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I Have A Kindle Now. But I Won't Read A Book On It. Discuss.

By - November 29, 2009

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I had a birthday a few weeks ago and to mark the occasion, my wife bought me a Kindle.  

OK, yes, I’m a pretty digital guy, and despite writing my 1992 Berkeley Master’s thesis on “The Future of Print in the Age of Interactivity” – a thesis that celebrated the rise of a digital tablet fed by a world wide network – I didn’t run out and buy a Kindle as soon as they came on the market. In fact, I was rather suspicious of the device, with its cultish clan of devotees and its somewhat insidious approach to purchases (Whispernet is free – just use it to buy stuff!). I actively demurred my wife’s consistent implorations to buy one – much to her frustration as a card-carrying member of the aforementioned cult.

I couldn’t explain why, but something about the Kindle just struck me as wrong. (Well, the lack of an open development system is one big Why, but it wasn’t the elusive Why. I’m getting to that….).

So when my wife handed me an Amazon box to open on my birthday…well it was awkward. I’ve already purchased two Kindles – both for her (she had to have the second version) – so I knew what was inside the box. But I have severe reservations about the thing, so pretending to be thrilled was difficult. We’ve been married over 16 years after all.

Then again, my wife was clearly thrilled with her Kindle, and her enthusiasm carried with it the whiff of a movement . Now thanks to her, I owned a ticket to Seeing What The Fuss Is All About.

So we fired the thing up, set up my account, and I began to poke around the Kindle store.

And that’s when it hit me, in a very visceral and almost reactionary sense: I never, ever, EVER, want to read a book on this device, at least as the device is currently set up. Perhaps that’s a bit too sweeping: Put another way, I don’t ever want to read a book that I would ever want to share or keep – one that I’d want to put on my shelf in my library at home.

It was as if I was paralyzed: I literally couldn’t even imagine purchasing a digital version of a book, downloading it onto this device, and then reading it there. Newspapers and magazines? Sure – I immediately got the New Yorker, the NYT, and the WSJ, and plan on happily consuming these periodicals and more as time goes by. I might even take a few blogs – but then again, it seems rather silly to pay for something that comes free over the web (wait….oh never mind.)

But books? No way.

Why?

I imagine you have probably figured it out – I was stuck in a physio-digital dilemma – my attachment to the physicality of books was affronted by the idea of digital long-form narrative.

Now, I’ll be honest here and say this was a rather uncomfortable place to be, given my career as a producer of texts about the future of digital. What’s wrong with me? Am I turning into my (grand)mother? Am I hopelessly out of date? Will I soon be muttering under my breath about how my kids are texting too much and failing to have “real” relationships with their friends?

Yikes. (David Byrne doesn’t have this issue, so what is WRONG with me?!)

So I got to thinking about what was wrong with the Kindle, from my point of view. Now, I’ll grant that my point of view isn’t consistent with most (or even many) folks out there, but I think it bears airing out in any case. And as I pondered why, really, I don’t like the idea of reading a novel on the Kindle, it became quite apparent it had to do with the book’s physical nature, certainly, but more importantly it’s social nature – the infrastructure of our culture that supports a book’s social identity through its physical transport. (Countless books have been written about this mystery of the book as artifact, of course…)

It was clear to me that the Kindle breaks just about every one of the unwritten mores of how we, over hundreds of years, have honored books socially. (If this has been said before, endlessly and better by others, please forgive me, and leave a link in the comments…) And as a writer and lover of books, this makes the Kindle nothing more than a glorified Netbook – without the Net.

A few examples:

- You can’t share a Kindle book with anyone else. That’s just nuts. The sharing of a book is perhaps one of the most intimate and important intellectual acts between humans, ever. I’m not stuck on whether or not that sharing is physical. I’m stuck on the inability to share. It’s a crime.

- You can’t declare to anyone (including, importantly, reminding yourself) that you’ve read this book – an obstacle I’ll call “the library problem.” I love being surrounded by books I’ve read, and I love the fact that people who come to my office or my home library can see the books I’ve read. Yeah, part of it has to do with status. And does digital mean that status is going away? I don’t think so.

- You lose the serendipity of reading in public (and judging, as well as being judged for what is read in public). This issue has famously been pointed out before, and I do find it rather compelling. A Kindle suffers from a kind of social blindness – no one knows what you’re reading, unless they ask. Something important is lost when no one knows what you’re reading on the subway, the airplane, or the park bench. The opening salvos of countless relationships will no doubt be lost (though I suppose any number of romances have been kindled by the exuberant declaration of one’s love for the Kindle…).

Now, before you consign me to the Luddite woodpile, let me state that I don’t think any of these obstacles will stand, over time. We’ll figure out how to share books as digital objects, how to quicken The Book into the mercury of digital social relationships.

But I’m deeply disappointed with the Kindle’s current lack of understanding of this critical aspect of a book’s meaning in our culture.

And I’m pretty sure that ten years from now – perhaps sooner, if Google has its way – we’ll look back at the first Kindles as important but ultimately flawed “fish with feet” in our ongoing evolution as a culture that honors what a book truly is. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying my free three week trials of periodicals. We’ll see if they convert into paid subscriptions….

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Just Give Me One Modal Dialog ….

By - November 22, 2009

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Back when I was reporting the book, I remember a meeting I had with Gary Flake, then the lead technologist at Overture, now a Fellow at Microsoft running Live Labs, responsible for stuff like Seadragon, Photosynth, and now, Pivot, an experimental approach to large datasets that attempts to rethink some fundamental approaches to what we understand search to be today.  

Back in 2004, I asked him why we couldn’t move forward in search interface, which struck me as a major issue (and still does). Gary looked at me ruefully and said something I’ve never forgotten: “If only I had just one modal dialog box…”

What he meant was that search, at that point, was a race for the best ten blue links, and anything that got in the way of that, like a modal dialog box that popped up and asked a refining question, would mean that a very large percentage of folks would abandon the search.

And abandonment of the search meant loss of revenue.

Google was just better at getting (approximately) the right first set of blue links, and hence, it won the first round of the search interface wars.

But things are changing. A lot.

I’ve notice lately that I’ve not been happy with search results, because, well, there’s just not enough refinement in the SERPS. But it’s not just the SERPS, its also the interface. I’ve written a lot about this, but in short, I’m frustrated with the way search does post declarative navigation. (OK, that’s totally geeky, but those of you who really care probably know what I mean).

And this is why I’m grokking Pivot right now, and let me just say this….this is worth grokking. So I am going to be doing just that over the next day or so…expect more soon.

If you’d like to grok Pivot, check out this presentation. You’ll need Silverlight….

"WuzUp?"

By - November 19, 2009

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From Biz’ post on Twitter’s shift:

Twitter helps you share and discover what’s happening now among all the things, people, and events you care about. “What are you doing?” isn’t the right question anymore—starting today, we’ve shortened it by two characters. Twitter now asks, “What’s happening?”

Well, regardless of spin, this is a major shift, to my mind. Semantics matter, *a lot*, when your entire business is, well, semantics. Language is how we encode that which is essential to who we are. And there is a world of difference between “What are YOU doing” (emphasis mine) and “What’s happening”.

For starters, it’s a rather subtle leapfrog of Facebook, which has recently mimicked Twitter with its status updates. Facebook is stuck (but there are upsides to this stuck-ness) in a personal framework. Twitter, by moving past the YOU, is declaring Facebook’s imitation moot.

Will that stick? We’ll see. But I love to see the evolution of the space. It’s such good narrative…

I Love It When…

By - November 18, 2009

You imagine something out loud in a book, and then it starts to happen….

I am sure many of you have heard of RedLaser, but I hadn’t until today. I love it!

Here’s the text from my blog post, written in 2004 (pre iPhone, so I used a Treo…) which I rewrote into the book:

What to do? Not to worry, you’ve got Google Mobile Shop installed on your phone. You whip out your Treo 950, the one with the infrared UPC reader installed, and you wand it over that bottle of 2001 Clos Du Val now lovingly cradled in your arms. In less than a second a set of options is presented on the phone’s screen ….

Here’s the video on the app:

Thanks For Flying With Us. Please Give Us All Your Money.

By - November 15, 2009

Screen shot 2009-11-15 at 9.55.18 PM.pngToday I had quite an experience with United Airlines. It has very little to do with much of anything I usually write about here, save one key element: I have posited that to succeed in what I’ve been calling the Conversation Economy, companies must learn to have conversations with their customers at scale. (And to do so, they will need to leverage open platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc. and, of course, change the way they instrument their business. But more on that later).

Well, here’s a tale of one company failing miserably at doing just that, even while, in the end, due to my own insistence (and most likely, the rising level of anger in my voice), it kind of, sort of, managed to not totally fail.

But first, the backstory.

I am a United flyer, in the main. I’m not saying I’m a proud, loyal, or passionate United flyer, but a United flyer I am. I like their “PS” service between NY and SF, and I fly that route a lot – to the point of knowing the flight attendants and picking exactly which seats I settle into each trip. I tend to fly United where ever else I go (and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I go to a lot of places). I’ve been an Executive Premier there for a long, long time (though I think it dropped at some point during the bad years of 2001-02) – which means I fly a ton with United. At some point or other this year, in fact, a gate agent at United let me know that I’m a million mile flyer – however, most of their agents on the phone have no idea what I’m talking about when I recite this nugget back to them.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying, I know the airline really, really well. And when I fly, even with my family, I tend to fly with United, even though I’ve had my share of travel and customer service disasters (and you all know, regardless of what airline you fly, what I mean by that).

But does the airline know me? No. Not at all. And today was a remarkable example of that in action.

So today my wife and I decide that we’re going to fly to Arizona for Thanksgiving – all five of us. Her family is there, and we’ve decided to join them. Since this is not a work trip, I use Expedia to check flights between the Bay area and Tucson – I’ve been there many times in the past, and I know direct flights are very hard to come by. Turns out, there is a direct flight, and it’s on United, and – double luck! – it’s just at the times (departure and return) that I want to fly. Economy seats are priced, roundtrip, on Expedia at about $440 each. Pricey, but it’s not like I have a lot of choice. It’s a week away, and there are no other direct flights. And yeah, it’s true, I’m willing to pay the extra hundred bucks to not have to connect through Vegas, LA, or Phoenix when traveling with three kids. Anyway.

Experience told me that the kind of reservation I wanted to make would require human interaction – five seats, three kids, possible upgrades, etc. – so armed with the flight numbers and times, I called United directly.

Now, it’s Sunday afternoon around 1 pm. After running a gauntlet of voice recognition driven commands, and finally asking, five times in a row, for an “Agent! Agent! AGENT! …. yes….AGENT!” I get…an agent.

Now United, like many large companies who must handle a large volume of customer service, has a preponderance of customer service agents based in India. They are almost universally pleasant, professional, and courteous, but, I have found, they are also not very good at coloring outside the lines. So when I call in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, with three kids in the background, asking whether there’s a good business fare for my wife and I, and whether we might get an upgrade from economy, and oh by the way is there any chance the flight leaving at 7 pm is relatively empty, and if so, might we get seats in economy near the front, etc. – well, it’s been my experience that nine times out of ten, the call will devolve to the point where neither I nor the still-professional but clearly flummoxed customer service agent are having any fun. At all.

Which is exactly what happened. However, this call took a turn for the worse not based on a lack of communication, but on the real time usury of United’s pricing system. Herewith an edited transcript of my conversation with the agent:

ME: So how much would it be if my wife and I flew in Business, and my kids flew in Economy?

AGENT: There is no Business class on this plane.

ME: OK, so that means there are two classes of service?

AGENT: Yes.

ME: OK, great, so let me ask it another way…how much would it be if my wife flew in the more expensive class, and my kids flew in economy? I just want to know in case it’s a good deal. Otherwise, maybe I’ll try to get upgraded….

AGENT: So you want two First Class tickets?

ME: Erhm…well, no, I want to know how much a First Class ticket would cost?

AGENT: OK hold on….(45 second delay)…OK, that would be $1633.20.

ME: EACH?!

AGENT: Yes.

ME: But it’s a 90 minute flight!

AGENT: Yes.

ME: (Recalling the Expedia fares of around $440). And how much are the economy seats?

AGENT: For three?

ME: Erhm….well, I just want to know how much an Economy class fare is.

AGENT: Let me check. (90 seconds go by…..) OK. Economy class fare for three would come out to $447 for each, round trip.

ME: (Relieved) That’s great. Let’s just do five Economy fares then. No way am I going to pay nearly four times the Economy rate to sit in First!

AGENT: Erhm….(30 second delay)….well sir, just a minute.

ME: Is there a problem?

AGENT: Well, no. Can I put you on hold?

ME: (Fearing the Interminable Purgatory Of Hold) NO! Please don’t put me on hold. What’s the problem?

AGENT: Well, it’s just that the system is now giving me a new price for each Economy fare roundtrip.

ME: (Fearing the system). Why?

AGENT: Well, before, I asked for just three seats. Now you want five.

ME: ….and?…

AGENT: And well, there are only six left on that flight.

ME: So….what is the system saying to you now?

AGENT: Sir, the price is now $2011.

ME: Holy sh*t.

AGENT: Sir….

ME: Really?

AGENT: Yes, so can I put you on hold and see what is going on?

ME: Yes, please do. Please.

For the next five or so minutes, I am put on hold, which for no additional fee includes a very peppy rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a tune I never, ever thought I’d dislike. But over the years, United has put that faith to the test.

About a minute in, I start to twitch. I’m not one to hold well, and my wife is now hovering over my computer, asking what is going on. So I fire up Twitter and post this plea:

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Of course, nothing happens immediately (and as of this post, still nothing…8 hours later). So back in the moment, I have a revelation – I think I have a special phone number for Super Premium United Customers, one that I got at about the same time I was told about the Million Mile thingy.

I look it up in my contacts and yes, there it is. So I call it on my cel, even as I’m on hold with United.

Same voice recognition tree. Same result – I’m screaming “AGENT” about 30 seconds or so in.

And after some reconciliation between me and the computer, an agent does indeed come on. A very nice Indian gentleman who asks how he might help me.

ME: Er, hello. Forgive me if my voice sound strained but so far I’ve had a rather rough time of it with United’s pricing system. I have a complicated fare I’m hoping you might help me with. (Secretly, I’m hoping I can find a backdoor into United pricing heaven, of course…)

AGENT: How can I help you?

ME: Well, I’d like it if you can price for me five economy seats on (this) flight on (that date)?

AGENT: Certainly.

ME: (A bit sheepishly) Uhm, and…can I ask you something?

AGENT: Certainly sir.

ME: Is this the super special line?

AGENT: Sir?

ME: Well, it’s just that I called a number that I thought was for premium customers, but the voice mail tree was the same and you didn’t seem to know who I was….

AGENT: I am a reservation agent.

ME: Oh yes, I know. I was just wondering if you…

AGENT: How can I help you?

ME: OK. Well, tell you what. Can I give you my mileage number? Would that help?

AGENT: Certainly sir.

ME: (Gives number).

AGENT: Thank you. Now, how can I help you.

ME: Well, again, I’d like it if you can price for me five economy seats on (this) flight on (that date)? It’s just that I tried this already, and I got a really, really high price on the seats, higher even than the price for First Class, and the agent told me it was because there were only six seats left, and I wanted more than three, and…anyway, I don’t think it’s fair to pay that much for seats that were quoted to me at $447 during the same phone call, is it?

AGENT: I don’t know, sir.

ME: But really, I mean, well, it’s usury, isn’t it? It’s not fair?! When I asked for just three seats, I got a quote of $447 each!

AGENT: Sir, it’s just how the system works.

ME: But … (resisting the urge to scream “DON’T YOU KNOW I’M A GOOD CUSTOMER WHO SHOULDN’T BE TREATED THIS WAY?!!”)

At this point, the other agent came back on my other line. I told the agent on my cel phone that I’d call back and returned to my original call.

(ORIGINAL) AGENT: Sir?

ME: Yes, I’m here.

AGENT: Sir, I’ve checked the system, and that’s the price.

ME: So you are telling me the “system” is now saying that instead of paying two times $1633 for First and three times $447 for Economy, if I want to pay for only Economy seats, I have to pay five times $2011?

AGENT: I am afraid so sir.

ME: That’s more than $10,000 to fly my family 90 minutes!

AGENT: (silence)

ME: OK. Look, I understand this is not your fault. Can I speak to a supervisor?

AGENT: Certainly. Can I put you on hold?

Look, it’s late, and I have a long day tomorrow, so I won’t bother you with the resultant blow by blow. Suffice to say, after about another thirty minutes on the phone, I managed to get five economy class seats on the flight, at an average of about $550 each. It took a lot of wheedling, patience, arguing, anger and resolution, not to mention delivery of information I had already delivered more than once. The fellow, who was a supervisor, even tossed out the $25 per ticket “ticketing fee” that he was supposed to tack on (not that I knew about that till he told me he was waiving it, sensing he’d lose me entirely if he forced another $125 in fees on me. He was right, and I do appreciate the gesture).

So in the end, we’re on the damn flight.

I got off and I told my wife, in so many words, that we’re going to see f*cking Grandpa for f*cking Thanksgiving in f*cking Tucson after all.

So thanks United, for making it that much more special! As you might imagine, I can’t wait for Virgin, Southwest, or Jet Blue to start direct service between SF and Tucson. Because when they do, I won’t think twice about switching.

Until then, however, you’ve got my business. But if I were in your shoes, I’d be very, very nervous about the future of yours.

Why Did Google Buy AdMob?

By - November 10, 2009

Look. Sure, it’s a mobile ad platform, and sure, Google wants to play there, more than they already are. OK. Fine. But really. What’s the play?

Droid.

Data.

Droid.

Iphone App Data.

Droid.

K?

Data. Just to be clear. Data. About what works, on iPhone apps, so they can leverage it…for Droid.

K.

Hey Mr. Murdoch: It Doesn't Have to Be Black and White

By - November 09, 2009

Sheesh. Just give Google summary text and headlines to index (like the WSJ does now). Then do your best to convert would be readers to your paid model. That’s it. What’s the big deal?

The rest is bluster.

Twitter Incorporates Retweeting (Beta Launch)

By - November 06, 2009

Saw this greeting me whilst on Twitter.com today (gotta love WiFi on a plane):

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Nice to see Twitter rolling out so many new things, like Lists, which seems to be taking off (though I find the lack of a discovery interface vexing, for now).

Retweeting is integrated in an elegant way, tweets that have been retweeted have a little cycled arrow icon, which identifies tweets that folks you’ve followed have retweeted. Another signal (as are Lists) that Twitter will be able to use as core data to drive its unique value. Watch that space, it’s where Twitter will win (or lose).

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Twitter also added the ability to retweet any tweet from within Twitter.com, as you can see in the bottom left of the pic below. No doubt this is all already in the API, as Lists was when it rolled out.

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Now, why does all this matter? Well, it helps Twitter, as I already said, by providing the company with very valuable core data about what people find worthy of attention. And signals of attention are gold in a data driven platform like Twitter. Secondly, it addresses the continuing problem of discovery – seeing what has been retweeted helps people find others who might be worth following.

A Step Toward Realizing the Data Bill of Rights Vision

By - November 05, 2009

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Danny was kind enough to ping me about this story, which breaks the news about Google’s new “Dashboard,” which is, in essence, a first start toward realizing the “privacy dashboard” I asked for so long ago (and again here), back when I was posting ideas like a madman (I’m going to be doing that again shortly, so watch out…).

It’s a big deal I think, even if most of us never use it. And it’s very smart of Google to lead here. It really had no choice, when you think about it. And it’s kind of cool to see stuff I wrote about here over three years ago happen in the real world.

OK, What the Real Phone Map Should Be

By - November 03, 2009

The sphere is abuzz with today’s news that AT&T is suing Verizon over those apparently quite effective ads which borrow heavily from Apple’s tagline – “There’s an App for that…” Verizon has created a map that compares AT&T 3G coverage to Verizon’s, and then uses the tagline “there’s a map for that.” (Above is the commercial, here’s the map.)

Well, I’ve been ranting about a real carrier mapping application (executed as a marketing campaign, natch), for nearly three years, and while I’ve told just about everyone I can about it, so far it’s still not done (I know, I know, we should make it ourselves, right? Well, maybe we will!).

Meanwhile, here’s the idea. If any of you brilliant coder/UX/marketing geniuses want to go do it, just credit FM and I, ok?

The main value of the program? It provides a place where anyone can put a pin on a map and annotate (with four part ranting harmony if they’d like) where their calls are dropped. A service like this exists – deadcellzones.com – but it’s not quite what I had in mind. It’s got the guts of what I’ve suggested, but not the scale, interface, community feel, conversational dialog, or program backing. And by program, I mean a major carrier practicing the true principles of conversational marketing, and owning the dialog – listening, responding, and acting upon the input.

I imagine the program working something like this. A major carrier – let’s say AT&T, since it’s in the news today – decides to build this app. It then announces the app in a major marketing program via a traditional marketing platform (web, TV, etc.). Say you’re on Boing Boing, and you see a STAMP execution that announces the new service – perhaps the ad itself is a widget that allows you to push a pin into the map based on a zip code, or whatever. One thing I know, everyone I’ve ever talked to has a story about how frustrated they are about dropped calls, and everyone has a list of places that are always dropping calls (for me, it’s the tunnels around the GGBridge, Sand Hill Road area, and on and on…). So give them a platform to vent about it.

But wait, there’s more! Venting is nice, but what’d be nicer is if your venting actually created change in the world! Imagine that! Well, if you’re a major carrier, you *can* do something about it. In fact, folks are always giving carriers grief for not putting up more cel sites, but in many cases, the real reasons they can’t have nothing to do with profits, and everything to do with the local city council, or geography, or other factors.

So, here’s the play: As the pins pile up, those areas which have the most pins start to get “hotter” in a visual way on the map. And then comes the key part: The carrier promises, in its marketing, to address the top ten “hot spots” each quarter (or month, or whatever period of time makes sense). Note I said “address” and not “fix.” Why? Because in some cases, there is no fix. For example, coverage at the North end of the Golden Gate Bridge is permanently bad, because, I am told by folks who know, it’s very hard to get permission to place cel sites in the right places (the area is a national park *and* part of Sausalito, a notoriously unfriendly place when it comes to outside companies like cel carriers).

So in a case like the North end of the Golden Gate, AT&T “addresses” the problem by responding on the map itself, providing an explanation of why the company can’t fix the problem, and suggesting that if consumers are upset, they might write a note to the Sausalito city councilmembers and/or the supervisors of the national park (and provide links, of course!).

The application is a mashup of sorts, blending Google Maps, crowdsourcing, geolocation, and commenting systems.

The plane is about to land, so I have to post and run. I’ll revise this when I get back on terra firma. But I believe that whichever carrier actually executes on that map will, in my mind, really win the game. More on why as I update this.