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March 2018
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Barnes & Noble Considering A Nook Spin Off

After reporting less than stellar stock returns, Barnes & Noble is seriously considering spinning off, or even selling its expensive, but popular Nook business to allow the Nook to ramp up its competition with Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad.

Right now, the tech world is weighing three options with the pros and cons of each.  This article does a good job of breaking all of it down.  Barnes & Noble can keep an active role in the business as it is now, which is not likely, it can take a backseat, yet still hold the reigns, or it can sell the business entirely.

Sales of all Nook e-readers combined were up 70% during the 2011 holiday shopping season, compared to a mere 2.5% growth of regular book sales.  That definitely goes to show that something needs to change, or the retailer will end up with the same fate as Borders, which declared bankruptcy earlier this year.

I think that Barnes & Noble’s best bet would be to stay invested somewhat in the business because the e-book is the way of the future.  Despite the lackluster reception of the Nook Touch, the Nook Color and the Nook Tablet have been doing very well.  I am not saying that print is dying out by any means, but e-books are definitely going to take an increasingly larger role over the next few years.  Consumers are already flocking to Amazon for both print and e-books because the prices are better.  So, the Nook would be a lifeline in case the print side of the business suffers.

Barnes & Noble recognizes that there is work to do to catch up with the Kindle, so the competition is going to get much more intense if the Nook gets more attention via a spinoff or separate company.

It will be interesting to see what this potential new development means for the Kindle.  Amazon reported record breaking Kindle sales in 2011 because of the much anticipated Kindle Fire and by offering the prices to beat,  All three members of the Kindle Family took the top selling spots on Amazon. The Kindle will most likely remain firmly on top of the e-reader market for the time being.


Kindle Success Spurs Apple To New eBook Moves

Recent reports indicate that later this month we can expect to see Apple host a press conference related to, of all things, eBooks.  After news that the Kindle Fire has had a noticeable impact on iPad sales this past quarter, clearly something has to be done.  This is not official as of yet, but multiple sources in positions to be aware of such plans have passed along the same information.  While we have no way as of yet to know for sure where this will lead, the most common rumors seem to point to Apple’s launching of a digital self publishing platform to compete with the Kindle Direct Publishing program.

In reality, such a move on Apple’s part would be quite surprising.  In addition to the fact that simply matching the competition seems to offer far less reward than the effort would be worth given that the iBooks store has failed to really take off so far anyway, Apple is already making about as much on each book sold to owners of their devices as they would be likely to make off a program competitive enough to draw in new authors.  Keeping in mind the fact that anybody publishing through Amazon’s KDP program, or even Barnes & Noble’s slightly less popular PubIt, will already be available to iOS users, the only real motivation for Apple here would be to draw authors into an exclusive arrangement in some way to enhance the iBooks selection.  Amazon has already begun a similar effort tied into their Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, so this would not necessarily be a shocking move, but there is little reason to suspect that Apple is desperate to suddenly push into the eBook market in a major way.

Since we can be fairly certain that whatever the announcement is about will be related to publishing in some way, however, there are a few other possibilities.  Textbook rental is one of the more likely possibilities.  While Amazon’s new Kindle Format 8 provides some more robust formatting options to publishers and the Kindle Fire obviously handles the demands of textbooks more easily than E INK reading devices, so far the Kindle Textbook Rental program has failed to draw much attention.  Given the iPad’s larger screen and Apple’s strong presence on college campuses, it would make sense for them to jump to fill in this gap in the market before anybody else beats them to it.

It is also possible that this has something to do with the ongoing class action lawsuits against Apple and the Big 6 publishers over price fixing and the imposition of the Agency Model around the time the iPad was released.  In the past month the situation has become quite a bit more intense, with the US Justice Department joining in and at least 15 ongoing suits.  It would seem unlikely that the company would want to comment on an ongoing legal battle, but given claims of detailed inside information on the part of certain plaintiffs there is always the chance that preemptive spin on an anticipated settlement attempt might be in order.

The one thing everybody agrees on is that this will not be a hardware announcement.  While there is still speculation with varying degrees of believability about a smaller iPad meant to compete with the Kindle Fire, that will have to wait until later.  For now, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect.

No, The Kindle Fire Line Will Not Get Its Own Siri

Several weeks back, speculation rose about the possibility for Amazon’s following in the footsteps of Apple with a Siri-like product of their own for the Kindle Fire.  Siri, for those who aren’t aware, is a virtual digital assistant for the iPhone.  It allows users to conversationally ask questions and make requests that the software will try to accommodate.  For the most part it does an impressive job and when Siri can’t cope it will come up with a variety of witty or whimsical responses tailored to the user input.

The cause for speculation with regard to Amazon stems from their acquisition of Yap, a voice to text company whose specialty is transcribing voicemail.  While Amazon wasn’t mentioned by name in the acquisition, the company that Yap merged with lists its headquarters at an Amazon building.  There are a few reasons to make a move like this, of course, but it is fairly clear that the idea of copying Apple’s efforts was not one of them.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that Yap is absolutely nothing like Siri.  Yes they both involve accurately pulling information out of the spoken word, but that is as far as it goes.  Siri is an attempt at artificial intelligence that will try to understand user intent by pulling key words and phrases out of what it hears.  Yap’s specialty is simply putting words on “paper”, so to speak, in a cheap and fast manner.  Cloud computing is Amazon’s new big thing, of course, so the fact that Yap does its work mechanically on the cloud servers also fits in well with their philosophy.

What this could be a precursor to is an Kindle Fire type of smartphone.  While Amazon has not yet announced any official plans to add such a device to their growing selection of hardware, it’s a possibility.  The Yap software would be helpful for both its original voicemail applications as well as for voice commands, in this case.  The voice command idea in general would likely go over well on future Kindle Tablets, but since the only mic we’ve seen in a Kindle has been the disabled one inside every Kindle 3 it might actually be a bit surprising.   There is also the chance that this was simply a matter of acquiring Intellectual Property to guard against lawsuits and license to other companies.

Quite possibly my favorite potential use for this would be on demand transcription of audio files.  This would come in handy for practically anybody who regularly needs to deal with presentations or meetings, especially in business environments that require fast turnaround on their reference material.  That might be a long shot, though.

Regardless of how Amazon decides to actually make use of the Yap acquisition, there’s just no chance it will be as a Siri clone.  The Kindle Fire is great at what it does, but it lacks the hardware to make a Siri possible.  Even if that hardware were present, the speech to text component of such a feature would be only a small part of a huge endeavor.  It would be great to have that kind of capability, but it’s overoptimistic for the foreseeable future.

Kindle Fire to Offer Apps for Pandora, Netflix, and More

As many of you know, Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has its own Android based app store that offers a free app every day.  The Kindle Fire is set to release on November 15 with a huge selection of popular apps including Pandora, Netflix, Facebook, and games from top gaming companies including Electronic Arts, PopCap and more.

Amazon is set to go with everyone’s favorite apps right out of the gate.  That’s pretty impressive considering how long it took the iPad to get a Facebook app.  But, in Amazon’s case, a precedent has been set in the android market. Whereas the iPad was the first to enter the tablet market, and is the only tablet using Apple’s app store.

EA and PopCap are known for high quality games.  A few favorites include Scrabble, Tetris, and Peggle.  Tetris has been a huge hit since the beginning of gaming systems.  Rovio is also on board, and they’re the makers of the hit game Angry Birds.  What is a tablet without Angry Birds?

Netflix and Pandora are other top apps that are available across tablet and smartphone platforms, so they are a natural addition to the Kindle Fire collection. Amazon also has its own video streaming library for Amazon Prime members set to rival Netflix.  Pandora and Rhapsody are the major players in music apps.

As far as apps go, one niche that Apple has a good hold on is Accessibility.  There are apps for the iPad that serve as decent and much cheaper alternatives to assistive technology.  I just downloaded a magnfying glass and a recorder recently. There are also caption services, and so much more.  I haven’t seen as much of this on Android systems, or on the Kindle in general.  It would be great to see apps that help people with vision, hearing, mobility, and learning disabilities.  Just another way to heat up the competition against Apple.

For more information on what popular apps will be available on the Kindle Fire, check out the latest Amazon press release.



Apple May Be Bringing 7″ iPad To Compete With Kindle Fire

Could Apple be feeling a bit threatened by the arrival of the impressively popular Kindle Fire?  If certain rumors coming out of Taiwan are true, then the answer seems to be “Yes”.

The most recent set of rumors, which as always should be taken with a grain of salt, indicate that Apple has been looking at samples of 7.85″ screens.  Presumably this would be an effort to design something along the lines of a budget iPad to compete with the sudden wave of affordably priced iPad alternatives hitting the market.  Such a device would have the advantage of Apple’s excellent reputation and superior presence in the tablet market while also allowing purchase by customers who aren’t quite ready to drop $500+ for their newest piece of narrowly useful electronics.

This would not exactly fit with prior declarations from Apple regarding the usefulness of a 7″ tablet, of course.  Steve Jobs came out emphatically against such devices, declaring that extensive testing had shown anything smaller than the iPad to deliver a sub-par user experience when using fingers as pointing devices.  This doesn’t rule a smaller iPad out entirely, though.  One, with the passing of Steve Jobs his company will naturally have to choose their own course.  If the market demands smaller, more affordable tablets then there is every reason to believe that Apple will rise to the challenge.  Two, Apple does have some history of declaring things pointless or unfeasible right up until the moment they feel they are in a position to do those very things.  Whether this is due to clever PR trying to throw off the competition or simply Apple’s desire to give their customers what they want regardless of what seems to be a smart move at first is open to interpretation.

Clearly nothing is set in stone yet.  At best, somebody at Apple thinks that the idea of a smaller iPad is something that should be explored to some extent.  As far as anybody knows, orders have not been placed and plans have not been made.  We have more substantial speculative information floating around about the iPad 3 than this, by a fair margin.  Even if it did happen, would it really be able to outshine the competition anymore?

A smaller iPad competing with the Kindle Fire would almost certainly come in at $250-300 and be unavailable until at least mid-2012.  Where Amazon is pushing media, Apple is making most of their profit on the hardware end and would have to scale back the power of their device accordingly, likely eliminating a great deal of their edge along those lines.  On top of that, the Kindle Fire will have had time to gain a following.  Assuming that the real value is in the content that a tablet has access to, Amazon is certainly offering enough to keep their users happy and the low price is clearly attractive.

We’ll see what happens in the months to come, but I question the potential for a move like this.  Apple already controls the performance tablet market and would be better off without a disappointment on the budget tablet end of things.

Kobo To Open HTML5 eReading App Similar To Kindle Cloud Reader

Fascinated as we are by the platform here, Kindle users are far from the only group to be inconvenienced by Apple’s in-app purchasing guideline enforcement.  Apple built the popularity of their iPads on the availability and functionality of apps being developed by other parties, only to change their minds once an ownership base was established.  Certainly totally within their rights to do, but more than a little unpleasant for both the app developers and users who are accustomed to better treatment.  Amazon has retaliated by releasing the Kindle Cloud Reader, which completely bypasses the iPad’s App Store, and they aren’t the only ones looking at the options.

Kobo, the leading international Kindle competition, has announced plans to follow in Amazon’s footsteps with an HTML5 Reading app of their own.  When it is complete, users should be able to read their Kobo purchases on any device with a web browser, effectively bypassing Apple’s restrictions.  You should even be able to save the app to your iOS device Home page for seamless integration.  As with the Kindle Cloud Reader, users will be able to sync their collections for offline browsing, which addresses the largest possible shortcoming of a browser-based solution to the problem.

The only major problem with apps like these is the loss of Apple App Store exposure.  To effectively bypass Apple’s fees it is important to already have a substantial user base, since random discovery is far less likely.  Existing Kobo customers will have little problem, and will likely welcome the chance to make use of the store again without the price increases that would have been necessary to profitably continue operation within Apple’s guidelines.  New users will almost certainly be harder to come by.  We can expect to see continued support for the Kobo iOS app as a result, for exposure’s sake if nothing else.

This is not the only obstacle that Kobo has had to face recently.  With the end of Borders, their US distribution partner, exposure will be harder to come by in the current largest eBook market.  Although they remained separate companies, Borders was directly linked to the Kobo eReader in the minds of consumers for having been the first ones to bring to to the US.  Regaining that kind of presence will be a slow process.

Outside the US, the Kobo Store is reported to have perhaps the best selection of eBooks currently available.  Due to ongoing licensing right disputes, the Kindle Store is not yet always able to consistently provide the same level of service that Kobo has managed to over such a large number of markets.  The release of this HTML5 app should do them a great deal of good in expanding their lead, given the number of Tablet PCs hitting the market recently.  This may allow readers to enjoy the service even in countries where localized selections are not currently available and shipping the Kobo eReader itself is problematic.

We can expect the official release of the new Kobo app later this year.

Class Action Lawsuit Seeks To Bring Value Back To Kindle eBooks

For those who have been paying attention, it doesn’t come as much of a shock to hear that people are unhappy about the rise in price of Kindle eBooks caused by the Agency Model pricing forced on Amazon by the largest publishing houses in the business.  Apple came out with iBooks as a means of adding value to the iPad’s initial launch, and in doing so arranged things to prevent Amazon from having an advantage.  They went to the publishers, worked out an industry-wide deal, and ended the era of the affordably priced eBook.  Now, finally, somebody is calling them on it.

The basis for the suit is a number of early indications that Apple knew ahead of time that all of the major publishers would be turning on Amazon at the same time.  A much publicized Wall Street Journal article from early 2010 had Steve Jobs clearly aware of the impending changes and certain not only of his company’s ability to price match but of the publishers’ willingness to boycott Amazon in order to change the state of the market.  While Amazon did make every attempt to keep the Kindle Store free of such manipulation and price hiking, in the end each publisher is the controller of its own works and they were forced to concede defeat in order to keep the content available to Kindle readers.

The suit charges Apple and the five largest publishing companies with antitrust violations, among other things, and would seek to represent anybody who has purchased an eBook since the prices jumped over 30% practically overnight last year.  If successful, the Agency Model would be completely overturned, as would the arrangements currently in place preventing price discrepancies between retailers.

There is every reason to believe that this has at least a chance of success.  It is not even the first legal obstacle that publishers have faced since they turned on the Kindle.  In 2010 both Amazon and Apple were brought to talks with the Attorney General of Connecticut, who had concerns that the abrupt change would lead to a situation where competition between companies would be impossible.  Such anti-competitive behavior would of course be a dangerous thing to be involved in, but the companies being looked at at the time were clearly not colluding.  This time, looking at Apple and the publishers, it might not pass quite so easily.

Though it will be months, at best, before there is even an indication of which way this is likely to turn out, it is possible that there will be some change in the meantime.  eBooks are the only area where the publishing industry seems to be growing lately, and the Kindle platform is the driving force behind eBook sales in the US.  Anything that publishers can do to improve sales will be to their advantage, and they have shown at least some small interest in the potential from reduced pricing.  Will it be enough to change the face of eBook publishing without legal intervention?  Time will tell.  It seems inevitable that publishers will come to their senses eventually and drive their numbers up any way that works, though, and the success of the lawsuit is still just speculation.

Nook Kids Out of Luck On iPad

In recent news, Apple has decided to start thoroughly enforcing their in-app purchasing rules after a bit of a delay.  While this is inconvenient for Kindle users, Nook users, and pretty much everybody who isn’t Apple, perhaps the most uniquely affected portion of the eBook marketplace will be the fans of Nook Kids for iPad app. Its narrow audience and specific requirements definitely make it a special case.

If you think about the strengths of the iPad, or tablets in general so far, when it comes to eReading, the biggest factor in favor is the color screen.  Not much good for the purpose if you read a lot of bestsellers, classic literature, poetry, or anything along those lines, but absolutely essential for optimal viewing of kids’ books among other things.  Right now, the Nook is pretty much the only eBook line handling children’s books in a thorough fashion.  One of the things you’ll see on all their advertisements is that they have the “largest collection of kids’ books all in one place”, and that even seems to hold up pretty well.

Now, if you make the assumption that few parents are grabbing their children tablets of their very own, which I think is a fair assumption given the average prices and general fragility of the gadget compared to the toys they might be used to, the change becomes particularly inconvenient.  Basically, if my hypothetical child were to have their own Tablet PC or Kindle, it would be in my best interest to not allow them any way to make purchases on the device itself.  Whether this is accomplished via parental controls or simple lack of functionality doesn’t matter much.  On the same device that I keep around primarily for my own use, that I simply happen to pull out during shared reading time, the lack of functionality is an infuriating factor.  Yes, browser-based purchasing is still simple enough to use, but it adds enough steps to the process of acquiring a book that will likely only take a small amount of time per reading anyway that it renders impulse buying less attractive.

This was Apple’s plan, of course.  Force people to either give Apple a 30% cut of every sale or lose a large portion of their revenue entirely.  When nobody else is offering the same service, it won’t necessarily kill the business, but I would expect interest among iPad owners to fall off to a certain degree.  A big setback in the short term that may allow competition to rise up if Barnes & Noble can’t get a better handle on the situation.  Personally, I would anticipate seeing Nook Kids for Android apps any time now.  The tablet market is growing noticeably, and it is only a matter of time before something pops up that can compete with the iPad.  Right now that looks like an Android Tablet.  Maybe it will be the Kindle Tablet, maybe not, but as far as the OS choice goes, there isn’t a whole lot else going on right now for portable devices.

A Hybrid E-Ink and LCD Screen in the Works?

So, one way to stop the e-ink vs. LCD war is to put both of them in one device.  Apparently, Apple (NASDAQ:APPL) has such a device in the works.

This is one of those things I’m going to have to actually see to grasp exactly how this can be done.  Comparing a Kindle e-ink display and an iPhone’s LCD display is like comparing apples to oranges.  They are so different.  They each have different functions and the Kindle is designed just for reading.  Sometimes it is good to escape internet and games, and just read.

From what I understand, the user will be able to switch between the iPhone 4 display and an e-ink display depending on their needs.  So, in theory, you could use the Kindle Application on your iPhone, and it would be more Kindle like than than the current version that is on the iPhone.  If you can use that application, it would still allow you to download and purchase books from the Kindle Store.

So, could this development kill the Kindle if it went into production?  Probably not.  Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) could either make a rival Kindle device, or they can focus on the Kindle software platform and e-book sales.  E-book sales are getting better and better all the time.  Especially with authors writing books exclusively for the e-book platform. Another key factor is cost.  Many people can’t afford an iPad yet.  Even an iPhone costs more than the Kindle does.

Is Apple About To Get Serious About Kindle vs iPad?

There’s been talk of the potential for Kindle vs iPad conflict since months before the latter device was ever actually unleashed on the public.  While I do believe that there was some degree of overlap between them for certain customers, the larger trend appears to have involved just grabbing both, if you’re going to get an iPad anyway.  The Kindle is almost universally held to be the superior eReader, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the versatility of the iPad in any other way.  Apparently Apple may have decided that this situation is less than satisfactory?

Recent reports of an Apple patent just recently made public have been causing a great deal of speculation about the future of this conflict.  The proposed display would contain a standard(LCD or OLED) video layer underneath a form of electronic paper(similar to the Kindle’s E Ink display), with a touch interface on top.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the proposition is that since the layers would be independent of each other and software controlled, it would be possible to operate both in tandem, in theory, to create an environment extremely conducive to web browsing and video-enhanced eBook reading without sacrificing the readability of the text itself.  Thinking this through, however, I’m left wondering if it really addresses the shortcomings of the existing Apple tablet offerings with regard to reading.

I’m going to make the assumption that the electronic paper display that is noted in the patent’s design is somehow transparent when not in use.  I’m sure that the technology for that is available, I was just still under the impression that it was not really ready yet.  This would give the proposed design an “advantage” that many Kindle naysayers have been looking for for a long time:  An E Ink-like screen with a back light.  Of course, this also removes a major component of the readability improvement that is enjoyed with current eReaders.  Even assuming that you could completely turn off the back light any time you wanted to, and I would definitely assume that this is an intended feature that nobody would think of leaving out, you would be left with text hovering on a transparent plane over a recessed background.  Intuitively this seems awkward somehow.

My guess would be that this is meant more as a power-saving measure on potential future tablets than as a serious delving into eReading as a direct Kindle competitor.  Think about an iPad with a week’s worth of battery life now that the screen doesn’t need to refresh large sections regularly unless the user demands it.  That would be an impressive selling point.  This would also address, though to what degree would depend on proper implementation, the complaints of readability in direct sunlight that the iPad has met with.

It remains to be seen what will actually happen, of course, and I’ve only touched on a handful of possibilities.  For all I know, this could end up being an offshoot of the iPhone, a competitor for the Nook Color, or the greatest thing ever to happen to the eReading world.  A patent just isn’t enough to go off of if you want definitive.  Any move away from standard LCDs in portable devices with batteries is always going to get the benefit of the doubt from me, though.