Wednesday, April 22, 2009

eBooks


Ink on paper. It’s been around for thousands of years. But computers are certainly leaving their mark on the publishing industry and how we consume books and information.

Newspapers were the first to start putting their content on the Internet. Text and photos are pretty easy to put online. Media requiring higher bandwidth, such as music and video/TV, came next as high-speed Internet connections started becoming commonplace in homes and offices.

Newspapers and magazines have a number of ways to deliver their content electronically. A Web browser provides one view that’s vastly different than the print versions. Some magazines have wanted to retain their bound look and feel and use products such as Zinio (www.zinio.com) to mimic the look and feel of a magazine on a computer.

Books, on the other hand, have always been an “offline” read. But not any more. A number of companies are now producing eBooks and eBook readers, most notably Amazon’s Kindle, which is now in its second generation - the Kindle 2 ($359). Sony’s Reader Digital Book ($349) is also providing serious competition. (Photo of Kindle 2 courtesy of Amazon.com)

What’s compelling about these products is that they let people carry large amounts of information with them in very little space and with very little weight.

The Kindle is smaller than a piece of standard paper and about 1/3” thick. The Sony device’s specs are similar.

Also key to these new devices’s success is the clarity of the screens. Even computer monitors are fuzzy by comparison to the new eBook readers. This is in large part to the screens from e.ink (www.eink.com), which provide very low power, high clarity screens, making long viewing easy on the eyes.

What the current e.ink screens don’t (yet) provide are good image quality. They do allow for some black and white images, but color images are still not available.

eBook readers aren’t new. More than 10 years ago, I published information on earlier generations of eBook readers. Unfortunately, the earlier generations had issues of screen readability, capacity, battery life, weight, and on and on.

The new generation of eBook readers are far superior. I’m just trying to figure out if they’ll catch on.

My guess is that they will, although it may take another generation or two before the devices make it mainstream. Here’s why:

First, color: You gotta have color. I say this having started with monochrome computer screens and, except for a few special situations, color is all anyone will have. I also started with monochrome printers and now color is clearly the most prevalent.

Second, multimedia: Along with color, the ability to have interactive eBooks will set them apart from their paper counterpart. For example, a travel book could include photos, as well as videos of the beaches, surfing, rides and other attractions.

Third, cost: At approximately $350, this is a hefty price to pay for a little device. It’s now possible to purchase a usable laptop computer for $350 (perhaps a Netbook) that already supports the first two items. As volumes increase, this cost will most likely go down. When it dips below $100, it will have hit the mainstream.

Fourth, applications that make an eBook compelling: Multimedia is the start, but if one looks at the success of platforms such as the iPhone/iTouch, Google’s Android and RIM’s Blackberry, it’s the applications that are helping to sell the hardware.

Fifth, re-invention of the book: The move to eBooks provides the opportunity for books as we know them to be redefined. Perhaps the eBooks could have author’s comments, other readers comments on the book (maybe even family members), as well as background material, etc. My crystal ball isn’t clear on this, but I’m excited about the potential.

The one challenge I haven’t figured out how to solve on eBooks (or Web sites for that matter), is acquiring the randomness of a magazine or newspaper. Specifically, as I read newspapers and magazines, I regularly stumble across a story, advertisement or other item that catches my attention and is of interest to me — one that I would never have sought out. The randomness of this information can be very valuable and I hope there’s a way to maintain it in the future.

In the meantime, I will enjoy carrying less printed materials when I travel or commute. An eBook reader is one way to do just that.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a Westport resident, was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 22 April 2009.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Blu-ray at the Library

A little over a year ago, I picked up a Sony PlayStation 3 game machine. While the Nintendo Wii has clearly been the game machine of choice for many households, what tipped the scales for me was the Blu-ray DVD drive in the PlayStation.

With the format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray having been won early last year by Sony’s Blu-ray, it was pretty clear that Blu-ray was the format of choice.

Just so you know, not every DVD is created the same. A standard DVD that you will pick up at Blockbuster or NetFlix, while far clearer than VHS videotape, still presents video in standard definition.

Blu-ray DVDs, by comparison, contain video in High Definition, which provides far more data than standard definition DVDs.

By way of comparison, a standard DVD contains about 4 Gigabytes of data while a Blu-ray DVD contains about 50 Gigabytes of data. All of that extra data goes primarily to providing higher quality video and audio.

But, the challenge in playing a Blu-ray DVD is that you have to have a DVD player that knows how to read the Blu-ray disc. For most people, this means buying a new DVD player or, as in my case, purchasing a Sony PlayStation 3 with a Blu-ray DVD player built in.

Unfortunately, most Blu-ray DVD players have hovered in the $300-$400 range. Over the holiday season, I saw Blu-ray DVD players drop to about $150-$200, although the high-end ones are still available.

In most cases, a Blu-ray DVD player will play all previous formats of DVDs, so you shouldn’t need TWO DVD players.

To get the most out of your Blu-ray DVDs, you’ll also need a High Definition TV (HDTV). Most new flat panel TVs are High Definition with a spec of 720p, 1080i, or 1080p, with 1080p being considered “Full HD,” although all resolutions yield remarkable images.

When I purchased my PlayStation last year, I thought I’d see what the Westport Public Library has in Blu-ray. I was disappointed to find out that they didn’t have any Blu-ray in their extensive video collection.

But boy, was I pleased when I went to the library about two weeks ago and found a whole rack of Blu-ray DVDs in their distinctive light blue jewel cases! In speaking with one of the librarians and looking up Blu-ray on the Library’s Web site, I see that the library now has about 90 different Blu-ray titles. And more are on their way.

Most movie studios are publishing DVDs in multiple formats, typically standard definition and Blu-ray. This, unfortunately, means that organizations such as the library must purchase two copies of a title in order to meet the demand for both formats, although this means that the library will have two copies for people to check out.

In looking at some of the Blu-ray DVDs in both my personal collection and from others, the visual difference is stunning – Blu-ray is clearly superior. The impact is far more noticeable with certain genres, such as action, sports, and nature, but even a “date night” movie looks a whole lot better on Blu-ray.

The main reason for the better look is the amount of data that makes up the video stream. As I mentioned, standard definition DVDs contain much less data than Blu-ray DVDs. In addition, watching High Definition movies from cable, satellite providers, or Internet sources can contain compressed video signals that can lose some or much of the crispness. But a video signal coming from a Blu-ray DVD is uncompressed with every bit and pixel in its splendid glory on your screen.

Some have said that online video services that deliver videos to your computer or television over the Internet will sound the death knell for all DVDs, including Blu-ray. I don’t disagree, but know that there are some hurdles to be overcome, especially for the videophiles that like very high quality audio and video quality. To date, none of the online services I’ve seen provide the same level of quality as a Blu-ray DVD.

So, if you have or are considering buying a Blu-ray DVD player, check out the Blu-ray discs at the Westport Public Library. Blu-ray continues to help make the home theatre experience better.

Mark Mathias is a 30+ year veteran of information technology, a resident of Westport, Connecticut, and was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders”. This column originally appeared in Westport News on Wednesday 8 April 2009.