Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thoughts on Readers, eReaders, studying, and content

I'm not a big reader, but am a huge browser of content. I'm not sure if it's my ADD or just the pace of information coming across the threshold of my life that causes this, but it's the way things are. I've been hanging around "book people" and software engineers a lot for most of this century, and have noticed a few things about books, learning, and software design. I also have listened to a lot of user stories (read: complaints) on interacting with eBook software and how it could be improved. While I'm excited that various companies have decided to take on the task of bringing more content to market in electronic formats, I think the current obsession with an eReader device is a little off the mark. Let me explain.

First, readers and students have vastly different methods of accessing content. Readers chew through it from upper left to lower right, rarely back-tracking or caring where they are within the structure of the book. It's all about the story. News readers are even less focused: they're all about the article. Students, however, range all over a book. They start a section, flip over to the index to find another reference to a term they are unfamiliar with, mark a sentence, go back to cross reference with a previous highlight, skip ahead because of the lecture order their professor has chosen - in short, they rarely, if ever, attack a book from upper left to lower right, line by line the way a mere reader does. That is why most current eReaders fail them.

Second, Students don't want another device. They want something that works with the two devices they already carry: their laptop and their phone. They want the most powerful yet smallest device that will let them surf, Facebook, email, Twitter, shop, check horoscopes, listen to music, and watch video without thinking about the technology. To anyone over 35, this is a nerd. To folks under 25, this is just using the stuff you're used to using. Sure, some of them will pick up a Kindle, and the really voracious readers in the demographic will like it and maybe buy it, but the majority will see the $300+ price tag and say "No, thank you." (Actually, it will be much more off-color, but allow me the license.)

It's also high time we move beyond just porting the page of a book over to the screen. Sure, reading is great and all that, but since we can insert graphics or video or animations or whatever into the eBook to enhance understanding of the material, why handcuff ourselves to slavishly copying the dead tree format? There are companies doing more with ebooks than putting the page on a screen. One of the problems in adoption is that professors are usually reluctant to adopt the new model. ("I've given them page numbers for years. Why should I give them a link?"). Having to re-organize their notes and classroom materials to accommodate new scholarship and new sources is something many tenured profs don't want to do. They'll never admit it (and there are many who aren't this way), but there are a good percentage that have this mindset. It will take a generation for this population to age out of the system.

Students also complicate the issue by not being willing to pay for actual scholarship. If you're reading a report of a test that cost millions of dollars, or watching a video that is professionally produced and edited, or viewing an animation that clearly explains a complicated process, you're going to have to front some coin. Students will pay $15 to see "Star Trek" at the IMAX for 2 hours, but to delve into something that will affect their personal and professional lives for years into the future, they're fine with half-baked, mangled stories from various web sources with no more professional credentials than the guy playing guitar for spare change on the street, or a page that has so much advertising and collusion with the product sponsor as to remove all credibility.

Publishers, for their part, have multi-layered sales and authoring systems that sometimes hinder actual scholarship and drive up costs. They want to pay a salesperson, an editor, an agent, and three executives the same amount per copy distributed that they want to pay the researcher who actually knows the material and spends the time preparing it for students to consume. Would you want to write something, knowing that everyone up the chain and back down was going to pinch off a little of your pay for relatively little value added?

I don't care to use any special-purpose device, if there are multi-use devices that can easily perform the same function well. My laptop (my only computer) is much more feature-rich than any eBook device, no matter how thin and easy to use. My iPhone is always in my pocket, and reading on it is quick and efficient for short sessions. I have read many books over the years on Palm devices that had much worse screens than the iPhone. For textbooks, not being able to highlight, search, link to outside materials, and collaborate with colleagues around the content hampers learning. There are eBook readers for my laptop that allow me to do this. I feel certain there will soon be applications for the iPhone (and other smartphones) that will provide these scholarly functions as well. I don't need to pay $300-$500 more to add another device to my bag.

(Disclaimer: I do not speak for any company in any way. These thoughts are based solely on my personal anecdotal experience. I have been introducing eBook technology to students and professors for the last 8 years, as well as working with many publishers, training and supporting their use of eBooks.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

FCC tells Verizon that their response stinks

"The bottom line is that wireless companies can truly earn their desired long-term commitments from consumers by focusing primarily on developing innovative products, maintaining affordable prices, and providing excellent customer service. I look forward to exploring this issue in greater depth with my colleagues in the New Year." - the FCC

I love it! The FCC basically said the same thing I did a few posts back: wireless companies, (Verizion, in this example) earn your stinking fees! Don't expect to be able to raise fees just because you need to work harder to sell advanced devices."

With all the talk in my area about people who want the iPhone on Verizon, how has this horrid example of their tactics escaped notice? AT&T would be publicly drawn and quartered if they tried any of these tricks.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Different worlds

Lon - Ha! Made ya look!
Originally uploaded by tsmyther
I was working through my photo backlog over the weekend and this morning. I have a bit of time on my hands, since I was laid off from my job of over eight years last Monday. I found this photo of a tactile learning display from the British Museum, and thought how good it is that museums assist those who can't appreciate (through physical disability or mental learning orientation) the usual "look but don't touch" display of objects, and how often we don't allow this in our daily lives.

I've been working with a group called Jobs for Life for the past few months, training students in job-search and work-life skills. During the study, I've made some realizations about my own career path, and, suddenly, I am at a point where that knowledge is being brought into brilliant focus. I'm now seeing things, literally, from a different learning style.

The first thing I realized is that I get irritated when people show that initial "Oh, you poor dear" look. I lost my job due to a change in business direction by a large corporation, not because my one and only skill of buggy-whip-making has been made obsolete by a change in the world's economy. Through the grace of God, I'm fully able to learn and take stock of my options and will arrive at another place where I can offer my skills for hire. So save the hand-patting, and just say "Sorry, buddy. Glad you've got some time to think things through."

My older daughter, perhaps, responded the best of those who I've told. She's excited to work with me through what I want to do in what she's called "the next stage of your life." She's just finished school, and is looking at options for further schooling and her career ahead, and sees no roadblocks. I think it's time I let her play the counselor role for a bit.

So, just as the Rosetta Stone brought together our understanding of three major antique languages by seeing parallel accounts of events together on the same page, and just as museums have learned that some people need to feel and touch and interact with the artifacts of a civilization in order to understand them, so, too, must we get in the trenches of those we would work with in finding solutions to poverty, illiteracy, drug use, and, yes, dealing with job loss. Walking in the other person's shoes is really more than just a good saying - it makes good practice.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Gadgeteer

I have been following the various reviews and articles of The Gadgeteer website for many years. Back in the waning years of the last century, I found out about new Newton and Palm cases, software, and accessories from their many posts. At one point, I responded to a call for those interested in an iPod battery replacement, and won the right to attempt it. The first review I wrote was about an experience of irritated failure. Several years went by, and in early 2009, I again approached Julie about reviewing several iPhone apps that I loved and used quite frequently.

After completing the reviews, Julie asked if I'd like to be on her staff of writers, and I eagerly accepted. It's quite a range of personalities, and I'm enjoying getting to know them. Most of us have never met face-to-face, but in the true spirit of Web 2.0-ness, message and email each other about things both important and inane. So, if you think I've not posted often enough here, you may want to check out the list of articles I have posted on that site. I'll try to link here, but don't expect miracles.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Could Good Service beat Marketing?

Mobile phone carriers, especially those in the 3G arena, are marketing on every medium they can think of, trying to convince us – the weary, wary consumer of phone service – that they are the best around and we should use them for our roaming phone needs. But when you get their service, there's always something that comes back to bite you, and then there's the long contract and penalties involved if you don't want to stay.

Hey phone carriers, here's a novel idea: take all that money you spend on ads - making commercials with crowds of people representing "our network" hiding behind buildings and trees who pop out at the last minute, or those sappy "trap your friends into switching to your carrier" ads, billboards, truck wrapping, the works - take all that money and put it into the actual business of mobile telephony. Build towers. Innovate. Hire and train and pay a crackshot customer service team. In short, build a company that will beat the living daylights out of your competition. Then, fire all the lawyers and collection agents and phone-threat agents you have. Replace your two-year, iron-clad, you'll-never-get-out-of-this-alive contract, and replace it with this little paragraph above the signature line on new contracts:

"We are intent on being the best mobile service provider on the planet, and are happy to have you as part of this endeavor. If you find, at any time, that our service does not meet your standards, we will try to work things out to your satisfaction. Failing that, we'll agree to part friends, and you can move your phone service to a supplier who will better meet your needs."

Signing most phone contracts is similar to signing a pre-nuptial agreement. It's like saying "I know I'm hard to live with, and you're probably a creep who is just marrying me for my cash value. But if you ever try to leave, I'm going to make it hard for you - so hard, that you'll really, really think long and hard before you do. But you aren't going to want to stay, because all you're going to get out of me is a quick hello between my morning paper and me leaving for my job."

Come on, phone companies, woo me! Make me want to love you! Treat me so well that nothing any other phone company can promise will be the slightest temptation! Flashy service? Pfft! My current company has more service in more areas than anyone else. Neat new features? You ain't got nuthin' on my company, baby! Great customer service? Hah! Customer service at my company thinks of what I'm going to ask before I even call, and preemptively calls me to say "You know, we noticed you haven't been out of the country for 3 months. If you turn off International roaming and texting, you can save $50/month. Would that be OK? I can pro-rate that starting right now, if you'd like. But be sure to call us when you're planning your next trip, OK? But if we notice that you make a call from another country, we'll just turn it back on starting that day." Who in their right mind would leave a company like that???? And who would complain about whatever they wanted to charge? I sure wouldn't. And I'd be lobbying for my company to switch to them as well. I'd be buying their stock. I'd be talking them up to all my friends. I'd be putting videos of my conversations with customer service up on YouTube to prove to people how scary-good you were.

Don't just promise a good life and then turn into a pot-bellied couch potato who never buys flowers or helps around the house. If I've just come in from a hard day in the salt mines, have quiet music on, a glass of wine poured as soon as you hear my car in the drive, and the grill ready to touch off for that juicy steak you bought. And you know what will happen? If you act like you love your customers and treat them like valued partners, rather than villagers to be raped and pillaged, they will stand behind you through any tough, crazy, unfortunate event in your company's history, no questions asked. They will brag about you to everyone within ear shot. They will Twitter about you, blog about you, and laugh your competition to derision. And you may even find that, as time goes on, you actually do love your customers! After all, marriage is a two way street.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Generation Gap

Overheard on Twitter:

• High temperature of 27 degrees on Friday. Which means some teenage snotrag is gonna be walking around in shorts and a t-shirt.

* Thanks for reminding me! Gotta do laundry so I'll have clean shorts for Friday.

• Get off my lawn! ;-)

I love having a wide, diverse Twitter group. It's like wandering around at the end-of-the-season pool party, where families of all ages sit around and chat and the conversations intertwine.

from dusty archives - Largo Lodge

[ed. This piece was written some time ago, but I found it recently while moving hard drives on a computer. I thought some folks may find it ...