News from struggling book store chain Barnes & Noble today indicates they may split off their Nook ebook reader. CEO William Lynch, via Reuters, says: "We see substantial value in what we've built with our Nook business in only two years, and we believe it's the right time to investigate our options to unlock that value."
This seems totally nuts for at least two reasons. First, the Nook is sucking money from B&N's more profitable ventures. If they spin it off, where does the capital come from? With Apple and Amazon as the main competition, doesn't the Nook need the largest possible backing? Going independent seems totally wrong.
Second, Lynch et al have been touting the Nook as the company's future, the key reason why the overbuilt megastore chain won't suffer the same fate as Borders. They just rejiggered all their stores to focus more on the Nook. What's the fate of Barnes & Noble without a viable electronic book strategy? Kind of like Kodak without digital cameras?
MG Siegler has it exactly wrong in his latest attempt to explain his wacky review of the new Galaxy Nexus phone. Siegler's iOS goggles make it difficult for him to write a real review. He's ended up more with a list of debating points for iPhone lovers to cite. Worst of all, the piece was dripping with condescension, hubris and confirmation bias. After getting called out by The Verge's Joshua Topolsky, Siegler went off again:
"I don’t know about you, but when I read my favorite technology writers, I want an opinion. Is the iPhone 4S the best smartphone, or is it the Galaxy Nexus? I need to buy one, I can’t buy both. Topolsky never gives us that. Instead, he pussyfoots around it. One is great at some things, the other is great at others. Barf.
Fucking pick one. I bet that even now he won’t.
This is the problem I have with most technology reviews these days. Everyone seems so afraid to say how they really feel about the device. And more often than not, that’s exactly what readers want."
But Siegler's got it exactly backwards. The least useful gadget reviews declare a product as the best or the worst. Does he seriously think there's one best phone that everyone should own? Insane.
Topolsky had it exactly correct when he said the world is full of shades of grey. I need this camera because I take a lot of pictures in low light but you want a big zoom lens. I prefer a car with simple radio controls but you want satellite radio, video screens in back for the kids and a Bluetooth iPod connection. I have a big budget for a fancy stove but you almost never cook at home so you're going to scrimp.
The very best reviews help you understand a product's strong point and weak points, answering the question: who would get the most out of this phone/car/movie/bathing suit and who would find it lacking? And it's quite difficult to do well.
Think about people's opinions of New York City. It's the greatest city on earth to some and a dirty hell hole to others. Both sides use facts to make their case -- both sides are "true." How can that be? It all depends on your individual perspective, your needs and wants and tastes and tolerances.
I lived in New York for a decade, spent six years in Washington DC and then the past 10 years up here in Boston. One thing I learned was that if you tried to be a New Yorker in DC, you'd be pretty unhappy. And Washingtonian's don't thrive in Boston. By which I mean, each city has completely different strengths and weaknesses, attitudes and atmospheres. I liked DC a whole lot better when I stopped trying to find late night diners and started using the parks more. Boston favors smaller, private gatherings against DC's sprawling spectacles and black tie dinners.
One of the most boring aspects of gadget writing by people like Siegler and DaringFireball's John Gruber ¹ is that they're just like the people who hate New York City. It's so dirty, it's so noisy, there's so much crime. And every time you run into them, they want to talk your ear off with another anecdote about the litter or the muggings or whatever. But it's not black and white. New York is the perfect place to live for some people, the worst for others and something in between for everyone else.
So please, Darth Siegler, stop hitting me over the head with your condescending, know-it-all, b.s., Sith-laden crap.
¹Gruber amended this post after the controvsey erupted. Instead of just reiterating Seigler's black & white sentiments ("You either see it or you don't"), he later added: "If you don’t, that’s cool, enjoy your Nexus. But I think the reason Apple Stores are so crowded, and getting so big, is that there are an awful lot of people who do see it."
"Usability" expert Jakob Nielsen is getting a lot of attention for his extremely critical review of Amazon's new Kindle Fire tablet. Nielsen, not surprisingly, is all about the beauty and usefulness of software interfaces. Some have taken his criticism of the Fire as a prediction of doom for the product -- he's pretty open about that in the NY Times today.
The prediction seems off-base for a couple of reasons, including the Fire's ability to do much of what it promises and its low price which sets expectations appropriately lower. But Nielsen's track record on tablet reviews also bears scrutiny. Here are excerpts from Jakob's take on the initial iPad back in 2010:
iPad apps are inconsistent and have low feature discoverability, with frequent user errors due to accidental gestures. An overly strong print metaphor and weird interaction styles cause further usability problems.
The first crop of iPad apps revived memories of Web designs from 1993, when Mosaic first introduced the image map that made it possible for any part of any picture to become a UI element. As a result, graphic designers went wild: anything they could draw could be a UI, whether it made sense or not.It's the same with iPad apps: anything you can show and touch can be a UI on this device. There are no standards and no expectations.
iPad UIs suffer under a triple threat that causes significant user confusion:
- Low discoverability: The UI is mostly hidden within the etched-glass aesthetic without perceived affordances.
- Low memorability: Gestures are inherently ephemeral and difficult to learn when they're not employed consistently across apps; wider reliance on generic commands would help.
- Accidental activation: This occurs when users touch things by mistake or make a gesture that unexpectedly initiates a feature.
When you combine these three usability problems, the resulting user experience is frequently one of not knowing what happened or how to replicate a certain action to achieve the same result again. Worse yet, people don't know how to revert to the previous state because there's no consistent undo feature to provide an escape hatch like the Web's Back button.
I have no objection to Nielsen's critique of either tablets' usability. But I don't think he's exactly the go-to guy for accurate calls on the future success or failure of tech gadgets.
A few years ago, the government was getting ready to auction off a wide swath of airwaves that had been used by TV stations. This spectrum, situated in the 700 MHz band, was perfect for mobile communications and broadband Internet service.
As the Federal Communications Commission started to make rules for using the spectrum, Google made a huge splash by advocating for unprecedented openness. Wireless carriers had locked down their networks and exerted total control over which handsets and applications they allowed their customers to use. Google wanted the government to require that carriers allow consumers to use any compatible device or application.
And to back that commitment, Google wanted the government to require carriers to offer a wholesale discount to any company that wanted to re-sell wireless service in the new band. So, for example, Google could buy a huge amount of service at a discount and re-sell it to consumers under its own brand. It's not unlike the way mobile virtual network operator, or MVNOs, work today but with the government requiring all carriers to participate and a greater discount to make resellers' services more competitive.
The wholesale reselling was a critical component of the plan as it provided the only way to pressure the carriers if they monkeyed around with the openness requirements. If Verizon and AT&T didn't offer true open access to whatever devices and apps consumers wanted, a wholesaler could on its own.
If you know much about how lobbying works in Washington, D.C., and specifically the power of the telecom lobby, you won't be surprised at what happened next. The FCC rejected the wholesale discount and adopted watered down openness requirements that allowed each carrier to define precisely which devices and applications were "compatible" with their networks. Touted at the time as a big win for openness, it was actually just the opposite.
Today, we can see one obvious example. Verizon is about to unveil the newest Android flagship phone, the Galaxy Nexus, which uses the 700 MHz spectrum for super-fast LTE Internet service. But Verizon won't allow the phone to run Google's mobile payment service, Google Wallet, alluding to vague security concerns.
This has generated some of the usual Android bashing over the state of "openness" on that mobile platform. Android has always been subject to the whims and dictates of wireless carriers. That's unfortunate and diminishes its openness somewhat. But it's hardly the failing it's made out to be. Android remains, by far, the most smartphone open platform and the only major one that permits so-called side loading of apps outside of its official app store.
Much more importantly than today's tiff, I'm sure when Apple updates the iPhone to include LTE Internet service, we'll hear some similar tale from Verizon and others about why the device won't be allowed to run non-Apple approved apps. So much for openness, FCC style.