Achievement Unlocked

You might have heard me complain about the ongoing gamification of, well, everything. But just because I don’t like it, you shouldn’t assume I don’t understand what makes it so appealing to so many people.

Which of these statements makes everyday life sound more interesting?

“I went to the drugstore and bought a battery.”

or

“Achievement unlocked! You have a battery!”

Yeah, exactly.

I’ll even go so far as to say there’s a place for gamification. But it’s just so easy to overdo it.

And there are some achievements that really, really shouldn’t be gamified.

Achievement unlocked! You have a screw-up!

Kinda sends the wrong message, doesn’t it? I have to admit it’s a fun award to give, though. So I’m officially giving one to Amazon.

It appears they have a database glitch. According to their website, The RagTime Traveler was released on Tuesday. I’m told they even sent emails to people who preordered it, letting them know that it was going to come out two months early. Oops.

No, TRTT hasn’t shipped. The release date is still June 6.

The book was originally scheduled for an April release, and several retailers initially listed it that way. And, honestly, I wouldn’t award Amazon a Screw-up Achievement if they had just gotten the date wrong. But after the initial error–which, again, was not their fault–they corrected the listing; until a couple of weeks ago it had June 6. So not only did they erroneously change the date (which nobody else has done) and send out those emails, but they’ve compounded the failure by putting the blame on the publisher. Instead of changing the date back, the order page now says “Usually ships within 1 to 2 months.” I suppose that’s accurate, but since that’s the same message they use for items that are out of stock, the implication is that it couldn’t possibly be a mistake on Amazon’s part.

Aside from the pleasures of playing the “Risk the Wrath of the Retail Rhinoceros” game, there is some good news. Preorders for TRTT ebooks are open. If you’ve been waiting for the electronic edition, now’s your chance. And even Amazon has the correct June 6 date for that release.

Links for your preordering pleasure (they’re also on the “About” page for the book):

There’s even more good news: Publishers Weekly, another of the big four names in professional reviews, has delivered its assessment of TRTT. And yes, it’s also a good one. “Lovers of Joplin and ragtime will enjoy this trip to the past.”

Now there’s an achievement I’m happy to unlock.

Bits and Pieces

Some quickies for a slow Thursday.

First, a prediction I got right. In talking about Google’s addition of automatic tagging to their Photo app, I said “If the recognition works well, the advantages are obvious. If it doesn’t work well, then we’ve got a repeat of Flickr’s recent image tagging fiasco.”

Earlier this week, Ars Technica reported that the app was tagging photos of two black people as “gorillas”.

Google handled it well: they immediately removed the tags, apologized publicly, and worked with the man who reported the problem to tweak the facial recognition code.

But honestly, this can’t be the only offensive incorrect recognition lurking in the code. New prediction: we’ll see more such stories about Google, Flickr, and any other photo storage and display software that assigns tags automatically.


You may have heard that a new debate has been sweeping the Internet lately. More polarizing than what color the dress is, more riveting than escaped llamas, it’s The Great Peacamole debate!

A couple of years ago, Melissa Clark, a New York Times columnist wrote about a guacamole recipe based on green peas. The world ignored it. Yesterday she wrote about it again, and the Internet–Twitter in particular–exploded.

Tweets from both sides of the political divide condemned the recipe:

And yet Ms. Clark remains defiant:

The thing is, this recipe not only includes peas, but also, God help us, sunflower seeds.

I’m sure the recipe is as delicious as Ms. Clark claims–but it isn’t guacamole. If it had been billed as what it is, Avocado/pea dip, we would have avoided this whole debate.

But still, there’s a bright spot in the debacle. We’ve found an issue that unites President Obama and Texas Republicans. Maybe, just maybe, they can build on that agreement. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something so wrong as peacamole led to an agreement on gun control, immigration, or abortion rights?


In sadder news, Tama, the feline stationmaster of Japan’s Kishigawa railway line, died last week. Her funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners.

I’ve written several times about cats working to promote their own selfish agendas or achieve world domination. It’s a pleasant change to take note of a cat working to improve her life by helping the humans around her.

Tama rose from poverty–a former stray–and single-pawedly saved the rail line from bankruptcy, and drew more than a billion yen in tourist income the the region. In recognition of her efforts, she’s been appointed to the post of “honourable eternal stationmaster” and has been deified.

Her apprentice, Nitama, has taken on the role of honorary stationmaster.


And finally, CNET and other venues are reporting that Amazon will be changing the way it weights reviews. Instead of simply averaging all reviews’ ratings, they’ll begin giving more weight to “useful” reviews.

Although the expect the weightings to change over time, currently the plan is to give more weight to verified Amazon buyers’ reviews, newer reviews, and reviews customers flag as helpful.

I have mixed feelings about the change. I can see it making a lot of sense in some areas. Giving more weight to newer reviews and “helpful” reviews of appliances, toys, and tech gadgets makes sense to me. As similar products come out, reviews that compare multiple options and weigh the tradeoffs should get more weight.

On the other hand, I don’t think that’s as true in other fields. Is a recent review of Twilight automatically more useful than one that was written when the book came out? Should a review of Jurassic Park that compares it with Jurassic World be granted more weight than a review from last year? How much weight does a multiply-helpful-flagged review of Madonna’s Like a Virgin from 1984 get compared to a review from 2014?

I’ll be watching to see how this develops.

More Numbers

Since there seems to be some interest, let’s talk about book sellers and reader tracking a little more. If we don’t, I’m going to have to talk about Charleston, and I really don’t want to do that.

Yes, Amazon does keep track of how much you read. (I’ll keep the focus on the big A for simplicity’s sake, but let’s be honest: so does everyone else.) As we’ve seen, it’s partly for paying royalties on books read through Kindle Unlimited. But they also do it in books you’ve purchased.

Consider: the Number One “me too” feature in the major players’ e-book readers (and many of the minor players’ too) is the ability to synchronize your current reading position across all of your devices. Leave your Kindle home by mistake? No problem, open the Kindle app on your phone and pick up where you left off.

That position information has to be stored somewhere. If the location is under the control of the company that sold you the book, they’ll store it in a way that allows them to access it. Why? Because no data is useless.

If you give a government the ability to tax, they’ll tax. If you give a company the ability to gather data, they’ll gather data*. They may not know what they’re going to do with it, but they’ll think of something.

* And, as we’ve seen over and over again, give a government the ability to gather data and they’ll do just that.

I can’t prove it, but I’d be willing to bet that Amazon uses the amount you read of individual titles in making recommendations. “You read all of Worm Farmers on the Wild Frontier, but gave up halfway through Worm Ranching for Fun and Profit? OK, try Worm Riders of the Frozen North instead of 100 Great Worm Recipes.”

Of course, it’s not the only factor they consider. I’m sure that if they could make a larger profit on the cookbook than the adventure story, they’d push the cookbook. But I digress.

There are other reasons why they’d look at your reading progress. Assuming Amazon is an ethical company (a position I’m unwilling to debate at this time), they might factor your reading progress into the decision whether to put the “Verified Purchase” tag on your review. (Side note: There might need to be some heuristics involved: a one-star review based on the first five pages arguably could be more likely to be legitimate than a five-star review.)

If the notion of Amazon looking over your shoulder bothers you, can you do anything about it? There is the option of moving your reading to an independent reader. As long as you’ve bought the e-book, very few authors will object–though Amazon certainly will!

If it’s a rental or subscription deal, though, the ethics are rather murkier. As FirecatStef pointed out, moving your KU books to a non-Kindle reader will mean the author doesn’t get paid. Maybe you can fool Amazon into thinking you’ve read the whole book by scrolling to the end before you export it. Might work, might not, depending on how smart Amazon’s page counting code is. But if it does work, you run the risk of cheating yourself.

The next couple of paragraphs will make my fellow authors scream.

As an aspiring author, I want you to buy my books. Whether you enjoy the book or not, I’ll enjoy your money. But as a reader, I see one major benefit of subscription services. Traditionally, if I hated a book–truly hate, in the “fling the book across the room” sense–my only recourse is to never buy another book by the same author. But the royalty for the horrible crap I was suckered into buying is already in the author’s bank account*. With a subscription service, I can try something new, secure in the knowledge that if I dislike the book enough that I don’t finish, the author won’t get paid–or at least won’t get a full royalty.

* OK, given my reading speed, it’s likely still only in the vendor’s account, but it will get to the author eventually.

My few cents may not make a difference, but I can hope that if enough people have the same reaction, the writers will either buckle down to improve their skills or give up and find a more lucrative profession. Either way, the average book’s quality will go up.

Sure, it’s a pipe dream, but if we don’t dream, what’s the point of living?

One final thought: No, doing my experimental reading at the library doesn’t give the same benefit as a subscription service. Remember that (a) libraries buy their books and the authors receive royalties, (b) libraries use circulation figures in making later purchases, and (c) libraries don’t track reading progress. If three hundred people check out 500 Uses for a Dead Worm Farmer, even if none of them finish it, the library is going to buy the author’s next book.

Numbers Game

How delightful.

If you don’t care about the publishing industry, you can skip this post.

Last July, I wrote about Kindle Unlimited. If you don’t feel like re-reading that post, the gist of it was that while KU and similar subscription services were a good deal for readers, they were less so for writers. Amazon is about to make it better for writers*.

* No, I couldn’t type that with a straight face.

The way KU pays royalties today is simple: If a reader makes it through 10% of your book, you get paid. Less than 10%, you get nothing. Of course, you don’t know how much you’ll be paid, because what you get is a share of the “KDP Select Global Fund,” which varies every month according to a formula that Amazon keeps secret.

So if you publish a 250 page novel through KU and ten people read at least the first 25 pages this month, you get ten shares of the June pool. Mind you, your writing buddy who specializes in shorter works only needs to get ten people to read two pages of his 20 page novella to get the same ten shares, but who cares? You’re getting paid.

And here we see part of the reason why the value of a share keeps dropping. KU has been flooded with novellas, the number of qualifying reads has gone up faster than subscription income, and the per-read payment shrinks. In May, the payout was $1.37 per read.

Amazon’s got a fix. They’re going to reduce the value of a quickly-written, indifferently-edited novella. Effective July 1, payment will be made per page read. Can’t find anyone who can make it through the first chapter of your 500 page epic about Swedish worm farmers in the first century BC? Don’t sweat it, because you’ll still get paid for both of the readers who made it to page 2.

The only real question is how much you’ll get paid per page read. As far as anyone can tell, the fund will still be fed the same way as it has in the past. According to Roger Packer, Amazon has promised that the fund will be “in excess of $11 million” for July and August. The May fund was $10.8 million.

Amazon’s examples are based on a payout of 10 cents per page read; Packer points out that means authors will receive the same amount of money under the new plan if the average read is fourteen pages. Fourteen pages seems like an awfully low number, even for a pool dominated by 20-25 page novellas, but who knows, maybe it’s correct. If so, all I need is for ten people to make it through the first chapter of my worm farmer novel, and I can take Maggie out to dinner at the burrito joint down the street to celebrate.

Since Amazon doesn’t release figures on how many pages have been read, it’s all guesswork at this point. I’ve seen estimates of per-page payouts as high as Amazon’s 10 cents per page and as low as half a cent per page.

At half a cent per page, I’ll need those ten people to make it all the way through the book before Maggie and I can have that celebratory dinner. Hope everyone loves the round-up scene (“Ya! Git along there, Little Squirmy!”)

Seriously, I can’t see this working out to higher payments for anyone except the authors whose works are so awful that nobody ever made it past the 10% mark. There are probably a few–but they’re going to have to attract a lot of eyeballs to pay for the bottle of bubbly they’re buying to toast their first royalty check.

Tin Ear

Last week, I said that Apple was giving away U2’s new album Sounds of Innocence, but noted that it had yet to show up in iTunes several hours later.

Now we know why it took hours to make it available: Apple didn’t put the tracks in iTunes with a price of $0.00, as they routinely do for giveaways. Instead, they actually sold the music to each of their approximately half a billion customers.

The move was billed, of course, as being customer-friendly: why should those half-billion customers have to search for the gift and go to the trouble of clicking the “Free” button?

Very nice of Apple, but as you may have heard, there are a lot of people out there who apparently hate U2 with a passion. Over the past week, quite a large cottage industry has developed in ways to get the offending music off of one’s computers and iGadgets. Apparently it isn’t as easy as one might hope to lose one’s Innocence, and Apple has been forced to put up a special help page to allow iTunes users to despoil their collections.

On one hand, I have trouble sympathizing with those who are upset. Dudes, it’s free music. Take a listen; maybe you’ll like it. If not, turn it off and don’t play it again. The worst case scenario is it costs you 48 minutes you’ll never get back. At the Federal minimum wage, that’s $5.80. Heck, tell you what: send me $5.22 and I’ll listen to Sounds of Innocence for you. That’s a 10% discount!

On the other hand, I also understand why people feel violated. By pushing U2 into everyone’s iTunes libraries, Apple has rather graphically reminded their customers who really controls “their” music. Under the circumstances, the album’s title reaches a level of irony only surpassed by Amazon’s removal of 1984 from their customers’ Kindle libraries*. Forcing the album into customers’ collections so that U2 can advertise “Half a billion served” does seem like a tactic better suited to burgers than music.

* Yes, the particular edition of “1984” was unlicensed and shouldn’t have been available for sale in the first place, but that’s beside the point here–we’re talking about the demonstration of just who controls the customers’ collection.

Apple has long been criticized for running a “walled garden” in which each of their gadgets and programs are designed first and foremost to work best with their other gadgets and programs, but it’s been a highly successful strategy. Their latest moves, assuming everyone wants U2’s album, requiring customers who want an Apple Watch to purchase a recent iPhone, and killing off the last non-iOS iPod, indicate that Apple is now putting a roof on that walled garden to prevent any escapes. “Think Different” is long-dead and there’s clearly no more room at Apple for anyone who wants to march to a different drummer. Casts a whole new light on the famous “1984” Mac ad, doesn’t it?

Scribd

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s new e-book subscription program. I mentioned that Amazon was not the first e-book seller to try the subscription model. Today I’d like to take a look at Scribd, one of the other sellers trying the subscription route.

Scribd advertises a collection somewhat smaller than Amazon’s 600,000 titles*, but unlike the big A, they have agreements with HarperCollins and other traditional publishers. In addition to “books,” whether self- or traditionally-published, Scribd also has a large collection of what they call “member-contributed documents”.

* I’ve seen estimates ranging from 400,000 to 500,000. The variation may reflect change over time, or it may reflect different ways of counting the “member-contributed documents”.

Payment to authors is more transparent than Amazon’s plan. Scribd pays nothing for browsing the first 10% of a book, the same as Amazon. Between 10% and 30%, authors will receive partial payment (10% of full royalties). If a reader goes beyond 30% of the book, the author will receive full royalties: whatever they would have received for a sale through a non-subscription distributor. Recall that Amazon’s deal is a simple “you get paid if a reader goes beyond 10%,” but since they don’t discuss how much you get paid, there’s no way to tell which distributor offers the author a better deal. My suspicion is that authors will do slightly better per-read on Scribd, but Amazon’s sheer size will result in more reads (on the average).

In order to track actual readership and percent read, Scribd subscription books can only be read on the Scribd website or through their Android and iOS apps. Reasonable, and similar to Amazon’s restriction of reading to Kindles or Kindle apps. It is, however, disappointing to anyone who has a favorite e-book reader.

In the Kindle Unlimited discussion, I pointed out that KU will live or die based on the quality of their recommendation software. The same is true of Scribd. Amazon needs to shift away from “another cheap title by the same author” to “books similar to this one”. Scribd already has a “books similar to this one” core to its recommendation engine. However, it has some problems. At one point, it failed to recognize it was suggesting multiple different editions of the same title (On one search for books similar to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency it suggested a specific Kurt Vonnegut title (and please forgive me for forgetting which one–it may have been Cat’s Cradle–at the time, I wasn’t planning on reviewing the service, so I wasn’t taking notes) more than twenty times.)

That does touch on another area where Scribd’s recommendation engine runs into trouble. The system allows for very specific classification of books, which means that recommendations can be very close, but it also means that the number of matching titles can be limited. Let’s face it, how many matches are they going to turn up for “Private Eye Mysteries Set In Idaho”? Probably fewer than “Private Eye Mysteries Set In LA,” which is an example Scribd uses.

Scribd is aware that they need to step up their game. Today I received an e-mail from them announcing that they’ve implemented “Thousands of new categories and personalized recommendations”; the enhancements include curated collections, editor’s notes, and “top books: trending, bestselling, and award-winning”. A more human touch will certainly help. Will it help enough to allow them to survive in a market dominated by Amazon? We’ll see.

As I said, Amazon’s biggest problem is the change in the business model. Scribd’s biggest problem is one of perception. In the past, they’ve had trouble policing the “member-contributed documents”. Scribd has apparently responded well to DMCA requests to remove unauthorized books, but I’ve seen a number of authors complain that they have not punished posters or taken steps to prevent the same books from being re-contributed. That perception by authors and publishers will make it difficult for Scribd to set up distribution deals with additional traditional publishers; since that’s a key piece of their differentiation from KU, they need to make changes in that area.

To their credit, Scribd is making changes designed to improve their reputation with authors and publishers. They’ve expanded the use of their content-scanning system to make it harder for members to repeatedly upload the same work, and they have made the DMCA complaint process simpler and more visible. That has helped, but there are still authors unhappy with where Scribd sets the balance between in-house prevention of copyright infringement and requiring authors to monitor Scribd’s library and report violations.

Bottom line: The subscription model is attractive to readers. If Scribd can overcome author and publisher resistance, continue to expand their library, and successfully publicize the titles they offer that Amazon doesn’t, they should thrive despite the competition from Amazon. As with Amazon’s ability to refocus their recommendation engine, it’s a very big “if”.

Stay tuned. This game is going into extra innings.

Kindle Unlimited

You probably figured I’d have a few things to say about Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited service. You are correct.

For those of you who missed the announcement, Kindle Unlimited is an e-book subscription plan. For $9.99 a month, subscribers get access to a library of what Amazon estimates as 600,000 books. That’s “Unlimited Reading” according to the ads. Essentially the same deal that Oyster and Scribd are offering. As usual, though, the devil is in the details.

Sounds great for the reader at first glance (we’ll come back to the author in a couple of minutes): for the price of a single e-book purchase from a major publisher, you can read as many books as you can gobble. Assuming, that is, you can find anything you want to read.

It appears that, at least for now, the 600,000 titles are the same ones that Amazon has long offered through Kindle Direct Publishing Select–one of their e-book self-publishing programs. KDP Select requires that books only be available through Amazon. If authors want to try wider distribution through Smashwords or Barnes & Noble, they have to use a different Amazon self-publishing program.

Aside from a select few high-demand titles such as Harry Potter, the major publishers are not represented in KU. There’s no sign that Amazon is even negotiating with them at this time–though it does shed a new light on the argument Amazon is having with Hachette over e-book pricing, doesn’t it?

I’m certainly not going to take the “all self-published books are crap” line that many commentators are pushing, but let’s face it: there are thousands of self-published books lurking out there that, to be polite, could use the attention of an editor who is not related to the author. Amazon’s ability to help KU readers find the titles that will not make their eyeballs bleed or drive them to shove their Kindles into a blender will ultimately be the factor that controls whether KU lives or dies.

And that’s a big question mark right now. Under a sales model, Amazon’s success has revolved around their ability to sell in quantity. The one and two dollar books have driven Amazon’s success, because if a reader gets a clunker, they can just delete it from their library and try the next potential classic for pocket change. Under a subscription model, all books cost the same to the reader. There’s no inducement to stick with a book past the first few pages if they don’t grab you. A reader who hits a string of unappealing works is going to start thinking “Why the heck am I paying ten bucks a month for this crap?” and cancel their subscription. Amazon needs to be sure that their recommendation engine digs a bit deeper than “Another cheap title by the same author”.

And, speaking of authors, what’s the benefit of KU to the author?

Well… From my admittedly biased position, not a whole lot. According to one writer, Amazon will be setting aside a pool of money in something called the “KDP Select Global Fund”. That pool will vary in size from month to month based on “all factors that impact the KDP Select fund,” whatever that means. Every time a reader reads more than 10% of your book, you get a share of the KDP Select fund.

I don’t have any problem with the 10% or more rule. That’s twenty to thirty pages for a typical adult novel, and if you can’t intrigue readers enough to hold them that long, well, maybe the book wasn’t quite ready for release. In reality, I suspect most readers are going to make the decision to keep going within the first couple of pages, a habit picked up through browsing the shelves in book stores. If you hook them for long enough to get through Page Two, you’ll probably keep them through Page Twenty and get your payment.

My objection is to the unknown and variable amount of that payment. The typical author’s contract gives them 25% of the price of an e-book sale (although Amazon’s rates for self-publishers vary from, I believe, 70% if the book is under $4, down to 20% if it’s over $10–again, the sales model is built around selling a huge pile of cheap books). Under the subscription model, the author gets an unknown percentage of an unknown amount. How does Amazon set the size of the fund? Does the author’s share vary based on the “sell” price of the book? Only Amazon knows and they’re not telling.

The bottom line, though, is that Amazon is–as they’ve kept saying throughout the Hachette dispute–a business, and their focus is on, well, the bottom line. Anyone who thinks authors will be paid more under a new model is most likely delusional. IMNSHO, of course.

Granted, I’d rather have an unknown, ever-changing royalty than no royalty, but it’s depressing to see the legions of self-publishing worshipers crowing about how KU and the other subscription services are going to magically improve the lives and incomes of all writers everywhere by freeing them from the tyranny of the outmoded traditional publishers*. That’s a claim that doesn’t even stand up to the most cursory logical analysis.

* Don’t believe me, or think I’m exaggerating? Read through the comments on the blog post I linked a couple of paragraphs back.

To improve the lot of all writers, we need more people reading, not the same number of people reading more: a larger pie, not a new way of slicing the same, ever-shrinking pie we’ve got.

Tech Notes

As expected, Amazon has unveiled their upcoming pocket-sized advertisementsmartphone. That leak we discussed back in April was on the mark. There were only two significant things in Amazon’s grand unveiling that weren’t in the leak: Amazon’s eyes and Amazon’s ears.

Ears as in Mayday, eyes as in Firefly. The “Mayday” service that Amazon introduced on their latest generation of tablets is now coming to your phone. Yell for help, and the phone will connect you to a live customer service representative who can look at your screen and solve your problems. And “Firefly” gives your phone a specifically Amazon-centric eye. You simply take a picture of something, and the phone will tell you all the important information: where to buy it* and how much it’ll cost. Point your phone at that tacky lamp and find out how much it cost. Point it at your state senator and find out how much he costs. Great fun at parties!

* Do you suppose it will direct you to Barnes and Noble if you snap a picture of a Hachette book? Seems unlikely. I’m sure Amazon would rather take your money and wait weeks to ship you the book.

The NSA and its counterparts in other countries are, no doubt, pissing in their pants in eagerness for the public to get their hands on a phone designed to let third parties view its screen and optimized to quickly upload photos. But you probably thought about that already. Did you also think about how much more attractive to criminals Amazon’s customer data is about to become? Just wait until you answer a phone call to your shiny Amazon phone and hear a cheery voice with a thick accent say “Hi, this is Fred from Amazon. We see you’re looking at a Jimmy Choo handbag. We have a special deal going on right now for 25% off. But you need to act quickly because they’re going fast. No, we’ve already got your credit card number. Just give me the three digit code from the back and I’ll enter the order for you…” Real time, targeted phishing attacks. Coming soon to a phone near you.


OK, on to something cheerier (and thanks to Lior for pointing me at this one).

Have you heard about IkeaHackers? It’s a website devoted to, as founder Jules puts it, “modifications on and repurposing of Ikea products.” Ideas range from modest (adding a baby changing table to the top of a dresser) to the ambitious (turning a cabinet into a hanging rat cage). With the occasional diversion into the not quite so well-thought out.

Lior pointed me to instructions for building a catwalk. No, not a platform for fashion models. An elevated path-slash-lounging space for felines. It’s a simple hack, requiring only a bunch of Ikea shelves, lots of threaded bolts (maybe you can pick up some spares from Caltrans; I hear they have a whole pile of galvanized bolts they don’t know what to do with), and the willingness to drill holes in your ceiling.

What a great idea! Give your cats an elevated space of their own to hang out. No more tripping over them on your way to the bathroom at 3 AM. Just remember to duck before you bang your forehead.

I can’t speak for your cats, but ours can–and frequently do–spend hours watching a bug fly around near the ceiling, occasionally jumping at it, only to fall short by several feet. With this catwalk in place, they’d have an elevated launching platform. They might even be able to jump down at the pesky bugs. What fun! Hopefully you were smart enough to remove all breakables from any room with a catwalk. Then there’s Watanuki’s habit of assaulting toes and ankles. Do we really want to give him easy access to ears? I don’t think so!

So maybe the catwalk isn’t for us. It might be for you. Even if it’s not, chances are good you can find something on IkeaHackers that is for you. Take a look soon, though. IkeaHackers is currently in negotiation with Ikea over the use of the name. It appears that the core of the dispute is advertisements for non-Ikea products on the website. Negotiations are continuing as I write this, and Jules is hopeful for a peaceful settlement, but if a settlement can’t be reached, IkeaHackers will have to move to a new, and probably less memorable, domain.

Oh, Come On

Really?

The Internet–or at least that part of it that isn’t running around screaming because it just realized it’s April 15, and its taxes aren’t done–is agog with the latest “OMG, Amazon is working on a smartphone” rumor. Remember that these rumors have been around since around 4004 B.C. and that every time the rumors have peaked, Amazon has released something that’s not a phone with the most recent example being Fire TV.

The excitement this time is over some leaked photos and specs courtesy of BGR. I’ve yet to see a totally accurate leak, but just for grins, let’s assume they’ve got it totally correct. What does Amazon have in store for us?

Start with a screen slightly smaller than the current market leaders at 4.7 inches. Give it a 720p resolution instead of the 1080p found on those market leaders. Add Amazon’s usual “highly customized” version of Android that lacks significant chunks of the Google infrastructure in favor of Amazon’s own versions. This isn’t sounding too appealing yet, is it?

What if I tell you it’s got a brand new interface? Apparently so. Amazon’s not going to give you a stock Google/Android UI, and they’re not going to give you their standard “Fire” interface, either. No, they’ve got an exciting new 3D (or rather, 3D-like) UI. Picture the famous “parallax effect” of iOS 7, where tipping the phone from side to side makes the home screen icons shift relative to the wallpaper, giving a 3D effect. Got it? Now extend the metaphor: tipping the phone lets you see the sides of the icons! But wait, there’s more: the same effect is used in apps too! Angle the phone and you can see the sides of products in the store. So much simpler and more intuitive than sliding a finger across the screen, don’t you think?

It gets even better: Apple uses the phone’s accelerometer to figure out how you’re tipping it. Amazon is including four infrared cameras on the front of the phone to track the phone’s orientation relative to your face to allow greater accuracy and more degrees of freedom of movement.

I can tell you’re all wetting your drawers in anticipation. But wait, you haven’t heard the best part. According to BGR, this is Amazon’s premium offering and will come at a premium price, up there with the iPhone 5s, Galaxy S5, and HTC One. A “second, lower-cost” phone will come later.

Excuse me while I take a nap. I could see the potential value in the Fire TV, but I can’t see any real user value in a phone like this. Value for Amazon, sure: it’s another way to lock users into their infrastructure. But value for the user? Nope. Let’s hope this thing crashes and burns quickly.

Fire at Jeff

I’ll bet you all thought I was going to use today’s post to talk about Amazon’s amazing, astounding, [insert your own superlative starting with “a”] Fire TV.

Sorry.

I am going to talk about Fire TV, but–not to give away the surprise ending of the post–I don’t see anything there that warrants those “a” words.

For those of you who don’t obsessively follow the tech news,* Fire TV is Amazon’s entry into the “set-top box” space. Pause for question: why do we still call them “set-top”? I don’t have a single box small enough to fit on top of my TV. Even the Raspberry Pi is too big–and my TVs are far from the latest, skinniest models. End of digression.

* Frankly, I hope that’s most of you. Better yet, all of you. There are plenty of more worthy objects for your obsession. Off the top of my head, how about baseball, cats, and food?

Fire TV is mainly intended as a media streamer, competing against Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, and their ilk. Naturally, the focus is on Amazon’s own video offerings, though other sources are supported. Since other streamers also allow you to play your Amazon videos, the Medium A* needs to give you a reason to pick up their box. They’ve got three: UI, instant streaming, and games. Let’s take a quick look at those in reverse order.

* The Big A is, of course, Apple. How much of Amazon’s aggressive moves into spaces Apple controls is simply a desire to swap nicknames?

  • Games – Yep, it’s got ’em. In theory, since the Fire TV is running Android under the glitzy UI, it should be easy for developers to port their existing games over. In practice, Amazon heavily customizes Android on its tablets; there’s every reason to assume that they’ve done the same here. That could plant some significant landmines under developers’ feet. On the other hand, Amazon has a slick-looking game controller available for a mere 40% of the cost of the box. If they sell enough controllers, the size of the audience demanding games optimized for the controller would be a powerful incentive for developers to dance in that minefield.
  • Instant Streaming – This may prove to be the big winner for Amazon. The Fire TV caches heavily. That should cut down on streaming failures and “Buffering…” delays. More immediately visible to users, however, is the device’s predictive caching. It predicts which videos you are likely to want to watch next and starts downloading them before you even make the selection. The result is that when you do hit “Play”, the video starts instantly. As long as they don’t pre-cache so heavily that they blow through users’ bandwidth downloading video they never watch or interfere with their other network activities, instant streaming seems likely to grab a lot of eyes.
  • UI – Amazon is proud of the interface they developed for their Fire line of tablets. It’s graphic-heavy, puts their own library of titles front and center, and pisses the hell out of Google. What’s not to like? They’ve brought the same visual interface over to the Fire TV (suitably modified to allow for the fact that few TVs are touch-ready) and added voice searching. Speak into the microphone built into the remote. Your voice is uploaded to Amazon, stored, voice-recognized, and (in theory at least) appropriate search results are displayed*. The problem is that the market isn’t as excited about the interface as Amazon is. Despite Amazon’s mighty marketing muscle behind the Kindle Fire, they haven’t grabbed a major share of the tablet market. Even with a significantly lower price than the iPad, people are not flocking to Amazon’s offering. Even if one ignores Apple, Amazon isn’t dominating the rest of the market: Samsung and Google are at least holding their own.* I’m sure the NSA is salivating at the thought of a microphone in every bedroom and living room in the country. I’m sure they’re equally happy about the microphones in Xboxes and PS4s, but the key difference here is that Amazon will store recordings without anonymizing them. That’s so they can personalize the voice-recognition and improve its accuracy over time. Amazon’s customer data is already a huge target for criminals (and probably the NSA too, though that hasn’t been proven). Adding more data only makes it more desirable and harder to secure.

Bottom line: It doesn’t offer the ability to mirror your phone to your TV as Apple TV does. It doesn’t currently have nearly the same range of video sources that Roku does. It’s three times the price of Chromecast. But it may have found a sweet spot in the middle of that cluster. If you’re in the market for a media streamer, the Fire TV is certainly worth considering. Just don’t go applying all of those superlatives. It’s not at that level, and may never be.