An instant classic John Gruber post about the sort of company Apple is right now and how it compares in that regard to its four main competitors: Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Amazon. The post is also about how Apple is now firmly a Tim Cook joint, and the company is better for it.
When Cook succeeded Jobs, the question we all asked was more or less binary: Would Apple decline without Steve Jobs? What seems to have gone largely unconsidered is whether Apple would thrive with Cook at the helm, achieving things the company wasn't able to do under the leadership of the autocratic and mercurial Jobs.
Jobs was a great CEO for leading Apple to become big. But Cook is a great CEO for leading Apple now that it is big, to allow the company to take advantage of its size and success. Matt Drance said it, and so will I: What we saw last week at WWDC 2014 would not have happened under Steve Jobs.
This is not to say Apple is better off without Steve Jobs. But I do think it's becoming clear that the company, today, might be better off with Tim Cook as CEO. If Jobs were still with us, his ideal role today might be that of an eminence grise, muse and partner to Jony Ive in the design of new products, and of course public presenter extraordinaire. Chairman of the board, with Cook as CEO, running the company much as he actually is today.
This bit on the commoditization of hardware, and Apple's spectacularly successful fight against it, got me thinking about current events. Here's Gruber again:
Apple's device-centric approach provides them with control. There's a long-standing and perhaps everlasting belief in the computer industry that hardware is destined for commoditization. At their cores, Microsoft and Google were founded on that belief - and they succeeded handsomely. Microsoft's Windows empire was built atop commodity PC hardware. Google's search empire was built atop web browsers running on any and all computers. (Google also made a huge bet on commodity hardware for their incredible back-end infrastructure. Google's infrastructure is both massive and massively redundant - thousands and thousands of cheap hardware servers running custom software designed such that failure of individual machines is completely expected.)
This is probably the central axiom of the Church of Market Share - if hardware is destined for commoditization, then the only thing that matters is maximizing the share of devices running your OS (Microsoft) or using your online services (Google).
The entirety of Apple's post-NeXT reunification success has been in defiance of that belief - that commoditization is inevitable, but won't necessarily consume the entire market. It started with the iMac, and the notion that the design of computer hardware mattered. It carried through to the iPod, which faced predictions of imminent decline in the face of commodity music players all the way until it was cannibalized by the iPhone.
And here's David Galbraith tweeting about the seemingly unrelated training that London taxi drivers receive, a comment no doubt spurred by the European taxi strikes last week, protesting Uber's move into Europe:
Here's the relevant bit from Wikipedia about The Knowledge:
It is the world's most demanding training course for taxicab drivers, and applicants will usually need at least twelve 'appearances' (attempts at the final test), after preparation averaging 34 months, to pass the examination.
Uber, in this scenario, is attempting to be Microsoft in the 1980s and early 90s. They're implementing their software layer (the Uber service) on commodity hardware, which includes not only iPhones & Android phones, mass-produced cars of any type, and GPS systems but also, and crucially, the drivers themselves. Uber is betting that a bunch of off-the-shelf hardware, "ordinary" drivers, and their self-service easy-pay dispatch system will provide similar (or even better) results than a fleet of taxi drivers each with three years of training and years of experience. It is unclear to me what the taxi drivers can do in this situation to emulate the Apple of 1997 in making that commoditization irrelevant to their business prospects. Although when it comes to London in particular, Uber may have miscalculated: in a recent comparison at rush hour, an Uber cab took almost three times as long and was 64% more expensive than a black cab.
In some cases, even the pages promoting the books have disappeared. Anne Rivers Siddons's new novel, "The Girls of August," coming in July, no longer has a page for the physical book or even the Kindle edition. Only the audio edition is still being sold (for more than $60). Otherwise it is as if it did not exist.
No question about it: this sucks on Amazon's part and demonstrates the degree to which the company's top priority isn't customer service. Better customer service in this case would be to offer these books for sale. I noticed another less nefarious instance of this the other day: because Amazon is offering a streaming version of The Lego Movie (which presumably has a high profit margin), they are not currently taking pre-orders of the The Lego Movie Blu-ray (out on June 17), even though Barnes and Noble has it for pre-order and Amazon has no problem offering for pre-order a Blu-ray of The Nutty Professor that isn't out until September. I guess it makes sense to drive sales to the high-margin streaming offering but not letting people pre-order what is likely to be a very popular Blu-ray is baffling.
Anyway, if this trend continues, I'd look for Amazon to start more aggressively promoting the Kindle editions of books, to the point of manipulating available inventory as with Hachette. That is, if they're not doing it already.
If you buy this digital scale on Amazon, the site assumes you might be a drug dealer. Nestled among the calibration weights listed in the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought section are tobacco pipe screens, rolling papers, powders for cutting drugs (I assume), zipper bags of all sizes (including some decorated with golden skulls), empty pill capsules, and even a Dr Pepper can safe.
When Brad asked what I wanted for my birthday, I said "jet pack," just like I have for the past four years. Now, Brad thinks I'm too far into my "Golden Years" to strap on any kind of propulsion unit, so each year his gifts have been disappointing: A bow-tie. A snuggie. Gel insoles.
Imagine my delight when I came home to the ZORB HUMAN HAMSTER BALL in our back yard. "Not as good a jet pack," Brad noted, shrugging. "But safer."
Brad was a bit winded after blowing it up for six hours (I recommend an air pump), so we left it inflated. We strapped it to our car roof using the 120 left-over bungee cords from our home bungee jumping kit (I would NOT recommend this product). We then drove up to the Hollywood Hills sign for a test roll.
Brad and I figured it would be poetic justice to tuck one of these babies, along with a DVD of hard core gay porn, inside a gift basket sent to our favorite Iranian madman, ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during his last rant-filled visit to the UN. Just a small token of our esteem and thanks, you understand, for torturing and hanging those two gay teens.
Brad and I will be Grand Marshals at this year's San Diego Pride Parade, and we were looking for just the right touch to add a bit of pizazz to our appearance. So when we stumbled across the PASSION NATURAL WATER BASED LUBRICANT - 55 GALLON drum, we felt we'd struck gold: "Just enough volume to soak an entire parade of spectators, and yet fits easily in our float." Double win.
The goal of this new delivery system is to get packages into customers' hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles.
Putting Prime Air into commercial use will take some number of years as we advance the technology and wait for the necessary FAA rules and regulations.
Back in January, riffing off a piece by John Robb, I speculated that Amazon would be an early mover into delivery-by-drone:
More likely that Amazon will buy a fledgling drone delivery company in the next year or two and begin rolling out same-day delivery of items weighing less than 2 pounds in non-urban areas where drone flights are permitted.
You would buy smaller size packages and keep smaller libraries at home and in your office. Bookshelf space would be freed up, you would cook more with freshly ground spices, the physical world would stand a better chance of competing with the rapid-delivery virtual world, and Amazon Kindles would decline in value.
But for now, Amazon Prime Air sure is providing lots of Cyber Monday PR for Amazon.
Amazon introduced their Amazon Source program today, which enables indie booksellers to sell Kindles and receive a cut of future Kindle book sales made on those devices.
Retailers that are part of the program can use Amazon Source (http://source.amazon.com) to purchase Kindle devices and accessories for resale. Retailers can choose between two programs:
1) Bookseller Program: Earn 10% of the price of every Kindle book purchased by their customers from their Kindle devices for two years from device purchase. This is in addition to the discount the bookseller receives when purchasing the devices and accessories from Amazon.
2) General Retail Program: Receive a larger discount when purchasing the devices from Amazon, but do not receive revenue from their customers' Kindle book purchases.
Amazon Source aside, I've often wondered if an independent bookstore could sell their usual selection of paper books but also sell Kindle books to those who wanted them. The bookstore would basically buy the books as gifts for the customer through Amazon and take the affiliate fee (which is 8.5% with sufficient monthly sales volume) as profit. (The fee on magazine subscriptions is 25%!) I love frequenting indie bookshops -- the browsing experience of a good bookstore is still far superior to that on Amazon or a Kindle -- but I don't buy paper books anymore. So I usually leave bookstores with a list of 2-3 books I later buy on Amazon...it would be nice if the bookstore gets a cut of that action. If it worked well enough, the physical books in the store would be more like advertisements for the digital copies than salable items and you could change how you stock the store...less overall inventory or a more varied inventory with far less overhead.
Knowing next to nothing about the economics of bookstores, I don't know how well that would actually work, but it would certainly be an interesting experiment. (via @tcarmody)
That's because Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers. The shareholders put up the equity, and instead of owning a claim on a steady stream of fat profits, they get a claim on a mighty engine of consumer surplus. Amazon sells things to people at prices that seem impossible because it actually is impossible to make money that way. And the competitive pressure of needing to square off against Amazon cuts profit margins at other companies, thus benefiting people who don't even buy anything from Amazon.
Attacking the market with a low margin strategy has other benefits, though, ones often overlooked or undervalued. For one thing, it strongly deters others from entering your market. Study disruption in most businesses and it almost always comes from the low end. Some competitor grabs a foothold on the bottom rung of the ladder and pulls itself upstream. But if you're already sitting on that lowest rung as the incumbent, it's tough for a disruptor to cling to anything to gain traction.
An incumbent with high margins, especially in technology, is like a deer that wears a bullseye on its flank. Assuming a company doesn't have a monopoly, its high margin structure screams for a competitor to come in and compete on price, if nothing else, and it also hints at potential complacency. If the company is public, how willing will they be to lower their own margins and take a beating on their public valuation?
Because technology, both hardware and software, tends to operate on an annual update cycle, every year you have to worry about a competitor leapfrogging you in that cycle. One mistake and you can see a huge shift in customers to a competitor.
Not having to sweat a constant onslaught of new competitors is really underrated. You can allocate your best employees to explore new lines of business, you can count on a consistent flow of cash from your more mature product or service lines, and you can focus your management team on offense. In contrast, most technology companies live in constant fear that they'll be disrupted with every product or service refresh. The slightest misstep can turn a stock market darling into a company struggling for its very existence.
I've had an idea for a long time now. It's inspired by one of my favorite feelings: when you order something on Amazon, and it's put on backorder, and then you forget you ordered it, and a year later it arrives--and it's like a gift you bought yourself.
Well, I thought: what if I just wrote a program to buy stuff for me? The first iteration of this was going to be a program that bought me stuff that I probably would like.
But then I decided that was too boring. How about I build something that buys me things completely at random? Something that just... fills my life with crap? How would these purchases make me feel? Would they actually be any less meaningful than the crap I buy myself on a regular basis anyway?
All in all, this was a sort of creepy shipment. It sent me a book by someone who's known for charting and modeling the human mind, and sent me some music that is extremely mechanical and almost random.
Edd Dumbill writes that Twitter, as it strives to become a profitable company, is turning into an old media company.
Twitter's bait-and-switch, now they've built their reach on the back of eager early adopters, is disappointing. It marks them as part of old, unenlightened, business, and consigns them to a far less remarkable place in the future economy than they otherwise might have had.
Michael Heilemann has a somewhat harsher take in his post on Amazon, Twitter, and Star Wars:
Some part of me can't help but admire the purity of the clusterfuck that is Twitter's continued downward trajectory from startup wunderkind to some sort of bland, wannabe ad-driven media company.
It's incomplete, but I can't help but draw comparisons between Twitter's alienation of their original users and ecosystem to, because I am me, Star Wars.
Despite what George Lucas says, the continuing alterations to Star Wars have been driven by business reasoning, not some artistic auteur need to see the vision completed. And in both cases, the original fan base is the one getting run over, while the unwashed masses get to enjoy Jar Jar and Justin Bieber, respectively.
Against all odds, I have become a (belated) fan of the Kindle. I still hate doing anything with it but reading words on its screen, but it's light, runs on a single charge for seemingly ever, and I've really been enjoying reading on it lately.
If this trend continues, I might have to get the Kindle Paperwhite, which offers a built-in light, a touchscreen (I currently own a touchless Kindle 3), more resolution, more font choices, and a higher contrast screen.
Amazon announced recently that they bought a company named Kiva for $775 million. In cash. Kiva makes robots for fulfillment warehouses, of which Amazon has many. When I heard this news, I was all, robots are cool, but $775 million? But this short video on how the Kiva robots work made me a believer:
A week later, a friend posts a screen capture and tells me that my post has been showing up next to his news feed as a sponsored story, meaning Amazon is paying Facebook to highlight my link to a giant tub of personal lubricant.
Other people start reporting that they're seeing it, too. A fellow roller derby referee. A former employee of a magazine I still write for. My co-worker's wife. They're not seeing just once, but regularly. Said one friend: "It has shown up as one on mine every single time I log in."
Get used to this...promoted word of mouth is how a lot of advertising will work in the future.
As a Fertility Specialist for Pachyderms, this was exactly what we needed to help rebuild elephant populations all over sub-saharan africa. It's not all just Medications and IVF treatments. Some times you need a loudspeaker, a Barry White CD and a 55 Gallon drum of Lube.
One of the frustrations people have with Ikea is that you can't order online from them (at least in the US). You have to go to the store or hire someone to go to the store for you. Not sure when they started doing this, but you can now buy a bunch of Ikea products from Amazon...some items even have free shipping if you're a Prime user.
Update: Hmm, it seems you can shop online at Ikea...but the shipping and handling costs are insane ($129 to ship a $299 chair). Also of note if you hadn't already guessed...the products on Amazon are often more expensive than they are at Ikea. Mark up!
Update: Further clarification in case it's unclear...Ikea is not selling this stuff on Amazon, it's all third-party resellers. So caveat emptor and all that (and that goes triple for eBay). Ikea wants you in the store, not shopping online.
"If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you're competing against a lot of people," Mr. Bezos told reporter Steve Levy last month in an interview in Wired. "But if you're willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you're now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue. At Amazon we like things to work in five to seven years. We're willing to plant seeds, let them grow-and we're very stubborn."
Like Apple, Amazon is one of those large market cap growth stocks that investors don't really know what to do with. Both stocks are still undervalued compared to much of the rest of the market, IMO.
I was at Amazon for about six and a half years, and now I've been at Google for that long. One thing that struck me immediately about the two companies -- an impression that has been reinforced almost daily -- is that Amazon does everything wrong, and Google does everything right. Sure, it's a sweeping generalization, but a surprisingly accurate one. It's pretty crazy. There are probably a hundred or even two hundred different ways you can compare the two companies, and Google is superior in all but three of them, if I recall correctly. I actually did a spreadsheet at one point but Legal wouldn't let me show it to anyone, even though recruiting loved it.
I mean, just to give you a very brief taste: Amazon's recruiting process is fundamentally flawed by having teams hire for themselves, so their hiring bar is incredibly inconsistent across teams, despite various efforts they've made to level it out. And their operations are a mess; they don't really have SREs and they make engineers pretty much do everything, which leaves almost no time for coding - though again this varies by group, so it's luck of the draw. They don't give a single shit about charity or helping the needy or community contributions or anything like that. Never comes up there, except maybe to laugh about it. Their facilities are dirt-smeared cube farms without a dime spent on decor or common meeting areas. Their pay and benefits suck, although much less so lately due to local competition from Google and Facebook. But they don't have any of our perks or extras -- they just try to match the offer-letter numbers, and that's the end of it. Their code base is a disaster, with no engineering standards whatsoever except what individual teams choose to put in place.
The advantage traditional paper-based media has always had over electronic media is that the consumer doesn't have to bear the cost of the technology up front. If you buy a book or a magazine, the technology that enables its production and transmission is already built in.
The cost of the device can turn an electronic media gadget into a prestige device, like Apple's iPod or iPad. But it's nevertheless a hurdle for customers. $500 for an iPad or $400 for the first-generation Kindle is a lot of cash to drop for folks who want to read. It's also a levee bottling up a torrent of content that can be sold and delivered over those devices.
With Amazon's new $79 Kindle, $99 Kindle Touch, $149 Kindle Touch 3G, and $199 Kindle Fire, Amazon dynamites that levee. The devices aren't free, but they're so much cheaper than comparable products on the market that they will likely sell millions of copies and many more millions of books, television shows, movies, music and apps.
TO SEE how profoundly the book business is changing, watch the shelves. Next month IKEA will introduce a new, deeper version of its ubiquitous "BILLY" bookcase. The flat-pack furniture giant is already promoting glass doors for its bookshelves. The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome-anything, that is, except books that are actually read.
In the first five months of this year sales of consumer e-books in America overtook those from adult hardback books. Just a year earlier hardbacks had been worth more than three times as much as e-books, according to the Association of American Publishers. Amazon now sells more copies of e-books than paper books. The drift to digits will speed up as bookshops close. Borders, once a retail behemoth, is liquidating all of its American stores.
Groupon has filed its S-1 and hopes to raise $750M in its initial public offering. Given they're currently losing a staggering $117M per quarter, despite revenues of $644M, they'll be burning through that cash almost as soon as it hits their account.
At the moment, it's costing them $1.43 to make $1, and it doesn't look like it's getting any cheaper. They're already projected to make close to three billion dollars in revenues this year. If you can't figure out how to make money on three billion in revenue, when exactly will the profit magic be found? Ten billion? Fifty billion?
I feel like the Groupon IPO is an elaborate practical joke.
It was a different time and (as DHH notes) a different company, but when Amazon IPOed in 1997, they lost $27.6 million that year on net sales of $147.8 million. That's an 18% loss for Amazon compared to Groupon's, hey, 18% loss. Amazon didn't report their first profit until Q4 2001. No guarantee whether Groupon will ever turn a profit but something to consider anyway. Oh, and probably not relevant but interesting nonetheless: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is an investor in DHH's company, 37signals...and until recently, 37signals co-founder Jason Fried was on Groupon's board of directors.
Kevin Kelly forecasts that Amazon will soon be handing out free Kindles...perhaps to Amazon Prime members.
In October 2009 John Walkenbach noticed that the price of the Kindle was falling at a consistent rate, lowering almost on a schedule. By June 2010, the rate was so unwavering that he could easily forecast the date at which the Kindle would be free: November 2011.
Since then I've mentioned this forecast to all kinds of folks. In August, 2010 I had the chance to point it out to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. He merely smiled and said, "Oh, you noticed that!" And then smiled again.
The Kindle has never been knock-it-out-of-the-park great...it looks like Amazon's strategy is not to build a great e-reader but to build a pretty good free e-reader.
Since the introduction of the iPhone, Apple has ruled the December holidays. Under the tree, by the menorah, and around the Festivus pole has appeared a steady stream of iPods, iPhones, iTunes gift cards, iPod touches, and even MacBooks. Apple has sold tons of devices in the final quarter of the last three years and, with the iPad added to the lineup, will likely do so again this year.
But I think two companies who will do even better than Apple in December this year.
The first is Amazon**. The cheapest Kindle is now only $139 (and the one with free 3G is $50 more). They are going to sell a metric crapload of these things this Christmas. And even if they don't, they're going to sell 50 million metric shitloads of Kindle books because you don't even need a Kindle to read Kindle books...Amazon has readers for the iPad (which is way better than Apple's iBooks app IMO), iPhone, Android devices, Blackberry, WinPhone 7, Windows, and OS X. I never would have predicted it, but I am a firm convert to Kindle books...and I don't even have a Kindle. The killer feature here is Amazon's multi-platform support. I *love* reading books on the iPad at home but when I'm out and about, if I've got my iPhone in my pocket, I can read a book. The best book is the one that's always with you.
This one is more of a guess, but the other company that will do well this holiday season is Microsoft. I know, right? But have you seen this Kinect thing? It's an add-on for Xbox 360 that takes everything people loved about the Wii and Wii Fit and makes it easier, more natural, and more powerful. Basically you hook this bar up to your Xbox 360 and it tracks your motion around the room. You're the controller. Here's a snippet from David Pogue's positive review:
The Wii, by tracking the position of its remote control, was amazing for its time (2006). It's a natural for games in which you swing one hand -- bowling, tennis, golf. But the Kinect blows open a whole universe of new, whole-body simulations -- volleyball, obstacle courses, dancing, flying.
It doesn't merely recognize that someone is there; it recognizes your face and body. In some games, you can jump in to take a buddy's place; the game instantly notices the change and signs you in under your own name. If you leave the room, it pauses the game automatically.
There's a crazy, magical, omigosh rush the first time you try the Kinect. It's an experience you've never had before.
One of the fun things about having an Amazon Associates account for kottke.org is that I can see what my readers are ordering on the site. (Amazon only shows the items ordered, not the associated names or anything like that. I have no idea who ordered what.) As one might expect, you folks buy lots of cameras and books and hard drives and movies but also paper towels, sweatpants, soap, and guitar strings.
So anyway, I was browsing around the other day when I noticed that someone had bought a bunch of Whip-It! whipped cream chargers. Four 50-packs for around $115. "Whoa!" I exclaimed to my wife, "Someone out there really likes whipped cream!"
Readers, I could almost hear the eyeroll as my wife explained to this naive bumpkin that people use these canisters of compressed nitrous oxide to get high. So whoever you are, thank you for the novel experience of learning a new Urban Dictionary term from my wife.
All three books in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy--"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played with Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest"--are now in the top 10 bestselling Kindle books of all time.
What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy -- they're given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you're not careful, and if you do, it'll probably be to the detriment of your choices.
In that time, Amazon said, it sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, including hardcovers for which there is no Kindle edition. The pace of change is quickening, too, Amazon said. In the last four weeks sales rose to 180 digital books for every 100 hardcover copies. Amazon has 630,000 Kindle books, a small fraction of the millions of books sold on the site.
I left Seattle pretty sure that Amazon would be a better partner for Zappos than our current board of directors or any other outside investor. Our board wanted an immediate exit; we wanted to build an enduring company that would spread happiness. With Amazon, it seemed that Zappos could continue to build its culture, brand, and business. We would be free to be ourselves.
Amazon has opened slightly their data kimono with a look at the most highlighted passages by Kindle users. The results aren't that interesting (to me) because the bestsellers dominate: some Gladwell, Dan Brown, etc. To make it more useful, they should weigh the results by sales and cram some social in there: the most highlighted passages by my friends = gold.
Amazon has finally added the ability to earn affiliates fees with Kindle books. From the press release
Amazon is excited to announce that effective May 1, 2010, you can earn advertising fees on Kindle books. With over 500,000 books, including 105 of 112 New York Times Best Sellers, Kindle books represent another great way to earn money advertising Amazon products. Advertising fees range from 4 to 8.5%.
Writing for the New Yorker, Ken Auletta surveys the ebook landscape: it's Apple, Amazon, Google, and the book publishers engaged in a poker game for the hearts, minds, and wallets of book buyers. Kindle editions of books are selling well:
There are now an estimated three million Kindles in use, and Amazon lists more than four hundred and fifty thousand e-books. If the same book is available in paper and paperless form, Amazon says, forty per cent of its customers order the electronic version. Russ Grandinetti, the Amazon vice-president, says the Kindle has boosted book sales over all. "On average," he says, Kindle users "buy 3.1 times as many books as they did twelve months ago."
Many compare ebook-selling to what iTunes was able to do with music albums. But Auletta notes:
The analogy of the music business goes only so far. What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.
I've touched on this before, but while people may not want to buy single chapters of books, they do want to read things that aren't book length. I think we'll see more literature in the novella/short-story/long magazine article range as publishers and authors attempt to fill that gap.
I've noticed an increasing tendency by reviewers on Amazon (and Apple's iTunes and App Stores) to review things based on the packaging or format of the media with little regard shown to the actual content/plot. Here are two recent examples.
Reviews for the theatrically released versions of The Lord of the Rings on Blu-ray are mostly negative -- the aggregate rating is 1.5 out 5. These are award-winning movies but the reviews are dominated by people complaining about New Line's decision to release the theatrical versions before the extended versions that the True Fans love. A representative review:
If I were reviewing the movie itself it would get a five. This review is for the product, as listed -- in other words, I DO NOT RECOMMEND BUYING THIS PRODUCT/DVD. This product is being created FOR NO OTHER REASON than to dupe people into buying this movie twice...again.
Similarly, the early reviews for Michael Lewis' The Big Short are dominated by one-star reviews from Kindle owners who are angry because the book is not available for the device. (thx, jason)
I have always enjoyed Michael Lewis' books and was looking forward to reading The Big Short. With no availability in the US on Kindle, however, I will pass until the publisher/Amazon issue is cleared up. I actually believe that the availability of an item is relavent when giving it a review.
Compare this with traditional reviewers who focus almost exclusively on the content/plot, an approach that ignores much about how people make buying decisions about media today. Packaging is important. We judge books by their covers and even by how much they weigh (heavy books make poor subway/bus reading). Format matters. There's an old adage in photography: the best camera is the one you have with you. Now that our media is available in so many formats, we can say that the best book is the one on your Kindle or the best movie is the one on your iPhone.
Newspaper and magazine reviewers pretty much ignore this stuff. There's little mention of whether a book would be good to read on a Kindle, if you should buy the audiobook version instead of the hardcover because John Hodgman has a delightful voice, if a magazine is good for reading on the toilet, if a movie is watchable on an iPhone or if you need to see it in 1080p on a big TV, if a hardcover is too heavy to read in the bath, whether the trailer is an accurate depiction of what the movie is about, or if the hardcover price is too expensive and you should get the Kindle version or wait for the paperback. Or, as the above reviewers hammer home, if the book is available to read on the Kindle/iPad/Nook or if it's better to wait until the director's cut comes out. In the end, people don't buy content or plots, they buy physical or digital pieces of media for use on specific devices and within certain contexts. That citizen reviewers have keyed into this more quickly than traditional media reviewers is not a surprise.
Book publishers have been in talks with Apple and are optimistic about being included in the computer, which could provide an alternative to Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader and a forthcoming device from Plastic Logic, recently allied with Barnes & Noble.
And if it runs apps from the App Store ("yes" seems to be the general consensus), you'll be able to read books in the Apple tablet format *and* in Amazon's Kindle format (with the Kindle app), which can't be happy news for Amazon, hardware-wise.
This is ugly for all kinds of reasons. Amazon says that this sort of thing is "rare," but that it can happen at all is unsettling; we've been taught to believe that e-books are, you know, just like books, only better. Already, we've learned that they're not really like books, in that once we're finished reading them, we can't resell or even donate them. But now we learn that all sales may not even be final.
This stinks like old cheese. I wish they'd just call these Kindle book transactions what they are, but I guess "Rent now with 1-Click® until we decide to take it back from you or maybe not" doesn't fit neatly on a button.
This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.
Here's what you buy when you buy a Kindle book. You buy the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon.
There have been many funny product reviews posted at Amazon -- perhaps the first was John E. Fracisco's 2000 review of The Story About Ping -- but these reviews of a gallon of whole milk are funn...no, wait, I laughed so hard at the reviews that milk came squirting out my nose. (How's *that* for layered narrative! Bam!)
During a discussion with friends the other day, someone wondered, "Who doesn't like The Wire?" The show is easily one of a handful of shows considered the best ever and even those who feel that The Wire is overrated still don't dislike it. But someone's gotta hate it, right?
In the spirit of Cynical-C's excellent You Can't Please Everyone series, I went to Amazon and looked for bad reviews of The Wire season one DVD. There were six one-star reviews and four two-star reviews (versus 190 five-star reviews). Three of those were customer service complaints and one read like a five-star review that was accidentially mis-rated; here are parts of the remaining reviews:
I have watched 6 episodes of Season 1 and have desperately tried to get into The Wire. Despite the hype, and all the trendies saying what a mahhvellous show it is, actually it is pretty dull. Boring characters, little conflict, confusing scripts, same stuff repeated ad nauseam. Frankly, the lives of petty drug dealers in Baltimore don't do it for me, and not do the cops who are a pretty unattractive bunch with few dramatic qualities. I know that Prison Break was appallingly acted but at least it had a story line. The Wire is like an improvisation at one of those let it all hang out stage schools which never produces particularly great actors.
I had 1000's of hours of viewing movies, television series, and television programming behind me before I sat down to watch this series on DVD, season one, the box in my hand. I was very dissapointed. This series stinks. I watched only episode 1, and have the experience and perception to know that it won't get any better. [...] If watching cheap white trash and cheap black trash destroy themselves and probably each other interests you, this is for you. I have a better way to spend my evenings. I experience enough negativity in the world on a daily basis, that I don't have to put it in my dvd player after dinner for it to "entertain" me.
I really disliked this show, i watched the entire first season in two days, i only did so because i was waiting for it to become interesting. After so many glowing reviews, i could not belive how just plain awful this show turned out to be. I would rather watch reruns of Barney Miller, you get the same effect of watching the Wire except with slightly more enjoyment. I know it's not The Shield and it's not supposed to be but i implore you to purchase that series if you want to enjoy a television experience.
I got the Wire because I thought I was missing the boat on 'the best show on TV'. Well...I must be missing something because after watching 5 episodes I don't get it. I kept thinking it was going to get better..not that it was bad...it just wasn't that interesting. The only reason I kept watching was to see Idris Elba who plays Stringer Bell cause he is a cutie!
Perhaps it is in the office where the show falters the most, sometimes having camera shots zoom in on a person for three seconds at a time while they are thinking about nothing. Then there is the whole thing with the detective using a typewriter. Okay, did I miss something? Is this 2008 or 1978 people?? High Profile crime unit using typewriters, sure I buy it and a bag of that counterfeit money they had in the first episode.
I tried it sober; perhaps I should have tried it drunk. Ham acting, cliched backdrops (pole-dancing was an idea already on its last legs before The Sopranos ran it into the ground) and dialogue which may possibly be realistic but certainly is dull. I labored manfully through the whole first episode. I shall not torment myself with a second.
If Barney Miller is more your speed, season one of that show is also available on Amazon with reviews almost as good as The Wire's.
The NY Times says that Amazon will soon release a large screen Kindle. I really didn't like the Kindle's paperback-sized screen so I'm hoping the "people briefed on the online retailer's plans" are correct for once. (via fimoculous)
With books becoming part of this universe, "booklogs" will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. (As the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly says, "In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.") You'll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage's true meaning.
I recently used a Kindle for the first time and was really underwhelmed. I'd kind of wanted one but using it for few minutes turned me right off. The potential is definitely there, but the actual device is a bummer: too small, too slow, and too closed. Maybe using one for two weeks would change my mind...but I don't know. I'm skeptical of the future that Johnson sketches out for the ebook, and it's not just the Kindle.
When the web and the first browsers were built -- mostly by scientists, not by billion-dollar retailers or publishing conglomerates -- the openess that Johnson talks about as a metaphor for how ebooks will work was baked in: viewing source, copy/paste of text, the ability to download images, etc. All of the early web's content was also free (as in beer).
Aside from some notable exceptions like Project Gutenberg, e-books are currently only as open and free as the publishing companies (and Amazon and Google) want them to be. I think those two initial conditions change the playing field. Copy/paste/publish to your booklog without significant restrictions or payment? Sharing a passage of a book with someone who doesn't own that book, as verified through a third-party DRM system? Good luck! Readers will have to fight for those kinds of features. And perhaps we'll eventually win. But for right now, the bookloggers that Johnson speaks of are only two letters away from how the publishing industry might label them: bootleggers.
Amazon had reviews from the very first day. It's always been a feature that customers love. (Many non-customers talk about how they check out the reviews on Amazon first, then buy the product someplace else.) Initially, the review system was purely chronological. The designers didn't account for users entering hundreds or thousands of reviews.
For small numbers, chronology works just fine. However, it quickly becomes unmanageable. (For example, anyone who discovers an established blog may feel they've come in at the middle of a conversation, since only the most recent topics are presented first. It seems as if the writer assumed the readers had read everything from the beginning.)
The reviews of reviews are really helpful when buying. Personally, I always check out four types of reviews on Amazon in roughly this order:
1) most helpful/highest rated, 2) most helpful/lowest rated, 3) least helpful/highest rated, 4) least helpful/lowest rated
Sometimes reading a really negative review which many people think is spectacularly wrong can help make a useful buying decision.
This phenomenon is best illustrated by a single design tweak to the Google search results page in 2000 that Mayer calls "The Billion Dollar HTML Tag." Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page asked Mayer to assess the impact of adding a column of text ads in the right-hand column of the results page. Could this design, which at the time required an HTML table, be implemented without the slower page load time often associated with tables?
Mayer consulted the W3C HTML specs and found a tag (the "align=right" table attribute) that would allow the right-hand table to load before the search results, adding a revenue stream that has been critical to Google's financial success.
Now you can go to the iTunes Store to buy the Kindle app from Amazon that lets you read ebooks made for the Kindle device on the iPhone. Yes, it's that confusing! Maybe they shouldn't have called the app the same name as the device...I thought "Kindle" was the device? A noun and a verb form of the same proper name is ok (e.g. "I googled you on Google" or "Please digg my link on Digg") but two nouns seems like a no-no.
Order Kindle now to RESERVE YOUR PLACE IN LINE. We prioritize orders on a first come, first served basis. If you have previously placed an order for Kindle 1, and have not yet received it, your order will automatically be upgraded to Kindle 2. You need to do nothing.
Also, those who own the original version of the Kindle will be given priority for ordering. The device itself is slimmer, has text-to-speech, better e-ink display, more storage (~1500 books), and doesn't look like a Pontiac Aztek anymore. From the NY Times coverage of the announcement:
Mr. Bezos concludes with some high-level thinking: "Our vision is every book, ever printed, in any language , all available in less than 60 seconds.
Which makes Bezos' aim pretty clear: Amazon : Apple :: Kindle/amazon.com : iPod/iTunes Store :: Bezos : Jobs.
The Frustration-Free Package (on the left) is recyclable and comes without excess packaging materials such as hard plastic clamshell casings, plastic bindings, and wire ties. It's designed to be opened without the use of a box cutter or knife and will protect your product just as well as traditional packaging (on the right). Products with Frustration-Free Packaging can frequently be shipped in their own boxes, without an additional shipping box.
As CDs and DVDs are quickly being replaced by digital downloads, I expect that Frustration-Free Packaging will eventually be replaced by Packaging-Free Packaging as Lego sets, Barbie dolls, computer mice, and running shoes will be downloaded to your HP Personal Real Printer for manufacture and customization in the home. (via 37s)
As you might know, Benadryl (available at Walgreens.com for $5.29 for a box of 24 capsules) and Wal-dryl ($3.99 / 24 capsules) are otherwise known as "25 mg. of diphenhydramine HCI." Compare [with the true generic available at Amazon]. Yes, that is 400 tablets containing 25 mg. of diphenhydramine HCI, for about $10 when you factor in shipping.
Idea for Amazon regarding their MP3 store: allow people to pre-order MP3s and when they're available for download, send out an email to that effect. For instance, the new Sigur Ros album is out on June 24. A page for the MP3 album exists but it's difficult to find and while you can preview tracks, you can't pre-order the album.
One of the nicest things about the Kindle, and something that is inherent in such a device, is that, unlike a regular book, its orientation and weight aren't constantly shifting. With a paper book, you are made to move [it] around as you shift from the left to the right page, flip pages, etc. With the Kindle however, all of that shifting disappears and you can hold your chosen position indefinitely.
Such a "feature" generally allows you to expend less energy when reading. For example, I like reading in bed while lying on my side. With a paper book you have to constantly hold the book to keep it open and to move it slightly depending on whether you're reading the right or left page; with the Kindle, you can just let it rest on the bed and then tap the next-page button as needed. I realize that this may sound like a trivial thing to devote a paragraph to, but it really is amazing how such a device can change the way you read, or make the way you're used to reading that much better.
That's CEO-speak for "yay, we can charge you for buying this gadget again and again". That emphasis makes it seem like the Kindle is less of a "read any text you want on the go" device and more of an interface for purchasing Amazon's e-books, e-magazines, and blogs (yes, they're charging for blogs somehow...). E-ink is a genuine innovation but until someone without some skin in the media game takes a good crack at it, e-book readers are destined to be buying machines and not reading machines.
Update: Here's a list of all the blogs that Amazon is selling for reading on the Kindle. Subscriptions are $0.99-$1.99. No kottke.org (thanks, Amazon!!). Are the bloggers getting their cut of the subscription fees? Can I put kottke.org on there for free...or at least at cost? I suspect bloggers are getting a cut, with the rest taken by Amazon for profit and the conversion of the blogs' text into whatever goofy format the Kindle uses. Would have been a lot cooler to put an RSS reader on there and just let people read whatever blogs they wanted.
Amazon just sent me an email about my preorder of The Wire season 4 DVD. They say the shipping date has slipped a little, but the page still says it'll be out on Dec 4. Anyway, they made me verify the "change"; if I hadn't, they would have canceled the order, which seems a less-than-optimal solution to the problem. If you preordered, you might want to watch your inbox.
Back in April, I pre-ordered Harry Potter 7 from Amazon. They guaranteed delivery on its release date, Saturday July 21 before 7pm or they would refund the cost of the book...the details of that offer are here. All day Saturday until shortly after 7pm, the UPS tracking information indicated that the package containing my copy of the book was "IN TRANSIT TO FINAL DESTINATION", which is UPS-speak for "the UPS guy/gal who will deliver your book does not yet have it in his/her possession"...the magic phrase for that action is "OUT FOR DELIVERY".
At some point after 7pm, the UPS status page updated to say that a notice was left at 3:36 pm, implying that a delivery attempt was made and no one was home to receive it. (Amazon's tracking page says that UPS told them "Delivery attempted - recipient not home".) No such notice was left. My door buzzer did not ring at 3:36 pm (I was home all day on Saturday) and the doorman of the building next door who takes the deliveries for our building when people aren't home reported no notice or delivery attempt. Here's the complete tracking info from UPS:
Location // Date // Local Time // Description
NEW YORK, NY, US // 07/21/2007 // 3:36 P.M. // NOTICE LEFT
NEW YORK, NY, US // 07/20/2007 // 12:00 P.M. // IN TRANSIT TO FINAL DESTINATION
NEW YORK, NY, US // 07/19/2007 // 4:51 P.M. // DESTINATION SCAN
NEW YORK, NY, US // 07/19/2007 // 4:50 P.M. // ORIGIN SCAN
US // 07/19/2007 // 1:34 P.M. // BILLING INFORMATION RECEIVED
Maybe I'm lying about being home or maybe the person trying to deliver the package made an honest mistake, but it's curious that a delivery attempt could have been made when the package was not even "OUT FOR DELIVERY". Here's what I think happened. I think UPS's network was overwhelmed by Amazon's Potter-volume in some parts of the country and they had no way to deliver all those packages. (The forums for the book at Amazon and Google Blog Search are full of similar complaints from others...warning, spoilers! UPS even offloaded some of the volume to the USPS for "last-mile" delivery.) So, UPS just marked all of those packages they had no intention of delivering as "oops, we missed you, you must have been out".
Let's go back to Amazon's guarantee, which states that the refund "does not apply if delivery is attempted, but no one is available to accept the package". Amazon would be pretty angry with UPS if they cost them a bunch of money due to refunds and, more importantly, the loss of a bunch of customer goodwill...maybe Amazon would switch a larger portion of their formidable package output to another carrier, for instance. So UPS intentionally misclassifying those deliveries covers their ass with Amazon and covers Amazon's ass with regard to the refund.
My copy of the book from Amazon will be here sometime today (UPS doesn't deliver on Sunday), by which time I'll already have mostly finished the copy I bought at Barnes & Noble about 7:30 pm Saturday evening. The extra $20 isn't a big deal to me and neither is having to wait all day to start in on the book. But this book was a *huge* deal for Amazon (2+ million pre-orders out of a first printing of 12 million) and for their customers who desired their instant Potter gratification. Amazon should be hopping mad at UPS over this; UPS shifted the blame from themselves to Amazon's customers...who are in turn going to blame Amazon, doubly so because Amazon probably won't might not issue refunds for those "missed" deliveries because they don't need to. A customer service-oriented company like Amazon shouldn't take this kind of crap from their shipping vendor...incidents like these will erode customer goodwill and eventually their customer base, the retention of which is one of Amazon's stated primary goals.
Update: I've asked Amazon for a refund and am waiting on their reply. From the emails I've gotten from readers so far, it sounds like Amazon is being liberal in the refund policy, as one would expect.
Update: No word from Amazon yet, but the USPS (not UPS) delivered my book Monday morning. It had a UPS sticker on it with instructions to the Post Office to deliver it to me. No update on the UPS tracking page that its been delivered. I'm tempted to leave it unopened in its custom Amazon box as a collector's item. Maybe I can get JK Rowling and Jeff Bezos to sign it.
A rerun, because it came up at dinner the other night: EPIC 2014, the recent history of technology and the media as told from the vantage point of 7 years in the future. "2008 sees the alliance that will challenge Microsoft's ambitions. Google and Amazon join forces to form Googlezon. Google supplies the Google Grid and unparalled search technology. Amazon supplies the social recommendation engine and its huge commercial infrastructure."
Amazon is selling web site thumbnails for $0.20 per 1000. That's cheap...and totally undercuts my planned thumbnail business. Instead, I'm switching gears and targetting the luxury thumbnail market; I'm thinking thumbnails printed on letterpress hand-delivered to your home/office. (via pb)
Church of the Customer takes a look at how a Northern California restaurant called Cyrus competes with The French Laundry in attracting local customers, particularly those from wineries with big expense accounts for entertaining clients:
1. Match your competitor's exceptional quality. The food at both restaurants was cooked perfectly and beautifully presented. Both delivered flawless service. By matching the quality of its better-known competitor, Cyrus removes the primary barriers of opposition.
2. Allow your customers to customize. The French Laundry offers three prix-fixe menus of nine courses each. Cyrus allows its customers to choose their number of courses and the dishes.
Local competition still matters. You usually think of restaurants like The French Laundry as competing on a national or international level. Over the years, Keller's flagship has made several short lists of the best restaurants in the world. But as this article demonstrates, having to compete for the same pool of local customers can drive competitors to achieve a high level of excellence, higher perhaps than they would have achieved without that competition, and that excellence could lead to wider recognition. Even companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Amazon who compete on a global level and don't interact with their customers face-to-face still have to vie with each other for local resources, particularly employees.
I got an email this morning from a kottke.org reader, Meghann Marco. She's an author and struggling to get her book out into the hands of people who might be interested in reading it. To that end, she asked her publisher, Simon & Schuster, to put her book up on Google Print so it could be found, and they refused. Now they're suing Google over Google Print, claiming copyright infringement. Meghann is not too happy with this development:
Kinda sucks for me, because not that many people know about my book and this might help them find out about it. I fail to see what the harm is in Google indexing a book and helping people find it. Anyone can read my book for free by going to the library anyway.
In case you guys haven't noticed, books don't have marketing like TV and Movies do. There are no commercials for books, this website isn't produced by my publisher. Books are driven by word of mouth. A book that doesn't get good word of mouth will fail and go out of print.
Personally, I hope that won't happen to my book, but there is a chance that it will. I think the majority of authors would benefit from something like Google Print.
Someone asked me recently, "Meghann, how can you say you don't mind people reading parts of your book for free? What if someone xeroxed your book and was handing it out for free on street corners?"
I replied, "Well, it seems to be working for Jesus."
And here's an excerpt of the email that Meghann sent me (edited very slightly):
I'm a book author. My publisher is suing Google Print and that bothers me. I'd asked for my book to be included, because gosh it's so hard to get people to read a book.
Getting people to read a book is like putting a cat in a box. Especially for someone like me, who was an intern when she got her book deal. It's not like I have money for groceries, let alone a publicist.
I feel like I'm yelling and no one is listening. Being an author can really suck sometimes. For all I know speaking up is going to get me blacklisted and no one will ever want to publish another one of my books again. I hope not though.
[My book is] called 'Field Guide to the Apocalypse' It's very funny and doesn't suck. I worked really hard on it. It would be nice if people read it before it went out of print.
As Tim O'Reilly, Eric Schmidt, and Google have argued, I think these lawsuits against Google are a stupid (and legally untenable) move on the part of the publishing industry. I know a fair number of kottke.org readers have published books...what's your take on the situation? Does Google Print (as well as Amazon "Search Inside the Book" feature) hurt or help you as an author? Do you want your publishing company suing Google on your behalf?
When the tsunami struck Asia last year, Amazon.com was quick to post a donation link on its front page. Don't you think they should do the same for the victims of Katrina? How about using that platform of yours to apply some leverage to Jeff and the crew to get a link up there?
Amazon's lack of a donation link was noted in our household this morning as well. How about it, Amazon? (thx scott)
Update: Please stop emailing me about the tsunami/Katrina comparison thing. I don't wish to debate the relative scale of natural disasters or who deserves more attention and aid when bad stuff happens. Individuals and corporations alike need to determine who they wish to aid on their own terms. In the past, Amazon has been a place to go to give aid...it's the first place I thought of going when I heard of the escalating problems in the Gulf states (and I don't think I'm alone here) because if they had a donation mechanism, it would be a fast link and easy for people to donate. That Amazon has chosen to not to set up a donation mechanism in this case is their choice and I certainly don't fault them for it.
Paul tries to figure out why people review products at Amazon that have already been reviewed by several people. "What motivates someone to submit the 1,282nd review of The Poisonwood Bible to Amazon.com?"
Sometime in the last 6-9 months (it's been that long since I last looked at my account), Amazon changed their policy on placing an upper limit on the amount an associate can earn on big ticket items:
Only personal computers (both desktops and laptops) have referral fees capped at $25. No other product lines have their referral fees capped.
Previously, the most you could earn if a referral was $10, even if the item cost $3000 and the referral rate was 5%. Sometime in the last month and a half, someone used my associates code to purchase a printer for close to $600 and gave me $28 for "selling" that printer for them. I don't link to Amazon as much as I used to (my referrals and revenue have been flat several quarters despite increasing site traffic), but the associates must be pretty happy with this change, particularly those that can move big ticket items on a regular basis. For the right blog or site, the revenue generated by putting up Amazon ads featuring more expensive items might compare favorably to using AdSense or the like.