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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Oprah time: The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant

I bought this book when it came out in July and have gone back and forth reading it. I’d read books on Silicon Valley before; the Apple eulogising Insanely Great by Steven Levy which told of the graft and hard work that went into the original Macintosh or Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Hafner & Lyon which discussed engineers exceeding long works. My favourite one is still Robert X Cringely’s Accidental Empires that portrays Gates as a coupon-clipping megalomaniac and Steve Jobs as a sociopath cut from the same cloth as Josef Stalin.

Merchant’s The One Device is different. It doesn’t eulogise in the same way, but it also lacks immediacy as it feels detached from its subject matter. Unlike Levy’s work, Apple didn’t cooperate with Merchant at all. The book is broad in scope and sometimes loses its way, each one of the chapters could have been an interesting short book in their own right and this leaves it being faintly unsatisfactory.  I guess this is one of the reasons why it took me so long to read it.

In the meantime the book stirred controversy over quotes attributed to Tony Fadell about then colleague Phil Schiller.  This made me cast a critical eye over some of Merchant’s adventures in the book. In particular inside the Foxconn industrial complex.

On a more positive note, Merchant’s vision is grander than previous authors. One man’s mission to pull all the intellectual threads together on what made up the iPhone. The iPhone moves from becoming the child of an over-worked and under-appreciated Apple engineering team to being the totem of a global village.

If you’ve read a quality newspaper you know what he’s going to say about the global supply chain. He also touches on the decades of software and technology development that led up to the iPhone.  How its multi-touch interface came out of a 1990s doctoral thesis. Ultimately the value of Merchant’s book many not be his writing, but instead becoming a new template for journalists writing on Silicon Valley to look beyond the David & Goliath mono-myth and instead dig into the tangled history of innovation.

Future of Web Development (according to Samsung)

Interesting presentation that says much about Samsung’s agenda.

 

The web VR is interesting because of the effect that even a small amount of latency can negatively impact the user experience.

Web Bluetooth reminded me a lot of iPhone / desktop ApplePay integration / authentication of payments.

Apple Special Event and Security

@ WWDC

Apple’s facial recognition has spurred a number of discussions about the privacy trade-offs in the iPhone X.

Experts Weigh Pros, Cons of FaceID Authentication in iPhone X | Dark ReadingOne concern about FaceID is in its current implementation, only one face can be used per device, says Pepijn Bruienne, senior R&D engineer at Duo Security. TouchID lets users register up to five fingerprints. If a third party obtains a user’s fingerprint and reproduces it, and the user is aware, they could register a different unique fingerprint.

Can Cops Force You to Unlock Your Phone With Your Face? | The Atlantic – Even if Face ID is advanced enough to keep pranksters out, many wondered Tuesday if it would actually make it easier for police to get in. Could officers force someone they’ve arrested to look into their phone to unlock it?

How Secure Is The iPhone X’s FaceID? Here’s What We Know | Wired – Marc Rogers, a security researcher at Cloudflare who was one of the first to demonstrate spoofing a fake fingerprint to defeat TouchID. Rogers says he has no doubt that he—or at least someone—will crack FaceID. In an interview ahead of Apple’s FaceID announcement, Rogers suggested that 3-D printing a target victim’s head and showing it to their phone might be all it takes. “The moment someone can reproduce your face in a way that can be played back to the computer, you’ve got a problem,” Roger says. “I’d love to start by 3-D-printing my own head and seeing if I can use that to unlock it.” 

Now lets talk about the Apple Watch, which I consider to present more serious issues.
 
The Apple Watch 3 is interesting from a legislative point-of-view. The software SIM in the Apple Watch clones the number of your iPhone. The security services of the major powers generally don’t broadcast their capabilities. Politicians are generally untroubled by knowledge of what is possible. Giving politicians an inkling is likely to result in broad sweeping authoritarian power. 
Imagine what will happen when Amber Rudd goes into parliament looking for real-time access to everyone’s phones. She now can point to the Apple Watch 3 as evidence that LTE and 3G connections can be cloned. What kind of legislation will her special advisers start cooking up then?

Secondly, it will only be a matter of time before criminals either work out how to do it themselves, or co-opt mobile carrier staff. Two factor authentication that depends on SMS is already compromised. This allows it to be compromised and undetectable.

The Apple Watch 3 may have royally screwed us all.

Apple Special Event – key outtakes

Key takeouts from the Apple special event with a little bit of analysis
 
Retail
First presentation by Angela Ahrendts. There is a question of why she hadn’t presented at previous keynotes.  My read on it is that that the revenue per square foot metric beloved of retail analysts will tumble. Apple seems to be taking the mall companies idea of shopping as entertainment and doing it for their individual stores.
Town hall – what they call the stores internally, bigger focus on engagement rather than transactions – is this an effort to try and recapture cool?
Store features
  • Plaza – public private spaces outside the store if possible, interesting implications on future store placements – probably less in malls
  • Forum – open plan internal space
  • Boardroom – private space focused on developer relations, was probably the most interesting push. Stores are being given a stronger push as embassies for developer relations. 
  • Creative Pro – Apple genius for the creative apps, probable mix of amateur and professional audiences addressed
  • Today at Apple – driven by Creative Pro staff to focus on creating more usuage of key offerings i.e. photo walks – think Nike Running Club. Also includes teacher outreach
  • Genius grove – the genius bar but with plants presumably to try and break up the overall store noise
  • Avenues  – wider aisles that products are on
Continued retail expansion in the US including Chicago – interesting that international expansion wasn’t mentioned. 
 
Apple Watch
  • 50% yearly growth – the series 2 fixed many of the hygiene factors wrong with the first version
  • 97% customer satisfaction – health seems to be driving this
Health features: focus on heart rate monitor and getting proactive about flagging elevated heart rate. Also focusing on heart rhythm changes as well.
 
watchOS 4 out September 19 available to all customers. Interesting that they didn’t drill into some of interesting features on watchOS 4 using Siri
 
Series 3 Apple Watch with cellular built in. Your Dick Tracy fantasies are alive. Apple thinks that people will leave their phones at home and bring their Apple Watch. They also see it as killing the iPod Nano with wireless music playback. I am yet to be convinced.
Apple added a barometric sensor; usage example was focused on health and fitness rather then locative apps. Not a great surprise given that these sensors have been in premium G-Shocks for a good while. 
 
Apple used specially designed lower power wifi and Bluetooth silicon. But no news about who is making the cellular modem. The SIM is embedded on the motherboard and presumably a software update? These changes could have interesting implications for future phones?
 
Interesting carrier partnerships, in particular all three of China’s mobile carriers, but only EE in the UK?
 
Apple TV
 
  • Apple TV now supports 4K, unsurprising hardware upgrade and includes high dynamic range – Apple is following the TV set industry’s lead
  • More interesting is the amount of content deals Apple has done with studios, in particular keeping the price point of 4K HDR content the same as was previously charged for HD content.
  • Interesting TV partnerships but no major UK TV stations only Mubi
  • Emphasis on easy access to sports on the Apple TV would wind up cable companies further
  • Apple TV was also positioned as the control interface for HomeKit smarthome products. There was no further  update on HomeKit in the presentation 
iPhone 8 incremental changes
 
  • Wireless charging with glass back. The steel and copper reinforcement of the glass is probably to help with the induction charging
  • Incremental improvements in picture quality. Bigger focus on AR including new sensors.
iPhone X
 
  • Positioned as future direction for iPhones. Biometric face ID is clever but has issues. I wonder how it will work with facial hair or weight gain – Apple claims that it will adapt. Apple also claims to be able to detect photos and masks. It’s also used for face tracking in AR applications with some SnapChat lens demos.
  • As with Touch ID, there is a PIN code if your face doesn’t work. I have found that Touch ID doesn’t work all the time so you need that PIN back up.
  • The notch at the top poses some UX / design issues and the industrial design implies case free usage which will be a step away from usual iPhone usage.
  • What isn’t immediately apparent to me is the user case for the iPhone X versus the iPhone 8 plus?
What was lacking in the iPhone presentation was a celebration of all in the changes in iOS 11 under the hood.
A11 – Bionic chip in the iPhone 8 and X
  • Includes new integrated GPU for machine learning and graphics. This explains why Imagination Technologies are in trouble
  • New image sensor processingThe A11 processor has a hardware neural network on the chip for the iPhone X – unsure if its also usable on the 8
Apple’s moves to embrace, co-opt Qi wireless charging and build a super-standard on top of it will likely wind up members like Qualcomm and Huawei. How much of this is down to user experience and how much is down to the desire to get Apple IP in the technology stack?
Apple is left with a large product line of iPhones: SE, 6 series, 7 series, 8 series and the X