The Other End of Sunset

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Wow, the Saints won!!!

Pardon, pardon, pardon!
You are pissing on my shoe.
--Bearnaise, from History of the World, Part I
Well, it’s been a while, again, since my last posting. In the meantime, my girlfriend and I went skiing, and had a bizarre New Year’s Eve, and went to Cabo for a week. It’s been a busy vacation, for SL and I.

Now I'm back at work. Sitting in a meeting, pretending not to be here. Trying hard to be invisible. Which ain’t easy, since I’m 6 foot 4 inches tall and about 185 pounds. But I sit here, typing away, hoping nobody sees me.

Do you think that wishing can make one invisible? If wishes were, indeed, fishes, than I could be lost in the midnight blue twilight of the deeps. Of course, I'd be under more pressure, physically, perhaps not psychically.

But at least, I'm not on a plane.

I haven’t been traveling much for work lately, at least.

When I was on the beach, I got to play with my new toy. You’ll laugh. It’s ironic. A friend bought me one of those SONY book readers. Remember the post where I complained about not being able to order one successfully? Apparently my friend didn’t have that problem.

So, I downloaded about 13 books, ranging from the fantasy novel Eragon, to a book by Jeff Christian (the headhunter), to a book on small talk. A wide range of things. Nothing epochal, but a few cool things, and some good beach reading.

OK, that is the context, so let’s do a technology review on the e-book reader. The format of the device is great – it’s the size of a paperback book, and very thin. No, not a cheap western story paperback, the yuppie paperbacks that they sell on the displays at Barnes and Noble, the bigger ones. Anyway, it is more or less weightless, which makes it really great to carry.

The screen has pretty high contrast – the writing is black on white, and the fonts are clear. In light environments (like, say, a beach), it is really easy to read; in darker environments, it rapidly becomes illegible.

There are (oddly enough) two buttons to push to flip forward or back one page. You can select pages from the table of contents, but can’t jump to an arbitrary page (at least I have not figured out how to do so). You can put bookmarks on pages – the corner of the page image gets turned down, just like what you should not do to a real book. That’s cute.

When you change a page, the whole thing turns black for a second then reforms into the new page. It’s a bit distracting, but you get used to it. It’s not speedy. The same thing is true – only worse – on the other manipulations, such as selecting a menu entry when navigating around the book. It’s so slow to page through the elements that you have to count your taps – the display will be so far behind you that you need to stop tapping way before you see the display on the right element. Speedy Gonzales, this device is not! (It is worth pointing out that you can press buttons rather than manipulate the image, and it’s faster. But still, the device is wicked slow.)

So, it’s a good piece of equipment. But all is not perfect. In fact, there are enough limitations that I do not think it will be a long-term success. So, can you guess what they got wrong? Yup, that’s right – each and every bit of software sucks.

First, you have to use their (Windows only) software to load books onto the device. It’s awful. Did I mention that it’s a Windows only client? It’s also an awful client application. It’s slow, hard to use, and generally seriously unpleasant. Just one word for the “engineers” at SONY: Search. The search function is so broken that I actually had some fun trying to figure out their algorithm for ranking results. I think that the combination of appalling user interface and terrible search technology joined together yields terrible user outcome.

I hear there are companies that understand search. Perhaps they should ask for help if they can find one. Whatever.

Additionally, there isn’t much content available on the site. You can use a SD card to download PDF documents, which is cool, but I don’t have a lot of content on PDF. So, I wasn’t able to find a lot of books I wanted. I had a few things I wanted to read, unfortunately, but no such luck.

Given that you can put content on the device from an SD card, why do they require using their (terrible) piece of software to purchase and load content? And it appears that I can’t manage the content from the device, so to remove the old content from the reader, I have to hook it up to a Windows machine. And not just any Windows machine, the SPECIFIC machine that is approved for the e-book reader. SONY has used more terrible digital rights management.

Now, for my money, DRM is a pretty terrible thing. I don’t object on principle to paying for content – neither information, nor groceries, need be free – but that does not imply that trying to license machines is the right approach. In general, I think that if you price content correctly, much will sell; if you don’t price correctly, I believe people will try to circumvent the DRM. Additionally, if you put ridiculously intrusive DRM in place, I suspect people will try to circumvent it.

Now, the real question has nothing to do with DRM, nor really with rights at all, but rather has to do with actual economic relationships. What would this person pay for that content? Under what circumstances? If the person would pay nothing for the content under any circumstances, then piracy has no cost at all. The expensive piracy is that which does, in fact, supplant legitimate commerce.

And piracy has a cost – a pirate will need to be able to get the content, copy it, and distribute it. These elements all have cost – might include physical transport costs, likely would include bandwidth costs, certainly would require time, probably will include indexing and advertising – and the beneficiaries of the piracy will need to be able to find the pirated copy and do something with it, which also have cost.

Given this additional analysis, it’s clear that the threat is people who are willing to pay piracy costs but not willing to pay the full “real” cost. And the pricing model for the real content should be a function of the piracy cost plus the economic value of any extras, such as a nicer box or a more useful delivery system.

But if you think about it, you could probably provide a lightweight DRM that would raise the cost of piracy some, without making the user experience awful. If you can raise the cost a bit, you can imagine selling the content for a lower price that is enough to provide some economic profit for the producers but isn’t much higher than the cost of the pirated version.

Additionally, lightweight DRM can be engineered to allow those who purchase a piece of content to send it on to others, and have each of the others pay some amount. This “super-distribution” can be integrated with well-serviced and indexed file sharing sites or email systems to make it easy for followers to find the content. Super-distribution can make file sharing economically valuable to the producers – and if you share some of the revenue with the person doing the distribution, you can even incent people to share using the system! And, of course, for those of you thinking through the value chain, the value of the sale is now the sum of revenues due to all future distributions, minus the revenue share, plus the initial sale. So each piece can cost less – and thus closer to (or below) the pirate cost.

Do you think that this vision would be worth exploring? I do. But SONY doesn’t – it believes in awful, intrusive DRM.

That said, I’m really jazzed to have it – it is, indeed, as cool as I thought, and I will use it a lot. But who cares what I think, right?
--My friend DB, via SMS, on the day JR died.
I got a new tattoo today. As we were waiting, we looked at the portfolio of the tattoo artist. About halfway through the book was a picture of my best friend’s tat, which made me think of her, and how proud I am of what she is, and what she has done.

I’ll post pictures of my tats sometime – I have four. Maybe you’d like to hear about them?

One is a version of a 17th century device that was used to encrypt messages from a noble to his lovers. In the words of one of my coworkers: “You just won the Master Geek award!” It is on my back, over my left shoulder blade. Jeanne went with me to get this one. It wasn’t painful, but it was boring. She loved it; she had never been with a man with a tattoo. I had always wanted one, but was afraid. I loved it immediately, although it used to surprise me when I saw it in the mirror (such as when I got out of the shower).

My second is a set of crosses over fleur de lis, on my left calf. This one was going to be on Jeanne’s arm or lower back, but she didn’t get it before she got sick – she wanted it badly, but we hadn’t gotten around to it. While she was sick, I mentioned that I might get it, and she loved the idea. It made her sure I wasn’t going to forget her. So I got it to honor her. She got to see this one; I love the design, but the artwork isn’t the best. So I will probably get it fixed some time relatively soon.

I have a third tattoo on the point of my right shoulder. It’s most people’s favorite. It’s a set of light blue circles, with a dot in the middle – it’s hard to describe. It’s a modified version of a radio-telescope picture of the Hale-Bopp comet on its way past Earth. The circles are false echoes that are sometimes called “halos”. I got the tattoo a few days after Jeanne died. We used to talk about her being an angel on my shoulder. So I went out and got a set of halos on my shoulder. It doesn’t surprise me that everyone loves this tattoo. Who doesn’t love an angel?

My fourth tattoo is a modified form of the doctor’s symbol, the caduceus. SL calls me the good doctor, so it’s appropriate for me to have a doctor’s symbol on my body. It’s on my upper left chest, just above my pec muscle. For those of you who are considering tattoos, this isn’t the most comfortable place to get a tat. Not the worst – I think that’d probably be the foot – but not the best.

I think tattoos are awesome. They look good and I think they show a creativity that most people don’t have. And mine all make me think of love and loss and my life. Thank you for letting me tell you my story; ask me to show you my tattoos, they are another inscription of my story. I’m proud of them, I’ll probably show you.

And I ask again, have you checked the hamsters? Really!