Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 7: May 2006


Trends, Quick Takes & Good Stuff

The Well-Connected Traveler

That’s the title of a long cover story in PC Magazine 25:5 (March 21, 2006). It includes “Essential Gear” with pictures and brief descriptions, “bag searches” showing some folks’ travel gear, “best connected” airlines, airports, and hotels, and related items.

I loved “the ideal travel bag”: twenty items, putting the lie to convergence at least in this case. The set includes a notebook computer, a Treo PDA, a multimedia photo viewer and, presumably, music player, a GPS unit, a Dell Windows Mobile PDA, an iPod—six portable computing/communications devices in all. I count $5,000 to $6,000 in gear, not including the thumb drive, SD cards, DVDs, batteries, and cables.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Jim Louderback travels with a ThinkPad, a Creative Zen multimedia player, a Treo, an iPod, and another Creative Zen, along with a Nintendo DS game machine. Apparently you really do need five screens (the iPod’s a screenless Shuffle) to get through a day on the road.

Mac Attacks in 2006

Sure, PC Magazine started out covering PCs (systems running MS-DOS or PC-DOS), but in recent years it’s devoted considerable coverage to Apple products, and that coverage has always been fair. “Mac Attack!” in the March 21, 2006 issue isn’t staff-written; it’s by Robert Lemos, a freelance journalist and editor-at-large for SecurityFocus.

Lemos anticipates major attacks on Mac OS X in 2006—and notes that more software flaws were found in Mac OS X in 2005 than in Windows XP. The move to Intel means hackers can use assembly code to attack Macs; the iPod seems likely to increase Mac’s market share; and, I’m guessing, Mac users are more likely not to worry about antivirus software.

“There’s only one certainty in computer security: An attack will eventually get through your defenses. Be ready for it.”

TV on the Net

Harry McCracken muses on the legal video download situation in his April 2006 “Up Front” column in PC World. He calls it a “booming trend,” with Apple offering more than 40 TV series for sale (sans commercials, but at a hefty $1.99 per episode), CBS selling shows directly and through Google, NBC streaming nightly news for free, and various others.

He believes the “revolution” (if there is one) won’t really happen until download/streaming services work directly with TV sets, but sees faster and more “bulletproof” wireless networking solving that problem. Sure, but lots of sane people don’t keep their PCs running 24x7 (particularly if they care about power and the ecology). Next, he wants to see lots more stuff available. Third—and this is one people have been glossing over—picture quality needs to be at least as good as broadcast quality, and so far it generally isn’t. Finally, internet TV needs to “get easy”—and, as with the proliferation of downloadable music services, divergence is making that a distant goal.

Right now, the situation’s worse than with portable music players. Apple shows won’t play on any portable player except a video iPod. Vongo “touts its ability to copy movies to handhelds that run Microsoft’s Portable Media Center version 2 (total count of such products at press time: zero).” Google doesn’t seem to be sure what should work.

McCracken’s a believer for the long term, but McCracken’s a PC writer: To some extent, it’s his business to believe. “Someday, most of the video we watch will be delivered over the Internet”—maybe, maybe not, and who says the internet is the final word?

High-Def DVDs Hit the Market

It’s finally happened, and it’s probably going to be ugly. The first Toshiba HD-DVD players in the U.S. went on sale in early April, with something like three (count ‘em, three) movies available, priced a little higher than regular DVDs. The first Blu-ray players will be out in May, maybe (although Blu-ray recorders have been available in Japan for a while).

Dan Tynan discusses the situation in his April 2006 “Gadget Freak” column in PC World, and maybe the tease is all you need: “Should you buy a new HD disk player? Probably, but not anytime soon.”

He gives a concise version of the usual arguments in favor of each format. He notes that Broadcom already makes a chip set that would allow a device to play both Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs. He also notes that “managed copy,” a DRM tweak that would let you make one copy of a movie and play it across your home network, should be coming—but it’s not here yet (and high-def DVD DRM is a lot tougher than regular DVD protection).

Right now, Blu-ray has more studio support and a lot more manufacturer support as well as higher capacity—but HD-DVDs are cheaper to produce, giving them a slight edge. PlayStation 3 will include a Blu-ray player. The Xbox 360 will support external HD-DVD drives.

Maybe Tynan’s dentist has the right way to decide: “I think Blu-ray will win. It’s got a better name.” Or maybe, if most HDTV owners don’t know or care whether they actually see HDTV, they also won’t care about the difference between 480p DVD scaled up to HDTV and true high-definition DVD. The equivalent seems to be happening with high-resolution audio. (That’s not a perfect analogy. Many people can’t hear the difference between high-res and regular CD audio, even with practice. Most people should be able to tell the difference between true high-definition and upscaled DVD, at least on a large, high-quality HDTV. Will they care? That’s another quesiton.)

The Trouble with Ebooks

Richard Leiter at The life of books (thelifeofbooks.blogspot.com) asks “What’s the trouble with ebooks,” noting Elinor Mills’ “E-books, has your time come?” (news.com, April 5, 2006). Leiter notes something that continues to surprise me in such stories:

What’s especially interesting about the article and the quotes is that the clear presupposition is that the technology will inevitably “evolve” from books to online… It seems that everyone assumes (wants?) that books will eventually go away! As though this new technology is going to change reality!

Can’t anyone see that if e-books “take off” it may only be in a very small niche market and for a very small band of [aficionados?] Books may well remain the predominant format for books. (!)

The story talks about breathing “fresh life into a seemingly moribund market,” given the Sony Reader. “The news raises a question: Is there suddenly a market for what so far has been a novelty act?” It notes that Microsoft started promoting ebooks with Barnes & Noble in 2000—an effort that culminated in Barnes & Noble discontinuing sales three years later. It quotes Steve Potash of Overdrive saying “major publishers, schools and universities, and public libraries have come around and are jumping on the bandwagon.”

Gregory Newby (Project Gutenberg) starts with a strange comment: “We don’t see a lot of resistance to electronic books per se.” Resistance? Shouldn’t there be enthusiasm? Newby cites “specialized readers and difficulty in finding good stuff to read” as problems, as well as publishers’ tendency to charge the same for a download as for a paper book. He also notes that people like to share books with others, resell them and hand them down to their children. “When you buy a book, you have it forever. With these electronic books,you often are prevented from doing those things that you can do with regular books.”

Newby says you need things that paper books don’t have, such as interactivity and mixed-media capabilities, “to be compelling enough to trigger any kind of mass migration away from paper books.” He mentions alternate endings and moving pictures, “a pretty exciting change from plain old paper.” David Bass of Ebrary also talks about “experience-oriented” ebooks, “more than a book.” There’s nothing really new about books becoming movies (which, let’s face it, is what this is all about)—but somehow reading has survived and prospered, with people who like to add their own mental pictures.

Thank heavens for market analysts: They can always project a big market. A Shore Communications expert says flatly, “Reading books electronically will take off, but I think a higher proportion will be read on a handheld [multifunction] device.” [Emphasis added.] By avoiding a date and not defining “take off,” it’s a safe projection.

So how are ebooks actually doing? As always, it depends on your definition of ebook—but the International Digital Publishing Forum touts “continued increases in ebook revenue for 2005” in an April 18, 2006 press release. Increase to what? $11,875,783 revenue for 1,692,964 ebook “units” (about $7 per “unit”)—worldwide. Note also that the headline only discusses increased revenue—because actual sales are “taking off” so rapidly that “ebook units sold remained even with 2004.” Meanwhile, titles published increased 20%. Revenue increase was 23%. In short, more ebook titles sold fewer copies each, but at higher prices.

How does that compare to boring old non-interactive paper books? The American Association of Publishers reports total U.S. book sales at $25.1 billion, up 9.1% from 2004 (a surprisingly healthy increase). That’s U.S., not world, but let’s ignore that. AAP’s growth rate comes to $1.4 billion for the year. Thus, total worldwide ebook sales weren’t quite 1% of the increase in overall U.S. book sales—and are less than one-twentieth of one percent of total U.S. book sales. Ebooks are still at the rounding-error stage—and “same number of units” and a pricing-driven growth in sales suggest ebook demand has flattened. Maybe the Sony Reader will make a big difference; maybe not. (AAP says there were $179 million in ebook sales in 2004: Definitions of “ebook” and “sales” really do differ, although even $179 million is still considerably less than 1% of the U.S. market. There’s some reason to believe that AAP’s figure is closer to the mark, if you include all forms of etext sales and leasing as ebook sales.)

I don’t believe that ebooks are going to replace trade books to any great extent. Ebooks should replace a fair percentage of textbooks and reference books, if the readers work properly. The K12 and higher education book markets add up to $10 billion U.S. in 2005. With half-decent reading systems (presumably using PDAs or notebooks in the higher ed market) and publisher cooperation, you’d think ebooks should have at least a quarter of that market, if not half. Just a quarter would be $2.5 billion—or a market more than two hundred times what IDPF says it is now. Without displacing a single trade book.

Quicker Takes

If you believe mp3.com’s testing, there’s another disadvantage to Digital Restrictions Management (DRM, and yes, I know the “R” is supposed to mean “Rights”): Playing DRM songs drained battery power 25% faster on Windows Media players and 8% faster on iPods than playing the same songs in unprotected MP3 format. But, according to Freedom to tinker’s report of this story, you shouldn’t believe mp3.com: The DRMed files were bigger, so naturally used more power. It may not be possible to distinguish “bigger because of DRM” from “bigger because less aggressive compression.” And maybe that’s not the point, according to Ed Felten. Different file formats and levels of compression offer different tradeoffs—storage space, sound quality, battery life. (I’m slowly reripping all of my CDs at 320K because I believe I may be able to sense the inadequacies of 192K MP3. That’s my tradeoff.) But with DRM, you don’t get to make the choice: DRM either eliminates your choices of format and compression or severely limits those choices. (I’m inclined to believe that handling DRM must involve some additional computation, but it may be down at the 1%-or-less level.)

Ø    Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki isn’t a year old yet, but it’s growing. Founder Meredith Farkas reports lots of development in online reference, gaming, browser extensions, wbsite design, online communiities, and podcasting. Have you visited yet? Have you contributed? Wouldn’t we be better off with one big wiki celebrating all kinds of library success stories, rather than starting up new wikis devoted to success using one set of technologies? www.libsuccess.org: Check it out.

The Good Stuff: Articles Worth Reading

Miller, Michael J., “Twenty years of Windows,” PC Magazine 24:19/20 (November 8, 2005): 119-64.

Twenty years? Not really—at least not for most of us. Yes, Windows 1.0 was released in November 1985 (announced in November 1983)—but the first Windows most people considered using was either Windows 3.0 (May 1990) or Windows 3.0a with multimedia support (October 1991). I used a graphical interface for desktop publishing in the late 1980s—but it was Digital Research’s GEM environment, which shipped as part of Ventura Publisher and ran over DOS.

This set of articles is fascinating and well worth reading. It includes an interview with Bill Gates, comments from many Windows developers and competitors, a timeline of Windows and related developments, and more.

Boase, Jeffrey, John B. Horrigan, Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie, The strength of internet ties, Pew Internet & American Life Project, January 25, 2006. www.pewinternet.org

The big type on the front page of this 62-page report: “The internet and email aid users in maintaining their social networks and provide pathways to help when people face big decisions.” The report is based on two February-March surveys, one in 2004 and one in 2005, each involving some 2,200 adults. The 2004 survey considered social ties; 2005 looked at “major life decisions.”

The report is interesting—but one reason I’ve delayed talking about it is that it didn’t strike me as revelatory.

Consider the boldface statements forming subheadings in the nine-page summary of findings:

Ø    The internet helps build social capital.

Ø    The internet plays socially beneficial roles in a world moving toward “networked individualism.” Email allows people to get help from their social networks and the web lets them gather information and find support and information as they face important decisions.

Ø    The internet supports social networks.

Ø    Email is more capable than in-person or phone communication of facilitating regular contact with large networks.

Ø    Email is a tool of “glocalization.” It connects distant friends and relatives, yet it also connects those who live nearby.

Ø    Email does not seduce people away from in-person and phone contact.

Ø    People use the internet to put their social networks into motion when they need help with important issues in their lives.

Ø    The internet’s role is important in explaining the greater likelihood of online users getting help as compared to non-users.

Ø    Americans’ use of a range of information technologies smooths their paths to getting help.

Ø    Those with many significant ties and access to people with a variety of different occupations are more likely to get help from their networks.

Ø    Internet users have somewhat larger social networks than non-users. The median size of an American’s network of core and significant ties is 35. For internet users, the median network size is 37; for non-users it is 30.

Ø    About 60 million Americans say the internet has played an important or crucial role in helping them deal with at least one major life decision in the past two years.

Ø    The number of Americans relying on the internet for major life decisions has increased by one-third since 2002.

Ø    At major moments, some people say the internet helps them connect with other people and experts who help them make choices. Others say the web helps them get information and compare options as they face decisions.

Set aside the neologism in the fifth bullet—and let’s not focus on “networked individualism,” a vaguely oxymoronic notion that compares to “virtual communities” in its semi-meaningfulness. My response to these assertions, and the discussion that backs them up, is twofold: “Probably true” and “Not particularly useful or actionable.”

Unless someone’s still trying to label email as the tool of the devil or the internet in general as a passing fancy, that is. Maybe I run in the wrong circles, but the people I’ve heard putting down email are scarcely saying that it’s bad because it replaces personal communication. More likely, they’re frustrated with spam, phishing, and the other evils of an enormously successful communications medium and urging use of something newer and “better” (IM, for example).

Maybe this report is enormously helpful in combating the idea that community is disappearing in America, the whole “bowling alone” notion. In which case I’m the wrong audience, because I didn’t buy that notion. We’ve seen the opposite: Our move to the heart of Silicon Valley put us on a street where we’re acquainted with most of our neighbors and likely to ask their advice and call on them for help. (There are even occasional block parties.) That’s never been the case before. My sense is that real communities within Mountain View are stronger than they’ve ever been.

The just-as-real but less face-to-face communities I’m involved in (you could call them “virtual communities,” but that’s misleading) rely on the internet. Email, to be sure; that’s the backbone of one-to-one and one-to-many conversation on the internet. But also blogs (and comment streams) and other forms. I have no doubt that IM and chat help maintain and build communities for those who use them: How would it be otherwise?

“People who communicate more with other people tend to know more people, get more help from other people, and become more aware of other people.” There’s a quick summary of the whole report, which I could have written without ever seeing the report. All else is details. (“Glocalization”? Yecch.)

It’s a well-written report. It may inform you more than it did me—and I hope it convinces you, if you need convincing.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 7, Whole Issue 77, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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