Friday, August 27, 2010

For eBook Reading Devices, More is Less

If you've been following the evolution of ebook reading devices, you will have noticed a recent wave of new products and price reductions; for a review see this article. I've been interested in two intertwined questions: "How low will prices go?" and "How will reading devices evolve?

In my previous look at reader prices I showed a graph of historical pricing versus time and predicted that we'd see $25 e-readers in 2014; here's an updated graph. In this version, I've connected the pricing for particular devices to help unravel the tangle of lower prices vs. more features. What you can see is that the cheapest devices continue to get cheaper; we're on track to see $50 devices in 2012. At the same time, we see a a full range of devices emerging, with full color, video and gaming capable devices like the iPad occupying a price point of about $500 and adding functions instead of cutting price.

The latest Kindle exemplifies the evolution of the dedicated reading device. David Pogue's review in the New York Times suggests that its biggest improvements are things that have gone away- weight, area, and cost. It's quite possible that this trend will continue, but it's also possible that reader prices will stabilize and instead add features like touch screen, color, and video support.

Since the reader device evolution is determined in many respects by the display, I reached out to some contacts is the display industry to better understand what to expect over the next few years. What I learned was that, at least for the next year or two, the very best reading experience will be delivered by single-function, reading-focused devices.

The display technology behind the Kindle and its competitors from Sony, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and the real-soon-now Copia is called e-ink. E-ink displays use electric fields to push black stuff to the surface of the display. These displays consume power only when the page is refreshed. They're too slow to do video, but the very low power consumption allows the reader to use a small, light-weight, long-lasting battery. They rely on reflected light, just like real ink on paper, and display manufacturers struggle to make the reflectivity of the white part as high as possible. White paper reflects about 85% of the light that hits it; black ink reflects only 20%. For comparison, the "white" part of an e-ink display reflects 40% of the incident light.

Since I've gotten used to the iPhone, the Kindle's lack of a touch screen bothers me. But the addition of a touch screen reduces the readability of text in two ways. Touch screens are extra layers that sit on top of a display. This extra layer includes a conductive layer made of a material called indium tin oxide (ITO). Although ITO is mostly transparent, it still absorbs about 10% of the light that goes through it. That means that the white part of an e-ink display with a touch layer is down to about 34% reflectance, which is closer to black ink than white paper. The touch layer also separates the pixel from the surface of the display; imagine the effect of reading a book under a thin layer of yellowish glass.

Nontheless, e-ink readers with the touch feature don't look so bad; the Sony PRS-600 Reader Touch Edition is one such device (currently retailing for about $150). Touch layers also a impose a power penalty; a device has to be constantly checking to see if there's a finger poking at it. The cost of adding a touch layer is significant; the yield of the attachment process is not 100%, the display is the most expensive part of a reader. However you slice it, a non-touch device will be easier to read than one with touch.

It's a similar story with color. Color displays require either multiple layers or extra pixels. There will be a severe tradeoff between the readability of a display and its color capability.

Reader manufacturers are addressing these tradeoffs in various way. Apple uses a hefty battery powering a bright backlight to achieve acceptable performance in the iPad; they've been able to save lots of power with a custom processor, and the iPad's operating system and App Store impose severe constraints on what the iPad will run. The Nook has separate displays for reading and for color/touch; I find the result to be a bit clunky. The new Pixel Qi displays offer multiple display modes- the reflective black and white mode offers low power and good readability, while, a backlit mode offers color and video speed.

Right now there's no reason for Amazon to push its price point; the $139 Kindle is back ordered, and it appears that they're selling as fast as they can make them. E-ink displays are manufactured by a single company that has the ability to manage supply to avoid a margin-killing glut of displays. You can expect Amazon to drop the price even further as soon as its supply allows; its long term strategy is clearly to make money selling ebooks rather than reader devices.

After the iPad came out there have been all sorts of predictions of the imminent demise of the dedicated e-reader. My look at current technology suggests that, at least for the next few years, the best reading experience will be delivered by simple, cheap, dedicated reading devices, and the business models for ebook sellers will likely center around content and forms of interaction that work well on slow, black and white displays.

I'm still going to buy an iPad, though!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Library Journal: Should Kids Get eBooks in School?

My second piece for Library Journal is now up. Here's the beginning:
Searching for information is NOT like trolling for fish. You know the saying: "Give a man a fish and you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish and you have fed him for life." Answer someone's question, and most likely they'll go away for today. Teach someone how to search for the answer, and they'll continually hunger for more.
What didn't fit into the article was more of Doug Achterman's story. He's the Teacher-Librarian at Hollister High School in California who did his Ph. D. dissertation on his work unraveling the data on how school library staffing affects student performance. This year, his school library has had its staffing slashed. This year, it will be staffed with a half time professional, (Achterman) and an 80% time clerical worker. This is for a high school with 3000 students in an economically mixed community. The other half of Achterman's time will be spent teaching English.

It's ironic that Achterman will be witnessing the negative side of his conclusion that school libraries require adequate staffing to have a positive impact on student performance; he'll be doing his best to prove that conclusion wrong, at least in one California high school. Despite very strong community support for the school library at several school board meetings, the budget cutting axe could not be averted.

Despite his library's unenviable budget situation, Achterman was upbeat. He emphasized that he viewed his most important role was working with other teachers. He has a long term goal of creating tutorials, videos and other resources for his teaching colleagues. Take a look at his library's web page if you need inspiration for what a dedicated library professional can do in a school library, budget cuts be damned.
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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Library Journal: Libraries, Ebooks, and Competition

My first piece for Library Journal is now available online. Here's the key sentence:
Well, doh. Of course libraries are important. What people are overlooking is that the reason libraries are having such fits dealing with a changing environment is not that libraries are unrecognized as fountains of value, it's that libraries are so valuable that they attract voracious new competition with every technological advance.
One reader of the print version emailed me to complain about a too-far fantasy that I included:
Today, it's likely a teenager would get the same book from Project Gutenberg and read it on a smartphone without ever visiting a library.
I checked with my resident teenager, and no, that would never happen. Teenagers don't read books on smartphones. For the most part, they don't have smartphones. (Though I suspect the answer might be different in Tokyo.) They do, however, do a lot of reading on screens. Teenagers have been reading on screens for years, and don't mind it. Those screens are not Kindles, however. I have yet to see any self-respecting teenager reading on a Kindle. The greatest adoption of Kindles has been reported be in the over 50 age group.

The Project Gutenberg bit is only half fantastical, at least with respect to Crime and Punishment. A teenager would have used the Wikisource version.

Comments on the article are welcome, either here or here.
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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Charlie Chan Actor Warner Oland Not Mongolian, Say Wikipedia

When my mom was pregnant with her third child, my dad loved it when people asked if they were expecting a boy or a girl. "Well" he'd answer with a twinkle in his eye. "They say one of every 3 children born in the world are Chinese, so for our third child, that's what we're expecting!"

My parents were Swedish. My father was born in Gary, Indiana, but grew up in northern Sweden; my mother was born in Sweden and her mother was a Lapp, or Saami. After his retirement, my father became very interested in genealogy, and he traced his ancestors and relatives, almost 10,000 of them. Since about the year 1400 Sweden has done a very good job of recording births and deaths in church records, and since people didn't move around much, it's not hard for us to trace people. In the farming villages where my parents came from, everybody is related to everybody else.

I've inherited my dad's database and I've put it online. Doing so has has put me in touch with a fascinating variety of distant cousins. Among my distant relatives was the actor Warner Oland, who became famous for portraying Charlie Chan in Hollywood movies. Warner Oland, whose real name was Johan Verner Ölund, was a third cousin to my father's mother. My father noted in his database that he remembered when Warner Oland came to their village by car and met my grandparents. It must have been the same year Warner Oland died, 1938.

Naturally, I pay attention whenever Oland in mentioned in the media. Over the last week, I've read articles in the New Yorker and in the New York Times about a new book by UCSB English Professor Yunte Huang. The book is entitled Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History; it tells the story of the "real" Charlie Chan, a detective in Honolulu, Hollywood's portrayal of Charlie Chan, and Huang's own story as a chinese immigrant in America. A significant part of the book recounts the odd story of how a Swedish actor came to portray the quintessential Chinese detective.

When I read the New Yorker article, I immediately put the book on my "must read" list. (Unfortunately, it's not available as an ebook, and is sold out of my local bookstores!) But one sentence of the New Yorker review, written by Harvard history professor Jill Lapore, stuck out for me:
Oland, born in Sweden in 1880, had, beginning in 1917, specialized in playing Oriental villains, including Dr. Fu Manchu. (Oland's mother was Russian, and he had slavic features.)
Oland's mother was NOT Russian. Oland's mother was my grandmother's third cousin. His father was a 5th cousin to my grandmother. The Swedish genealogist Sven-Erik Johansson has specialized in the digitization of the church records in the region of northern Sweden where Oland and my grandparents came from and has published an ancestor chart for Warner Oland going back 5 generations. None of those ancestors come from Russia. To top it off, Warner Oland was born in 1879, not 1880 as reported in the New Yorker.

So where did the idea that Oland had a Russian mother come from? Doesn't the New Yorker have fact checkers? I went to Wikipedia to find out. The Wikipedia article said that "His mother was Russian of Mongolian descent.", referencing a "page not found" Internet Movie Database (IMDB) article. I refound that article, which says:
He didn't need make-up when he played Charlie Chan; all he would do is curl down his moustache and curl up his eyebrows. In fact, the Chinese often mistook him for one of their own countrymen. He attributed this to the fact that his Russian grandmother was of Mongolian descent.
So IMDB says it's his grandmother who's Russian and of "Mongolian descent"; the key thing to note is the attribution. I immediately edited the Wikipedia article to omit to spurious information. A day later, a wikipedian had put back the Mongolian bit, but more accurately worded as being something Oland said. A proper reference, to a book by Ken Hanke, Charlie Chan at the Movies: History, Filmography, and Criticism (Google Books, Amazon) had been added. That book says:
"Even before the role of Charlie Chan came his way, Oland was a frequent onscreen Oriental, despite the fact that he was born in Sweden to a mixture of Swedish and Russian Parents. Physically, he had an exotic look to begin with, and the addition of an Oriental-style mustache and beard made the transformation complete. "I owe my Chinese appearance to the Mongol invasion," he once told Keye Luke. "That's true," Luke agrees, "because the Mongols did get up there around Sweden and Finland and naturally sired some children, and so, he said, 'I come by it naturally.' And, his whole family looked like that." There was never any need for elaborate make-up. "All he did," explains Luke. "was put that little goatee on his chin. Otherwise, he had his own mustache. Everything was just like that. No make-up. It's just amazing."
At this point, I must make an observation. Please look at the photo and decide for yourself. As far as I can judge, Warner Oland didn't look the least bit Oriental. He looked like most everyone else living in that area of northern Sweden would look if they put on a smudge of eyebrow makeup. But the resemblance to that Chinese detective in the movies is uncanny!

There is, however, a story I remember my dad telling about a deserter from the Russian army. (The Russians burned down the closest city, Umeå, in a war in 1720.) It was said that this deserter hid in the woods or disguised himself as one of the locals. The way my dad told it, it was quite a scandal, even 200 years later. So maybe Warner Oland was joking when he said his mother was "Russian". In any case, the mysterious Russian in my family does not appear in the church records!

If Oland really had exotic features, it's much more likely he got them from a source other than a stray Mongolian. The closest the Mongols got to northern Sweden was Lithuania. In the area where Oland's family originated, the ethnic mix was dominated by Finns, Swedes, and Saami.

Take a look at a photo of my mother's cousin (unrelated to Oland), a pure Saami. With a bit of make-up (and some acting talent), she would have easily been able to play a Chinese woman. The Saami look quite different from the Finns and the Swedes. They are an indigenous people of Scandinavia, and no one really knows where they came from. Though their language is related to Finnish, they are not genetically related to the Finns. A recent DNA study (PDF, 399KB) published in the American Journal of Human Genetics suggests that they are related to the Berbers of northern Africa. It may well be that Oland thought they might be related to the Mongols.

There's another interpretation of Oland's references to his "Mongolian" blood. In his time, children with Down's syndrome were referred to as "Mongoloid". In the 19th century, Down's syndrome was regarded as an expression of genetic "degeneration" toward the inferior "Mongoloid" races. It could well be that jokes about Mongolian ancestry reflected a belief that cases of Down's Syndrome were a result of racial contamination. My father's database shows many examples of women with large families bearing children into their 40's; his own familiy of 11 included one Down's child.

So it seems likely that Warner Oland's statements about his ancestry were either inventions or jests. What's interesting to me is how this truth is constructed. It's not hard for people to look at the evidence now available and decide that a genealogist working with church records is probably more reliable than a co-star's recollection of an actor's constructed persona with regard to Oland's ancestry. Yunte Huang, the author of the new book, emailed me to say he agreed that it was a jest of Oland, who was known to be "quite a wisecracker". Now THAT sounds like my Dad's family!

At first glance you might say Wikipedia is totally unreliable, because anyone can change it. But compared to the New Yorker, IMDB, and a book published in 2004, Wikipedia is more reliable because it CAN be changed, and because it supports a version history and a culture of citation and transparency for any information that might be disputed. While I'm optimistic about Wikipedia's ability to construct truth, I'm worried about systems that extract facts from Wikipedia articles and feed them in to the semantic web. While editing the article on Warner Oland, I deleted the assertion that he was a "Swedish Person Of Russian Descent". I wonder about the lifespan of this assertion as it has been copied and distributed throughout the world. There are really no good mechanisms to de-sert this sort of assertion. It's only with context that assertions can build truth.

As it happens, I married into a family that really IS Chinese. I remember showing my mother-in-law old pictures of Saami ancestors in their traditional dress. "Those look like Manchu people!" she exclaimed. It's true. If you put aside the lens of race, we all look more or less alike, and we all look a bit exotic.

Update: The author of the New Yorker article, Jill Lapore, got back to me to report that her article relied on the entry for Warner Oland in American National Biography (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000) for the assertion about Oland's mother's ancestry.

Update, August 23: Some additional research shows that Oland is also a third cousin of my grandmother.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Library Monopsony for Monographic eBook Acquisition?

A River in the Sky: A Novel (Amelia Peabody Mysteries)In its antitrust lawsuit filed against OCLC on July 29 SkyRiver and Innovative Interfaces, Inc. (III) take the point of view that OCLC, a "purported member-based cooperative of libraries" is trying to monopolize the market for integrated library services.

If you're interested in the lawsuit, I recommend reading posts by two of my favorite Karens. Karen Coyle writes intelligently from an annoyed-at-OCLC viewpoint here, here and here, while Karen Schneider writes here with a deep familiarity with the library world's vendors.

What I find remarkable is the fact of the lawsuit itself. Here we have Innovative, one of the world's most successful library systems companies, claiming that OCLC, a creation of libraries themselves, is competing unfairly. It is no coincidence that the lawsuit was filed just two weeks after the announcement of a high profile launch of OCLC's "Web-Scale Management" system at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. OCLC's new service is clearly threatening to Innovative. While the lawsuit is ostensibly about OCLC's anti-competitive behavior in the cataloging market, it is motivated by OCLC's entrance as a potential competitor in Innovative's core library management system market.

I don't have much to say about the merits of the lawsuit. I am not a lawyer. I'm not even a librarian. But in general, I think it would be A Good Thing if libraries would find MORE ways to exert their market power. As far as I've seen, libraries usually act like marketplace doormats (enlightened readers of this blog excluded of course). The recent dust-up between Nature Publishing and the University of California would be a dog-bites-man story in almost any other industry.

One of my favorite words is "monopsony". It's one that every library director in the world should come to know, along with the related word "oligopsony". Everyone knows "monopoly", which is when a product or service is available from only one seller. In the SkyRiver lawsuit, it is alleged that OCLC has a monopoly on the provision of cataloging services to libraries. An oligopoly is when a monopoly is shared by a small number of sellers acting as if they were one. A monopsony is the converse of a monopoly, and occurs when a product or service has only one buyer. Sellers in such a market are at the mercy of the buyer. Although it's not often that purchasers amass such market power, it is at the heart of the success of large retailers and manufacturers such as Walmart and Dell. Their power as purchasers allows them to drive down supplier prices.

The ideal time to exert market power of any flavor is at a technological "tipping point". OCLC became a cataloging powerhouse in the 80's by taking advantage of the shift to computerized library catalogs, and its exertion of market power is so feared today because of the current technology shift towards cloud computing.

It's frustrating to a number of us in the library business that libraries are mostly sitting on the sidelines while technology is tipping towards ebooks. There is a very real possibility that the ability of libraries to lend books will not survive this transformation. The big publishers don't see libraries as a big part of their market; some publishers are openly hostile towards libraries.

That's not to say that libraries don't have significant market power in significant segments of the book  market. In these segments, I believe libraries could exert their collective power and reshape markets to their enduring benefit.

Consider the business of publishing scholarly monographs. Although some of these books find their way to readers through Amazon, the fact is that most of these books are bought by academic libraries. If academic libraries flexed their purchasing muscles, they could ensure the existence of a library-friendly ebook sales channel for these materials.

Here's the problem. Publishers of scholarly monographs have to spend real money to produce high-quality books. Today, they fund this activity by selling the books to libraries. The shift to eBooks presents new possibilities. If the production of scholarly monographs was funded directly by libraries, then perhaps the funded monographs could be made available to everyone, not just libraries that have chosen to purchase a book. The benefits would be universal access to the scholarship in question and the elimination of expensive and cumbersome DRM platforms.

Once In A Lifetime (2005 Remastered Album Version )If you think this sounds suspiciously like open-access publishing, you are  correct. Even before the creation of the World-Wide Web, many scientists used the internet to exchange technical articles, and many believed that the entire journal publishing industry would shift to an internet-enabled open-access business model. Yet, 20 years after the creation of the Web, the economics of scholarly journal publishing is roughly the same as it ever was. Is there a difference between ebook publishing and journal publishing? I believe there may be.

Let's set aside current reality for a moment and consider how libraries might accomplish the funding of ebook creation and distribution. I imagine the creation of an ebook acquisition collective. Libraries joining the collective would spend a specified fraction of their book acquisition budget through the group. The collective would offer to buy ebook rights from monograph publishers, with the understanding that the selected ebooks would be made available on an open-access basis. Collective members would decide which books to acquire. Access to this decision-making power would be a strong reason for libraries to maintain their membership; for example, the collective might favor works written by faculty members of participating institutions.

The incentives for publishers to offer books to the collective would be strong; they would get a financial payoff immediately instead of waiting years for the books to sell; a shift to demand-driven purchasing by libraries would have the opposite result. Many publishers would move timidly at first, offering only backlist titles or books that have poor commercial prospects. But publishers have to follow the money, and if the money spent by the collective grew to be large enough, publishers would have little choice but to participate.

The market for any individual scholarly monograph is not very large. For example, Princeton University Press publishes about 200 new books every year, at a cost of about $10 million. So as a very rough average, it needs about $50,000 to produce a book. University publishers that focus more closely on scholarly works produce books for significantly less. The University Press of Colorado, for example, produces 30-35 books a year at a cost of about $550,000, or less than $20,000 per book.At $20,000 per book, an acquisition collective could acquire a significant number of books.

The incentives for library participation are less certain. As libraries face budget pressure, many will be tempted to benefit from access to the acquired titles without contributing their share of funding. The most effective counter-incentive may be prestige. An effective ebook purchasing cooperative would try to maximize the prestige and publicity for the books it chooses to acquire.  This is a factor that has not worked so well for open-access journals, which are almost uniformly of lower prestige than traditionally published journals. A library can't fail to subscribe to a top journal because the faculty will insist on it; a well-marketed purchasing cooperative might provide the same sort of access to prestige as a top journal.

Given the current concern about monopolies in the library world, you might be wondering whether the sort of purchasing cooperative I describe here would be legal. While monopsonies can run into antitrust issues similar to those of monopolies, it's much rarer to for this to occur. That's because its quite easy for a purchasing cooperative to avoid antitrust violations. For example, any purchaser that represents 35% or less of a market can generally assume that its actions aren't impacted by anti-trust. If a library purchasing cooperative found itself getting too big, it could easily limit a member's contribution to 35% of its book acquisition budget. (For background on how antitrust affects group purchasing, see "Antitrust and Group Purchasing", by Michael A. Lindsay, in Antitrust 23 (3), Summer 2009. PDF, 220KB)

Libraries spend quite a bit of money on books. According to ARL Statistics, the 124 ARL libraries spent $330 million on monographs in 2008 at an average price of $55.44. If they spent 10% of this amount through an ebook cooperative, they could purchase ebook rights for 1,650 books at $20,000 each. These ebooks would really be owned by libraries, not merely rented, the way ebooks are handled in libraries today. A collective with monopsony power (or a group of collectives with ologopsony power) could force lower pricing and give strong incentives for cost-efficient publishers. Both monopolies and monopsonies can be perfectly legal if fairly obtained- copyrights and patents are good examples of monopolies created and rewarded by society.

It's interesting to compare this vision for the future with the recently announced University Press eBook Consortium, which has won a modest planning grant from the Mellon Foundation. This group imagines building a university-press-branded delivery platform for its ebook offerings and expects to launch with "over 2000 new titles and 23,000 older titles in subject-area collections, as well as a complete collection offer." The subscription business model will presumably be imported from the scholarly journal business, which is to exert the monopoly power of copyright to optimize revenue. Libraries need to think seriously about the e-journal subscription model, whether it has worked out well for them, and whether they should try something different.

If you think that an ebook acquisition collective is a good idea for libraries, please leave a comment, and spread the word. Lenders of the world, unite!

Note: SkyRiver also alleges that OCLC used its "tax-free profits" to buy up library industry companies to extend its monopolies.  One of those companies was the one that I founded. You may feel better knowing that in my case at least, a large chunk of that "tax-free" money went straight to the Internal Revenue Service!
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