First Thoughts on iPod Touch

Yesterday I bought an iPod Touch. I got the 32 gig version from Costco, which actually has a better warrantee deal than the Apple store and sells the product for a little less. These are my initial thoughts on the purchase.

Overall, I’m quite pleased. Apple makes a remarkable product. (I’ve been sold on Apple since converting from the Amiga to the Mac in college.)

Mostly I got the Touch as an ereader. I’ve been contemplating ereaders for some time, and I realized I really want an additional feature to the ones recently described: portability. I can slip the Touch in my pocket and take it with me wherever I go.

The announcement of the iPad indicates that Amazon really screwed up, I think. Who would pay Kindle prices when the Touch and iPad are about the same price with phenomenally greater functionality? Plus I can read Kindle ebooks — and every other sort of file — on my Touch.

Instead of making an even bigger, even clunkier, even costlier Kindle, I think Amazon should have made a smaller, simpler, cheaper one. A Kindle the size of a Touch, sans the ridiculous touch pad and wireless, could have been sold in (I’m guessing) the hundred dollar range. It could have offered the simple, eye-friendly black-and-white screen with USB transfers.

But when I can pay the same price for a portable, elegant, multi-function Touch as what the lower-end Kindle costs, it’s simply no contest. Plus, all the other ereaders I’ve read about coming out this year follow the high-priced Kindle model. I don’t know what they’re thinking, but I predict massive failure for those products.

The iPad, on the other hand, is both two large and too expensive for my needs. I will be very interested to see how Apple handles ebooks. (This is particularly interesting in light of the spat between Amazon and Macmillan.) Will Apple’s ebooks read on standard epub readers, including Adobe’s Digital Solutions? Or will Apple ebooks read only on Apple software? Will the ebooks be available for desktops and iPhones, too, as I assume will be the case?

I was surprised that the Touch doesn’t come loaded with the ability to transfer and read all the files. Instead, I had to buy an app for that. I first tried using Stanza, but its pdf to epub conversion completely sucks. I ended up with formatting problems and words run together. I checked out FileMagnet and, after reading a positive review, purchased it. It allows the transfer of all sorts of files via my desktop’s Airport feature. I don’t why it doesn’t just use the USB cable, but at least it works, even if it uses a ten-dollar solution for a nickel-sized problem. I have already started a library of pdf and html books, and now I’ll be able to read them on my Touch, no problem. (I don’t even want to download DRM-free books directly to the Touch, as I want everything mirrored on my main hard drive.)

I also downloaded the Kindle app, so now there’s a good chance I’ll start buying ebooks through Amazon, which, at least so far, offers the best selection and prices of any service I’ve looked at.

The Touch will also make a great music and video player, calendar, and hot-spot internet browser. While I would have gladly paid (significantly) less for a portable, dedicated ereader, for the money I’m glad to have the extra functionality. Plus, I think I can get the Skype app and use the Touch as a phone in hot spots, so that may be very cool. (One of the reasons I got the larger-sized Touch is that it comes standard with a microphone, which is built in to the headphone assembly.) So, sweet! I love Apple.

I do have a couple of complaints. Why Apple didn’t make it easy to transfer text files (txt, html, pdf) via the USB baffles me. I mean, come on — that’s just ridiculous.

Also, while the Touch is set up for Bluetooth, from what I can tell that only works with headphones. Maybe there’s some technological complication I’m missing here, but why can’t I use a Bluetooth keyboard with the Touch? That single feature would make it phenomenally more useful. (I’ve read about adding a Bluetooth keyboard only to jailbroken Touches.) The cynic in me suspects that Apple is intentionally limiting the functionality of the Touch in order to bolster sales of the iPad. Assuming the touch is capable of using a Bluetooth keyboard hardware-wise, I sincerely hope that Apple provides the software to make that happen. (While the touch-screen keypad is surprisingly functional given its small size, it’s still not nearly as good as a real keyboard.)

Overall, so far I’m extremely pleased, and I look forward to getting my Touch lined out and integrated into my life.

The Perfect Ereader

I’ve been trying to keep tabs on the epublishing revolution. While I continue to believe that 2010 will be a breakthrough year for the industry, I also continue to be dismayed by the sorts of crappy ereaders I’ve been reading about. Following are the features I’d like to purchase (and refrain from purchasing) in an ereader, all nicely summarized (just in case an ereader manufacturer ever sees this). I imagine there are lots of consumers out there with similar preferences. Will 2010 be the year when the perfect ereader (for me) will become available on the market?

* I want a USB jack, and nothing more. I don’t want wi-fi or wireless. Just the cable, please. And the low price that goes with it.

* I want a small screen. I want portability, not the ability to view a large-scale map of Colorado all at once. (Obviously I’m talking about the eye-friendly, low-power screen such as the one on the Kindle.)

* Don’t give me an expensive and power-hungry touch screen. Just give me three or four simple buttons with an intuitive interface. I don’t want to touch the words, just read them.

* For God’s sake don’t give me a mouse-scale keypad. All a keypad does is cause the device to be larger and more expensive, and irritate me whenever I have to look at it due to the fact that it’s so completely worthless.

* The battery must be removable! Without specialized tools! When the battery dies — as it inevitably will — I just want to pop it out and replace it. Why anybody makes a device with locked-in batteries is utterly beyond me. Stupid, stupid design. (My criticism excludes very-small and inexpensive devices that aren’t big enough for good battery-release mechanisms.)

* Don’t give it locked-in internal memory. Just give it a slot for a standard flash card. That’s it.

* Don’t give it speakers! If I want to listen to something, I’ll put it on my iPod. I’m not looking for the Swiss Army Knife of ereaders.

* The device should be able to easily read at least the following formats: plain text, pdf, html, and epub. Ideally, Amazon would license its format for use on other ereaders, too, but that would be far too easy, and it would make Amazon far too much money, to actually take place. That does, of course, create a dilemma for me. Amazon has the most ebooks at the most reasonable prices. Many epub formatted books are insanely expensive. I sincerely hope that somebody like Apple steps into the epublishing business to make widely-recognized formats competitively priced. Book publishers are mostly hurting themselves by not making epub or pdf ebooks available at reasonable prices.

* A selling price of $150 or less would be great. If Amazon can sell its hopped-up Kindle for $259, surely a usefully stripped-down device such as I describe could profitably sell for considerably less than that. (Indeed, I wish Amazon would come out with a stripped-down version of the Kindle.)

I don’t know why ereader producers think that consumers want the fanciest, most expensive reader possible. Keep it simple and affordable. Build it, and I will read.

Skiff Promises "Multiple Formats" for Ebooks

In my quest to keep tabs on the eublishing industry, today I glanced at articles about Apple’s forthcoming Tablet (which will be much more than an ereader) and Skiff, a company that promises to produce an innovative ereader and sell digital content.

As cool as the Tablet looks, it also promises to be fairly expensive — more costly than low-end notebooks — and I’m not convinced that sort of screen can function well as an ereader, which should allow for hours of comfortable reading without undue eye strain.

Judging from the pictures and descriptions, the Skiff screen looks like it will be a good reader — and apparently you can even bend the device without ill effect. I’m a bit put off by the large size of the machine: 9 by 11 inches. I want an ereader that I can carry around more easily.

I sent Skiff some questions, and a representative sent me some answers, though they weren’t very specific. I asked:

Will Skiff sell works with multiple publishing options, including HTML, pdf, and Digital Editions, or will Skiff, like Amazon, sell only works converted to a proprietary format?

In other words, will purchasers of Skiff content need to download a Skiff reader (for non-Skiff devices), or will that content read on existing and popular software?

Also, will Skiff release a smaller version of its reader for those of us who would prefer something easier to carry around?

This should be an exciting year in the epublishing industry, and I look forward to seeing how Skiff competes.

Here’s the email I got back:


Thanks for your interest in Skiff. I’ll answer as much as I can at this point in time.

The Skiff service will support multiple formats. More details to come.

One of the unique benefits of Skiff’s platform is the ability for content publishers to submit their curated content (i.e., branded newspapers, magazines, etc.) into the Skiff Platform, where it is then tailored to match the unique characteristics of different devices that utilize a variety of different screen technologies – from smartphones to eReaders.

The Skiff digital storefront will allow consumers to easily access and download a wide assortment of newspapers, magazines, books, blogs and other content from multiple publishers for use on dedicated Skiff e-reading devices, other e-readers and innovative devices, as well as multi-purpose devices such as smartphones, netbooks, tablets, notebooks and PCs – as well as via the Web. Items purchased from the Skiff storefront will be delivered to these devices via 3G, WiFi and other forms of connectivity.

We look forward to your following Skiff as we make additional announcements during 2010 in the lead up to our formal launch.


Chaim Haas
Senior Vice President, Technology & Emerging Media

Of course, whether Skiff lives up to the company’s own hype remains to be seen.

January 6 Update: Popular Mechanics has an update. One detail is that “while the screen is flexible, the device itself is not.”

Amazon Licenses Non-Transferable Ebooks

I wanted to find the answer to a very simple question: if I spend, say, $10,000 on an ebook library over a span of years, can I will that library to another party upon my death, as I can will my collection of printed books? For Amazon, the answer is no.

Here’s what the Amazon Kindle: License Agreement and Terms of Use has to say:

Use of Digital Content. Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.

Restrictions. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

In other words, Amazon does not sell ebooks. It licenses them. That means if you spend $10,000 on a library of printed books, that collection becomes an asset that can be resold or willed. If you spend $10,000 on a Kindle library, the value of that expenditure is utterly destroyed upon your death, and the library cannot be transferred to any other party.

And that completely sucks. Offers Online Book Viewing

I’ve been looking into the ebook industry, and generally I don’t like what I see at present. The essential problem is that the major ebook sellers, notably Amazon and Barnes and Noble, sell ebooks that read only with proprietary readers. This raises two problems. First, I want to be able to integrate all my ebooks into a single library, much as I can integrate all my music into iTunes now (made possible with the standardized mp3 format). Second, I don’t want to invest money in a platform that’s going to end up failing in the market place. I don’t want a library’s worth of the ebook equivalent of Beta or HD DVD.

At the same time, I don’t want to buy ink-and-paper books anymore, because my shelf space is limited and I want the flexibility and portability that comes with ebooks. So, for right now, my solution is to simply stop buying books, except for used copies that save a bit of money, books unavailable in digital format, and books that I absolutely want to read right away. The book industry is a mess. When publishers and retailers decide to straighten it out, I will resume doing business with them.

Previously I’ve made a couple of interrelated suggestions: HTML seems like the natural standard for ebook publishing, and ebook sellers should make the ebooks readable online, via a standard web browser. Now I’ve found a bit more information about this.

As Jedi Saber points out,“The .epub is a standard for eBooks created by the International Digital Publishing Forum. It consists of basic XHTML for the book content, XML for descriptions, and a re-named zip file to hold it all in. Anyone can make these eBooks, and since they’re essentially just XHTML, anyone can read them.” (Adobe says basically the same thing.)

Indeed, Jedi Saber proceeds to explain how to generate the epub format. While Jedi complains about the high cost of Adobe’s InDesign, which apparently can generate the epub format, I am fortunate to be married to a graphic designer, so this may well be a viable option for me. (I am working on an upgraded ebook version of Values of Harry Potter; an earlier version had been straight HTML.)

I noticed another tidbit from some of the company’s ebooks “can also read books online, from any computer, anywhere, without downloading or installing anything.” Now THAT is sweet.

For instance, offers the Twilight books “online in eb20.)” An explanatory note explains: has just released eb20, a web-based ebook reader application. This means that, in addition to downloading an ebook to your computer or device, you can now read the book online from any computer with a supported web browser that’s connected to the internet. eb20 requires no software installation and enables you to just start reading a work, seconds after buying it.

In the coming months you’ll see more and more of our books available through this simple online reading interface. As books are converted to eb20 format, you’ll see a little Read Online link next to the book in your account. Just click on that link and start reading. When buying a book, if you see Available to read online in eb20, it means that, once you’ve paid for it, you’ll be able to download the ebook and read it online anywhere, anytime.

There’s just one teensie problem with (aside from its limited selection): many of its ebooks are insanely expensive. Let’s take the example of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, which I recently downloaded as a trial run from Barnes and Noble for $9.99. The Amazon Kindle price is also $9.99. The Amazon hardcover price is $18.45. Random House will sell you the ebook directly for $27.95, the price for which also sells the book.

Memo to publishers: if you’re going to whine about Amazon’s ebook selling prices, you might think about not trying to jack customers with your own ebook prices. Publishers try to sell overpriced goods that are a hassle to use and then wonder why their industry is flailing.

Perhaps one of these years book publishers will catch up to the 21st Century.

E-Books: Amazon Versus Barnes and Noble

I’ve been complaining quite a lot about Amazon’s e-book service. My basic complaint is that, because of Amazon’s proprietary software, Amazon e-books will only play on devices supported by Amazon’s reader software. Presently that excludes my Mac, which means that the only way I could buy Amazon e-books was to also buy Amazon’s Kindle (or an iPhone or Touch, which runs the software).

I don’t want to buy a Kindle because it does way more than what I want it to do, and as a result it is quite overpriced for my budget and needs.

Thankfully, I have friends who tend to be early adopters of new technology. One of these friends (Diana Hsieh) lent me her Kindle for a few days so that I could check it out. This was quite helpful, because, as Amazon has no physical store front, it is otherwise impossible to pick up and play around with the Kindle before buying it.

I also purchased Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God from Barnes and Noble (BN), because it will read on my computer (with the BN reader) and I wanted to try it out. I’m contemplating buying several more books through BN but I worry that they won’t read on the e-reader I may ultimately buy and that I won’t be able to integrate my purchases from different suppliers. (The word is that Apple is also getting into the e-book game, which could change the industry dramatically.)

BN’s Nook is not yet available for purchase, so I cannot directly compare the two services. I’m reading the God book on my Mac screen and comparing that with text on the Kindle. But that’s what I have to work with.

I’ll begin with the BN e-book. It was easy to buy (once I set up my account), and the BN e-reading software installed and functioned flawlessly. The text looks fabulous on my great Mac screen, and it is easy to increase the font size and resize the window for a narrower column of text.

There is a huge disadvantage with the BN e-book and a minor one. The huge disadvantage is that the e-book will only read with the BN e-reader software, which bugs the living hell out of me. What is the point of having universal formats like pdf and HTML if e-book sellers refuse to use those formats? By contrast, an mp3 song you buy from any vendor will play on any device on the standard software. You don’t buy mp3s from Amazon that play only on the Amazon music reader. (Apple-formatted songs will only play on iTunes, but, as I’ve noted, Apple can get away with this because the company is so great at making players.)

Incidentally, today I spent $63.10 at the Cato Institute’s store to purchase seven e-books. These were straight pdf downloads, so I don’t have to worry about the compatibility issues of DRM. I do think that publishers should sell both pdf and HTML formats so that users can select the format best adapted to the reading device.

The minor disadvantage is that the BN e-book has no standardized page numbers. Instead, the pagination adjusts to the window and text. The problem is that BN e-books are useless for citation purposes, unless we’ve gotten to the point where nobody cares about page references because books are so easily searchable. If I do a review of the book, I’ll look up the page numbers, ironically, with Amazon’s “look inside” feature. Perhaps that should give Amazon the idea that its business model in this area sucks.

There are some advantages to reading an e-book on a computer screen that I did not anticipate. For note-taking, I can easily open a text window next door. The BN e-book allows the reader to cut-and-paste short passages, which is awesome. I also love the way the endnotes work. Click on the endnote to move to that note at the end of the document; click the number again to go back to that point in the text. That beats the hell out of flipping back and forth in a paper copy.

What about the Kindle? Previously I had indicated that I didn’t much like the Kindle’s design, whereas the Sony e-reader looked more appealing. I have since visited a Sony e-reader in a Target store, and I now think it completely sucks. What I didn’t notice before is that the Sony device features ten menu buttons on the right-hand side, which screams poor design. The Target model didn’t even work right, which didn’t fill me with confidence. It seemed a lot more like a toy than a serious reader.

The Kindle, by contrast, is an elegant machine. The screen looks marvelous, and, while I have not yet spent hours reading from it, I have no doubt that will prove no problem. The Kindle’s controls are a lot more intuitive than I thought they would be. One key control is a miniature joystick, which works fabulously. (I’m used to operating a similar control on my Canon video camera.)

The Kindle, then, is great at what it does. The problem is that it does way too much for my needs, and therefore costs way too much for my budget. The Kindle is like a Hummer, when all I’m looking for is an economical and reliable little Honda. Because I don’t want to buy a Kindle, and because Amazon e-books will not yet read on my Mac, I am simply not going to buy any Amazon e-books. (Again Amazon might consider the fact that its business model is completely stupid, though at least the company is working on more readers.)

The main thing that the Kindle has that I absolutely do not want in an e-reader (for the money) is wireless technology. What I want is a cheap little USB cable through which I can load e-books from my computer library onto my reader. The ability to buy books on the road is of practically no value to me.

I didn’t realize you can browse the internet on a Kindle, which is cool, but again the coolness is not nearly worth the money. Of course I loaded up my own web page. The browser was tracking the loading progress — I kid you not — in kilobytes, with a “k.” I finally got irritated by the wait and hit the stop button, at which point (at least part of) my web page displayed, and quite nicely. But, seriously, who wants to browse the internet s-l-o-w-l-y in black and white? If I want to browse the internet on the go, I’ll buy an iPhone or Touch. I’d much rather carry two devices that do what they’re supposed to do than one device that sucks at most of its functions.

Speaking of suckage, I tried the Kindle’s audio reader software. Painful. If I were blind, I imagine I could get used to it. But it would be a real struggle. Think of the challenge of getting past Keanu’s acting to enjoy the Matrix, then multiply that by a thousand.

The Kindle has a built-in speaker and audio-processing software, so it will play mp3s and audio books. That’s cool, but I’d much rather buy a less-expensive e-reader plus a $59 iShuffle. Just sell me the reader. That’s all I want it to do.

As an e-reader, the Kindle works great. If I could just buy the e-reader part of the Kindle at a lower price, I’m pretty sure I’d do it. The dictionary is very cool. You just push the joystick until the cursor is in front of the word of interest, and the definition pops up at the bottom.

It is possible to take notes and record them with a Kindle document. Again push the joystick until the cursor is where you want it, then start “typing” your note. The keyboard, as I anticipated, is horrible. I mean, if you were a sentient ferret or something, it would probably be the perfect size. Maybe it’s okay for the “texting” generation. But I absolutely hate it. I’d much rather scribble down a few notes on a piece of paper. So, Kindle minus wireless minus the keyboard minus the high price is a device I’d love to buy.

At least the Kindle has standardized “locations” (rather than “pages”), but these don’t match the paper version. They are also listed as ranges (such as “locations 14-19”), which is strange. Will publications allow Kindle-specific citations, or will Kindle buyers need to check the page references against the paper versions? I don’t know why publishers don’t simply insert a page counter into the text itself matching the hard-copy page counts. This is trivially easy to do, though it would be a minor distraction while reading the text. Granted, some older books already have many different paginations. But there’s no reason for new books not to feature the same page references for the hardback, softcover, and e-book versions.

The Kindle will run pdf files fine. You can even upload them via USB. But to run files like Word and HTML, a user must send the file to a Kindle-specific e-mail, then Amazon “will convert the document to Kindle format.” So, in other words, to get an HTML file from my computer to my Kindle sitting right next to it, I need to send the HTML file half-way around the world to wherever Amazon keeps its computers, where Amazon will convert this already-standard-format file to the completely-non-standard Amazon format, then send the file back to my Kindle wirelessly. Did I mention that Amazon’s business model for the Kindle is completely ridiculous? I mean, God forbid that I’m able to send an HTML file via a USB cable and read it with my $259 e-reader. I mean, Amazon can install software that will (sort of) read the text out loud, but it can’t figure out how to let me read HTML files directly?

I only had one minor problem while using the Kindle: at one point, when I was trying to jump to a linked table-of-contents entry, the Kindle thought I was trying to highlight some vast portion of the document. But I soon figured out how to cancel out of that mode, and with a little jiggling got the joystick to do what I wanted it to do. (Much of this tinkering I was doing while reading Amazon’s tutorial, which is a pretty good document.)

If my income were more upper-middle-class than lower-middle-class, I’d gladly buy the Kindle, despite the risk of betting on an e-book reader that turns out to be the equivalent of Beta or HD DVD. But, given that the Kindle does way too much and therefore costs a lot, I’ll wait to buy a reader until the market has settled down a bit, the formatting issues have been resolved, and I can buy a nice low-end reader for $150 or less. At this point I will either wait to buy e-books or buy BN e-books that at least will read on my Mac.

It was a fun date, but the Kindle is not yet marriage material.

December 23 Update: I just had a thought: why doesn’t Amazon allow e-book purchasers to view the books in a web browser with password protection? Then Amazon wouldn’t even need to release additional readers. Any device with a browser would suffice. Also, I sincerely hope that Apple makes an economy-model reader, as I imagine the Tablet will be priced well outside my budget.

How Stupid DRM Is Killing E-Books

I will defend the political rights of publishers and resellers to use digital rights management (DRM) for electronic books if they wish. I’m not convinced the practice makes for good business. As it stands, DRM is preventing me from buying an e-reader and e-books.

Meanwhile, with my shelves mostly full and without much room to expand my collection of printed books, I’m planning to be selective in buying paper-and-ink books. We live in a mobile society. People frequently change jobs and move. In some parts of the country lots of people spend considerable time on busses, subways, or trains. The market is ripe for e-books, yet the production and distribution of e-books sucks.

This is not a problem of technology. With modern software it is trivially easy to convert a book to an electronic format. (Indeed, practically all books are printed from a digital file.) While I have not used one of the e-readers, I am convinced that the technology makes the text look quite nice and readable. The good Doctors Hsieh have debated various aspects of the Kindle, but they agree the text looks nice. I imagine that new generations of e-readers will be easier to use and more versatile. (By the way, feel free to peruse my Disclosures Unjustly Compelled by the FTC.)

But compatibility issues are hell on consumers. If I buy a Kindle, I cannot even read Amazon’s e-books on my Mac, though Amazon has released a PC reader and claims a Mac version is on the way. More importantly, if I buy Amazon e-books, I cannot read them on any competing e-reader (except the iPhone or iTouch, which uses the standard backlit screen rather than the cool text-friendly, low-power screen).

I love Amazon, but forbidding customers from reading Amazon e-books on other readers strikes me as pathetically stupid and short-sighted.

Contrast the situation with e-books to digital music. True, iTunes uses unique encoding, and its songs do not work with other players. But it is trivially easy to convert iTunes music to the standard mp3 format. Amazon might consider the fact that I’ve purchased mp3 files from Amazon to play on my iShuffle, but I have purchased exactly zero e-books from Amazon because of the compatibility problem.

Meanwhile, Barnes&Noble’s e-books will only read with that company’s exclusive software. Nook, with an “expected ship date” of February 1, is priced at $259, which is, surprise surprise, exactly what the Kindle is selling for. They are both ridiculously overpriced. The Sony Pocket e-reader costs only $199. It doesn’t have wireless, but I don’t want wireless! [December 19 Update: I changed “wi-fi” to “wireless” for accuracy. The Kindle is wireless but not wi-fi, while the Nook is both.] I would be perfectly content with a USB cable. The problem is that Sony doesn’t sell the e-books I want to buy. So I can get a more-economical reader that won’t read the books I want, or I can get a clunky, overpriced Kindle. My solution is to buy neither.

While Amazon is great at selling books, it sucks at producing e-book readers. So why not sell me e-books that I can read on an inexpensive reader made by somebody else? With a standardized format, I suspect that a number of producers would make a good, inexpensive reader.

I understand that some publishers are whining about e-books. Get over it. Publishers have two options: they can adapt their products to the digital revolution, or they can die. Publishers should insist on a standardized format, or at least sell reasonably priced, DRM-free e-books themselves.

Let’s take an example. I’m interested in buying Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. Both Amazon and Barnes&Noble sell the e-book for $9.99. But both of those versions have sucky DRM that makes them far less valuable to me. What is the solution of Random House, the publisher (via Knopf)? They will sell you an e-book! The hardback costs $27.95. And the e-book, which does not have to be printed, bound, stored, or shipped, costs… $27.95. Gee, thanks, Random House.

And publishers wonder why people aren’t buying as many books? Do you seriously think I’m going to pay $27.95 for an e-book that has a marginal production cost approaching zero and that I can buy hard-copy elsewhere for $16.34? If Random House sold DRM-free e-books at a reasonable price, I’d be happy to buy them, and the publisher would get a much higher profit margin relative to selling through Amazon or Barnes&Noble.

Some readers may have noticed that my own book, Values of Harry Potter, currently sells only in soft cover. But it will become available in DRM-free digital format soon. (Whether it will sell through Amazon’s Kindle system or other e-systems remains to be seen.)

Standard text formats already exist. They’re called HTML and pdf; you may have heard of them. But God forbid that publishers sell books in a format that consumers can easily read.

Update: After reading several comments, I thought I’d further contrast Apple and Amazon.

Apple started life as a computer company that excelled at making great hardware that works seamlessly with good software. On this platform Apple built iTunes, a retail store.

Amazon started life as a book retailer and tried to build an integrated digital book program on top of this. The problem is that the iShuffle and other Apple players work great, while the Kindle is an overpriced technological piece of gossa. I mean, it’s relatively cool, but it’s nothing like the e-reader I’d like to buy. (I certainly don’t want wireless or a tiny keyboard built in.) If Amazon produced the e-reader equivalent of an iShuffle, that would be one thing, but it doesn’t.

Another difference is that, when I buy a song from iTunes, I own that file. I can copy it to disk, back it up, and control the way I use it. If I were to buy a digital book from one of the major sellers, my “library” would be established by the selling company. The seller can alter my library. Thus, it feels a lot more like renting books than buying them, and I don’t like that. If I buy a book, I want to buy it and be in control of the file. Screw online “libraries.” Just send me the file that I pay for. I neither need nor want Amazon or Barnes&Noble to “manage” my library.

The standardized mp3 format works great for music. Practically any modern digital device will play an mp3. I will buy e-books when they are similarly portable and convenient.

December 16 Update: Another obvious difference between iTunes and e-book “libraries” is that I can import all of my music into iTunes. It will import standard CDs as well as mp3s. Try importing a Barnes&Noble e-book into your Amazon library or vice versa. This is forbidden, which again creates a major barrier to buying e-books in the first place.

Google Ads on Ann Coulter

As I’ve pointed out, Google’s AdSense program requires, “Sites displaying Google ads may not include… advocacy against any individual, group, or organization.” I just checked in with Google, and the restriction remains. However, I have since found definitive proof that Google doesn’t take its own policies seriously. I was glancing at Ann Coulter’s web page (don’t worry — I don’t make a habit of it), and I noticed “Ads by Google.”

Is there any person in America who “advocates against” individuals, groups, and organizations more forcefully than Ann Coulter? Clearly, if Google took its own stated policies seriously, it would not allow Coulter to display “Ads by Google.”

But here’s the kicker: Google’s own ad “advocates against” a particular individual. Note that Google’s system selects the content of the ad. An ad that appears on Coulter’s web page states, “Who Can Defeat Hillary?” In other words, the ad includes “advocacy against” Clinton.

If Google flagrantly violates its own stated policy for ads, then clearly that particular policy is meaningless. However, if, as one of the comments on an earlier post alleges, Google has pulled its ads from another web page because of that page’s arguments, is Google opening itself up to potential legal action?

Colorado Politics, Blogging, and Ads with Google and Yahoo

Readers of this web page can expect updates about Colorado politics nearly every day.

In my announcement regarding the major reorganization of this web page as a blog, I wrote that will host “commentary mostly about politics, with an emphasis on Colorado.” However, I added, the page “will tend to cover [a broad] range of issues” including “(infrequent) personal” notes.

However, a comment at BlogAds convinced me that I should always lead with Colorado politics:

Blogs without a laser-sharp focus on one topic or community AND an audience of 1000 readers a day usually do not attract advertisers. But some blogs with a sharp focus AND an audience of thousands a day do NOT get advertisers. One test: have more than a handful of companies expressed an interest in advertising on your blog?

I’m still going to post comments about national politics, cultural matters not directly related to politics, and an occasional note about my blog or activities. However, in the interest of sharpening the focus (if not to “laser-sharp” specifications), I decided to make sure that I post something about Colorado politics every day. (My main goal is not to attract possible advertisers, but to create an interesting web page that readers appreciate.) Note that most political issues involving Colorado also have national implications, so I do hope to attract some readers nationally. (Also note that occasionally I’ll take a day off.)

Now to the secondary topic. I was checking out policies for blog ads after noticing the quite bizarre written policies of Google’s AdSense program. Here’s the most objectionable restriction: “Sites displaying Google ads may not include… advocacy against any individual, group, or organization.” I wrote, “I suspect that the large majority of your AdSense users flagrantly violate the policy on a daily basis.”

One reader suggested that I check into Yahoo’s ad program. The policies of Yahoo are even worse. Yahoo’s policies claim, “We will not show results on pages that contain problematic content, including but not limited to… material that advocates against any individual or group.”

The top definition of “advocate” as provided by, is “to speak or write in favor of; support or urge by argument; recommend publicly.” To “advocate against” something, then, is to speak or write against it and encourage others not to support it.

(As I’ve mentioned, I discourage the use of such constructions as “advocate for,” “advocate on,” and “advocate against.”)

According to the explicit policies of the ad services by Google and Yahoo, then, people who run ads from those sources are forbidden from making comments such as the following:

* “The KKK is a horrible, morally evil organization that people should shun.”
* “Don’t vote for Candidate X.”
* “Don’t buy Product X, because it doesn’t work very well.”
* “Douglas Bruce was wrong to kick a photographer.”
* “Store X charges too much for many of its products.”
* “Neo-Nazis are morally despicable.”
* “The ad policies of Google and Yahoo are ridiculous.”
* “Corrupt Politician X should be ejected from office.”
* “Career criminals should not be trusted.”
* “Corporation X is wrong for cooking its books.”
* “Don’t buy season tickets for the Broncos, because they suck.”
* “Tom Cruise is an oddball.”
* “Bar Z’s happy-hour prices and selection suck.”
* “The band Korn plays horrible music.”
* “George W. Bush has expanded state control over our lives.”

All of these statements are examples of “advocating against” an individual, group, or organization. I wonder what fraction of web pages that display ads by Google or Yahoo don’t violate this policy on a regular basis?

Both Google and Yahoo link by association reasonable, peaceable advocacy — i.e., responsible free speech — with the promotion of violence and racism. I am baffled as to how two major internet companies ended up paying somebody to write such idiotic policies (but there I go again, “advocating against” somebody).

However, Yahoo’s policies get even worse. It forbids “Content related to human suffering or death.” In other words, my blogs about Douglas Bruce kicking a photographer, a dumb kid shooting his friend, and the murders at New Life Church are forbidden by Yahoo’s ad program. If a web page discusses “Weaponry, ammunition, fireworks or explosives,” then it cannot display Yahoo ads. In other words, no user can discuss any crime or the Fourth of July. Also forbidden are “Political, religious or charitable organizations, issues or causes.”

What exactly is allowed under Yahoo’s ad policies? I suppose you could talk about kittens. Just don’t “advocate against” the man who allegedly “threw [a kitten] against a wall in his mobile-home trailer,” killing it.

Letter to Google

I’ve been fairly happy with Google’s Blogger service. However, I just discovered on oddity with Google’s “AdSense” program. I sent a letter to Google complaining about the problem. And, I thought, what’s more appropriately ironic than using Google’s Blogger service to complain about Google? Here’s the letter:

Dear Google,

I was looking into using AdSense on my web pages, but I found the following policy:

“Sites displaying Google ads may not include… advocacy against any individual, group, or organization.”

According to this policy, if I wish to use AdSense, I cannot “advocate against” the KKK, a dangerous cult, or a political movement that I regard as harmful.

Most of your other restrictions make sense, but this one does not. Moreover, I suspect that the large majority of your AdSense users flagrantly violate the policy on a daily basis. However, I will not sign up for AdSense knowing that I fully intend to violate the policy as stated. If you wish to rephrase your policy so that it does not explicitly prohibit normal and responsible blogging, then I will again consider the program.

Thank you for your consideration,
Ari Armstrong