the deceptive ‘Nayirah’ testimony which played a big part in getting the US government behind the first Gulf War

Your business is at the mercy of pressure groups and the wider media agenda.

But that’s also the reason why I think that Bell Pottinger can survive IF they can hunker down and weather the storm. There will always be a demand for organisations and individuals who want to launder their reputation or argue the unpopular side of an argument.

Even if PR agencies aren’t doing it, organisations that sit at the nexus of business and security will likely step into the breach bringing the necessary PR skills on board.

As a PR person, is it the kind of work I would like to do? No, but then I am a brand marketer; corporate communications was something I could do, but didn’t particularly enjoy doing.  I could see the attraction of the work as it would be financially very lucrative and there would be the opportunity for business travel and ‘war stories’ from the office to talk about at dinner parties.

It’s magical thinking if you expect ‘unethical’ clients to suddenly be denied representation. This will be even more the case as the US multilateral world view is challenged by China’s more transactional approach. We’re currently living in a golden age for NGOs and NFPs – it would be unrealistic to think that it will continue this way.

In the grand scheme of things, the PRCA censure won’t mean that much, its a bigger move for the UK PR industry; showing that it can muck out its own stables. From Bell Pottinger’s longer term perspective it won’t mean much because of the divided nature of PR industry representation. As individuals PRs can sign up to be members of the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations).  The PRCA primarily represents agencies (although it has started to offer individual consultant accreditation). The key benefit is an ISO-9000 type accreditation for agency management systems. It wouldn’t be that hard for a member agency to set-up and get ISO-9000 accreditation and maintain it.  If there are enough practitioners working at Bell Pottinger, they can highlight their staffs professional status as members of the CIPR.

That Tim Bell interview: if you haven’t seen it, have a good watch. I can see this being used in broadcast media training for a good while. It’s the first time I’d ever seen Sir Tim in anything more casual than formal business wear.

His mannerisms are odd in places, particularly at the beginning.  His answers are odd. For example, when asked what went wrong he quoted Sir Walter Scott, which made him look literate but arrogant. Given that he went on there for a reason, presumably to put as much distance between himself and the mess – it was an ideal opportunity to land his side of the story in a précis.

His phone rings, he declines the call and then shows the interviewer his phone screen. Why din’t he mute his phone or shut it down at this point and why did he want the journalist to see who had called? He then gets a message on his phone and a second call. Only on the second ring does he finally silences the phone.

Chris Geoghegan is the non-executive director of a number of prominent UK companies, an ex-BAE Systems executive and the father of Victoria Geoghegan. Whilst he wouldn’t be best pleased with the current situation, Bell doxes him on the UK’s most prominent news programme. Geoghegan had been mentioned in an op-ed of a South African publication, but had been largely ignored in most of the press coverage surrounding the Bell Pottinger scandal. Whilst it won’t be anything new to a board doing their due diligence it might drive sniggering down the country club. Bell didn’t need to volunteer the information, he chose to do so.

The smoking gun emails – after Henderson had resigned as CEO of Bell Pottinger, the BBC interviewer questions Bell about two (presumably new) emails that seems to be at odds with his own claim that he recommended they not take the work as Bell Pottinger had a client conflict.  You can see this after 1:15.

For a piece of business that’s a conflict of interest,  the January correspondence is a very odd email. I can understand him saying that the meeting was successful. But then he goes on to talk about the revenue opportunity and how he will personally oversee the project.

By April why would Lord Bell be still offering advice on the account if he believed it to be a conflict of interest? His excuse for this was getting back into business after having a stroke.

Bell puts the blame squarely at the door of James Henderson. UK media coverage implied that the schism between Bell and Henderson went beyond the Gupta business. So Bell might have a bigger axe to grind and Guptagate is just a handy vehicle.

Lord Bell then talks down the future prospects of Bell Pottinger, it might be an overly pessimistic view. Bell has a new rival business, its in his interest to make Bell Pottinger’s problems even worse.

Whilst Bell Pottinger have problems in their London office, they have successful branches in Hong Kong and Singapore where this won’t matter as much IF (and its a big IF) they can hunker down and weather the current storm. The business could retrench, rebrand and survive.

The Guptas needed to be introduced to a good PR agency, after this every dictator, unpopular mega corporation and shady mogul will know where to go. If Bell Pottinger is no longer about, then there are any number of large corporate agencies or boutiques who will take their business.

More information
Ketchum (Sort of, Not Really) Ends Its Relationship with Vladimir Putin | AdWeek
Deception on Capitol Hill – New York Times
Edelman and Media Zoo PR targeted by anti-fracking protestors | PR Week
Guptagate: Who Are The Family At The Center Of South Africa’s Political Storm? | Newsweek
Op-Ed: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a weekend edition | Daily Maverick
Christopher Vincent Geoghegan BA (Hons), FRAES | Bloomberg Research.
How China Aims to Limit the West’s Global Influence – NYTimes.com
PR industry reads last rites for scandal-hit Bell Pottinger | FT
Battle of the spin doctors: Bell Pottinger PR titan quits over race hate dirty tricks campaign despite saying it wasn’t his fault | Mail Online