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Where are dedicated eReaders headed?

For a long time I was skeptical of the whole eReader phenomenon. I like my books. I like flipping through the pages quickly, taking one book at a time to the couch, to bed, to the bath, to the airport. Bent pages and ratty covers aren’t pretty to look at, but they still leave the book usable and lendable. Well, recently my wife got a Nook, and she is just glued to that thing. She is a voracious reader and has just been reading book after book (either for free or for purchase) on that thing day and night. Even though there are some refinements that could come to the Nook’s interface, she still loves that thing. The good thing is that Barnes & Noble actually seems committed to improving the Nook. It’s received four updates since its launch back in December, and every update has improved it considerably (usually the performance in terms of turning pages, but also some other features).

The other day, I had the opportunity to read a book on her Nook, and it was quite a pleasurable experience. It was a lot better than I thought it would be. I know she prefers clicking the hard button on the side to turn pages. I found I liked turning pages by lightly flicking to the right or left on the touchscreen (after it has dimmed—before it dims, a touch will select a menu item). Even though the Kindle gets a lot more press, the Nook looks a lot better (my wife had some random person on the bus ask her if the Nook was an Apple product) and it supports the ePub format.

What will happen with dedicated eReaders, though? My guess is, unfortunately, they will remain a relatively niche product. I don’t think there is a huge percentage of the populace who reads a novel a day. I think most people read only a little bit at a time. So the eye strain issue of a backlit screen is moot. I don’t agree with people who say “Lots of people stare at backlit screens at work all the time and don’t have eye strain.” I actually know quite a lot of people who do have eye strain from staring at laptop screens. In any case, a lot of laptop users at work are using their laptops to do various small tasks instead of just staring at it reading one long manuscript. And, really, that is how most people will be reading eBooks—a few pages at a time on an iPhone, an Android phone, or an iPad or other touchscreen tablet.

The bright colors and touchscreen appeal will definitely beat out the pragmatic eInk technology on dedicated eReaders… at least for most people. I think my wife can read sometimes two or three novels a day. For her, eInk makes a lot of sense. I don’t read nearly as much as she does, but I think eInk may make sense for me, too.

Tell you what, though—if they can make an eInk screen that is in full color and touchscreen enabled, that would kick some serious electronic book butt.

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The window of opportunity for iPad rivals is shrinking

For months leading up to Steve Jobs’ demonstration of the iPad, tech blogs and so-called “news” sites had been hyping up the new touchscreen Apple tablet. After the announcement, many people (not just tech blogs and “news” sites) were disappointed. Where was the webcam? Where was Flash? No 1080p video? Isn’t it just a giant iPod Touch? Nevertheless, it’s sold almost half a million, and within months probably millions more… all in the first generation (and smart Apple fans always wait until at least second generation to buy new products).

Meanwhile, I keep seeing all these tech blogs and so-called “news” sites talking about “iPad killers” (you know, the same way they talked about iPod killers and iPhone killers). Oh, this tablet is going to be the iPad killer. We got a hold of some secret demo pre-release of this tablet that’s going to be the iPad killer. Tell you what—I don’t know when these supposed iPad killers are supposed to come out, but they’d better come out soon if they’re even going to maim or scratch up the iPad, let alone kill it! I read about how some tablet was going to come out by the end of summer or another by the end of the year. It’s April. By May or June, Apple will have sold millions of iPads. Once that happens, the iPad will be the definitive touchscreen tablet device that all other touchscreen tablet devices will be compared to. And, even relatively rich (i.e., not filthy rich but still well off) people have only so much disposable income. If they have a choice between buying an iPad now and buying a non-existent iPad competitor later, they’re probably going to go with the iPad now. And once that that competitor shows up later, the money will have already been spent on the iPad, more applications will have been developed for the iPad, more movies will have featured Hollywood actors using the iPad, and the rest will be history.

Why are Apple’s competitors moving so slowly? Don’t they remember what happened with the iPhone? Right after it came out, other companies were scrambling to make similar smartphones. But the Instinct and Storm got bad reviews. WebOS was marketed badly. (I personally didn’t get a WebOS phone, because I knew Google’s Android would be bigger.) Meanwhile, Google seemed to be just twiddling its thumbs while millions of people bought iPhones. The first iPhone came out in the middle of 2007. The first Android phone didn’t appear until the end of 2008… and the G1 was kind of weak—be honest. Almost a full year later, the MyTouch 3G (also known as the HTC Magic) appeared on the scene. I bought that phone. It sucks compared to the iPhone 3GS. It’s sluggish. It’s bulky. The touchscreen requires you to press harder to get any kind of response. It wasn’t until the end of 2009 that Droid made a big splash for Android, and then the beginning of 2010 that the Nexus One appeared. That’s nearly three years after the first iPhone appeared. Already there is quite an iPhone ecosystem: iPhone covers, iPhone adapters, iPhone apps, iPhone users. I can’t tell you how many friends and acquaintances I have who own iPhones. I can count my Android-using friends on one hand. It doesn’t matter how cool Android 2.1 is. People who have iPhones and have had them for years already own the product and are used to using it. It’ll take a lot more than a product just being better to get them to switch to something else.

If iPad rivals want to upset Apple, they have to release their products now. I’m not kidding. If people right now see a touchscreen tablet with no webcam, no Flash, 720p video, no USB ports for $499 and then see another touchscreen tablet with a webcam, Flash, 1080p video, and USB ports for $499, a lot of them will opt to buy the latter. But that’s right now. By August or December, it’s too late. And certainly by 2011 it’s too late. The Apple brand is strong, and its marketing deadlier. Once people start associating “touchscreen tablet” with “iPad,” the iPad won’t be one tablet among many tablets; it will be the tablet, and everything else will just be laughable “iPad killers.” Yeah, ICD Gemini and Notion Ink Adam, I’m talking to you. Eric Schmidt, if Google has an Android tablet, better unveil it soon.

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How else can Linux fail in the consumer space?

Many Linux advocates and Linux bashers still think the success or failure of Linux in the consumer (not server or embedded) space rests on technical merits. Implementation, marketing, pricing, inertia, vendor lock-in—no, of course, those have nothing to do with whether people decide on Linux as opposed to Windows or Mac OS X. Would it help to work on the technical merits of Linux? Sure. Will that alone make Linux a success for consumers? Hardly. Technical merits will get technical users into it (Network admin, want a server? Use Linux. Hey, TiVo, want a free operating system for your DVR product? Use Linux).

Linux had a few good opportunities to succeed, but flubbed on the execution:

  1. OLPC. When I heard about the One Laptop Per Child project, I got giddy. It was marketed as the $100 laptop. It was going to be durable. It was going to use Linux. It was going to help kids in developing countries learn. If that had been what really happened, Linux would have really taken off, at least in certain demographic segments of the world. What really happened? Well, the laptop was nowhere near $100. It was more like $200. And if rich folks wanted them, they had to pay $400 ($200 to get one, $200 to give one). It also was a pretty ugly laptop, with an extremely crippled version of Linux.
  2. Dell. When Dell started up its Idea Storm section, it probably had no idea the section would be bombarded by Linux users demanding Dell start offering Linux preinstalled. Well, Dell half-heartedly gave in and offered a couple of select models with Ubuntu preinstalled. This half-hearted effort doomed the new venture to failure. Dell hid Ubuntu away so no one could see it on their website without a direct link or clever Google searching. Dell priced the Ubuntu laptops more than spec-equivalent Windows laptops. Dell “recommended” Windows on all the Ubuntu laptop pages (it still does). Dell still used Linux-unfriendly hardware (Broadcom, anyone?). To sum up, Dell was not invested in really selling Linux preinstalled. It just wanted to sort of, kind of appease the Linux community (most of whom continue to buy the cheaper Windows-preinstalled laptops and then install Linux for themselves).
  3. Netbooks. I love the idea of netbooks. The execution was terrible, though. They were not heavily advertised. Early netbooks had 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB SSD drives with 7″ screens. The battery life was poor. The keyboards were cramped. The screen resolution was practically non-existent. Worse yet, all the OEMs included crippled versions of Linux… Linpus Linux Lite, Xandros… installing software became in reality the nightmare that Linux haters often misrepresent it to be. It would be like having apps for the iPhone without an App Store. Yes, you could install a regular Linux version yourself, but that’s not what the everyday consumer is going to do. Microsoft slammed the years-familiar XP down on netbooks, and—suffering from a bad implementation and no marketing or advocacy from OEMs—Linux on netbooks floundered.
  4. Android. In many ways, Android is actually a success. But it is not the success it could have been. When people were saying various Android phones could be the next “iPhone killer,” I thought, Hey, maybe they could be. We’ll see. I wasn’t surprised to see that the G1 did not kill the iPhone, the MyTouch didn’t kill the iPhone, the Hero didn’t kill the iPhone, nor did the Droid, nor did the Nexus One. I have a MyTouch 3G with Android, and I love my phone. I understand very well why it didn’t kill the iPhone, though. Apple understands how to make an excellent user experience, and Google doesn’t. That’s the bottom line. I’m not an Apple fanboy. I actually disagree with a lot of the design decisions Apple makes. What I don’t dispute is that Apple has a vision. Every decision, whether I agree with it or not, has a rationale that makes sense. Yes, there are pros and cons, and Apple weighed them and decided the pros outweighed the cons. With Android, though, and with various HTC phones using Android, I see various bad interface implementations that have no pros at all. I just don’t see anyone properly testing these things. For example, on the MyTouch and the Nexus, the speaker is on the back of the phone. Why? On some of the Android text dialogues, you have to tap into the text field (even if you have no hard keyboard) to get the onscreen keyboard to appear (shouldn’t it appear automatically if the text field is in focus?). Those are just a couple of examples.

Just yesterday, Steve Jobs announced the iPad to much ridicule. People made fun of the name. People said it would be useless without Flash, a USB port, without a front-facing camera, without multi-tasking. They called it an oversized iPhone. They said the 4:3 aspect ratio wouldn’t be good for movies. The LED screen wouldn’t be good for reading in sunlight or for long periods of time.

I kind of liked it. I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. I wasn’t drooling. But I can see the appeal. It looks like a slick device, and it’s priced a lot lower than people thought it would be (most of the speculation saw it between $700 and $1000). If it’s a standalone device (doesn’t need to hook up or sync to a Windows or OS X computer with iTunes), I might consider it.

I would be curious to see if any OEM is going to step up to the plate here, though, and give Linux a real chance. I doubt it. It would be quite simple, though. Create a tablet just like the iPad (has to include proper multi-touch, though… no backing out for fear of so-called patent infringement, Google). Run a Linux-based operating system that is mainly open source (but can have some proprietary programs on it). Include multi-tasking. Include a proper software repository. Use a regular hard drive instead of SSD drive. Include USB ports. Have better screen resolution or a widescreen aspect ratio. Then price it just a little below the iPad… oh, and give it a proper name… one people won’t make fun of.

How simple is that? Will it happen? Probably not. A bunch of iPad imitators will pop around, sure. They’ll each have serious flaws, though. Many will lack multi-touch. Most will be too bulky. Some won’t have a sensible user interface. Some will be too expensive. Then I can tack it on as yet another way Linux has failed in the consumer space.

Mark Shuttleworth, if you’re reading this, it’s about time you realized Bug #1 gets fixed once you create a full and unified software-hardware user experience. Hoards of Windows users aren’t going to download the Ubuntu .iso, set their BIOSes to boot from CD, repartition their hard drives, install Ubuntu, and then troubleshoot hardware compatibility problems. You (or someone with your savvy and financial resources) need to be the open source Steve Jobs if Linux is going to succeed in the consumer space.